Set in 1952, the latest spinoff in The Conjuring universe sets its sights on the breakout villain of The Conjuring 2; Valak, the demon nun. Taissa Farmiga stars as novitiate nun Sister Irene, selected by the Vatican to accompany Demián Bichir’s experienced exorcist Father Burke to investigate the mysterious suicide of a nun at a secluded Romanian convent. In the eyes of the Catholic church, suicide is a mortal sin, and they want Father Burke and Sister Irene to determine if the convent is still holy. Of course, they find a much more malevolent force awaiting them, and Valak wants out.
The gothic setting of The Nun, with much of it shot on location at Corvin Castle in Romania, immediately sets this spinoff apart from its cinematic siblings. It’s more than just the setting that gives this film such a unique look, though, as director Corin Hardy had a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve from the start. On developing the gothic look and feel of The Nun, Hardy explains,
“I made a kind of mood book when I got the movie. I just put down as many inspirations and movies and art that I drew from when I read the script, to give a sense of the lighting and the kind of cinematography. I would do this on my movies and show the production designers and DOP and so it contained elements of Black Narcissus and Coppola’s [Bram Stoker’s] Dracula and [Mario] Bava movies. And the lighting and bold compositions in those films. It had, you know, Nightmare on Elm Street. It was sort of iconic imagery that we’ve seen and then applying it to period, gothic horror movie. The Exorcist you can’t ignore, and The Exorcist III particularly, is a film that doesn’t get talked about enough but is also pretty brilliant and has one of the greatest scares of all time, and which I definitely paid a little homage to in my film. So yeah, it was classic gothic horror when you watch, what I grew up watching, from watching Hammer horror movies as a kid and monster movies and Salem’s Lot, and realizing that I suddenly had this opportunity to make a classic old school gothic horror movie in 2018, suddenly became really exciting because it was, I wanted something kind of timeless, you know, contemporary in a sense, but also it didn’t feel like it was being done much now. Not making a spoof or anything like that, doing it with a lot of love.”
The Nun also continued the tradition of production on The Conjuring films; blessing the set. Hardy shares, “We had a real Roman Catholic priest come and bless the set, they did do that on all of The Conjuring movies, which, it sounded funny, it sounded like a gimmick, and yet when they came, he brought his chaplain kit and he had his holy water, and it actually felt quite, sort of, comforting to know that he was performing this quite long 20 minute ritual on the grounds of the castle. But I said to him you know like, ‘so are we, you know what has this done? Are we safe now?’ He spoke only in Romanian and so he looked at me really dead serious and he said something to me, and the translator said like, ‘you’re safe if you believe,’ and I sort of went ‘oh, okay.’
Even still, that didn’t stop the Farmiga from getting spooked on set. As it turns out, horror movies scare both Bichir and Farmiga. Bichir saw an unfinished cut of The Nun and wasn’t pleased to find it got under his skin, he elaborates, “I’m not a fan of horror films. I’m not a fan of horror films and that’s, I know it might sound contradictory, but I don’t like to sit in a place and be scared. I don’t like that feeling. I don’t like to pay to be scared. And yes, it’s because of that, that you know, I already saw this film in a small little room. Of course, it wasn’t finished yet, but still I was like, ‘Oh fuck, oh shit.’ Things that I didn’t do, scenes that I wasn’t in. And it was you know, caught me off guard, and that makes me very mad. It pisses me off that I get scared by a jump, you know like, ‘Oh fuck, man.’”
For her part, Farmiga is also a self-admitted scaredy-cat, something that the demon nun herself, actress Bonnie Aarons took full advantage of. “I mean, one of her favorite past times on set was scaring me. She would just be sitting out on the cast chair, like across from me, and she would just be like, ‘Hehehe.’ And I’m like, ‘What?! Why are you laughing?’ There were times when I was on set, and like we’re filming in like these old castles and … it’s super dark. There were a few scenes that were lit only by candlelight. And they call her into set and I know she’s there, but like I can’t really see her, and I know she’s in her full demon makeup. So, I just keep thinking she’s going to come up behind me and scare me, because again, that’s her favorite game.” Farmiga recounts of the many times Aarons scared her during filming.
It’s clear talking to the director and lead actors just how much Aarons is relishing her role as the terrifying demon Valak. “Unlike Damian and Taissa who aren’t massive horror fans but are great actors, Bonnie was just like, desperate, you know like, to do it, she loves being that nun, I mean you couldn’t keep her away, she was standing at the side of the set in all her gear, and putting her in the water.. she just loved it, she a trooper. I put Bonnie Aarons on wires in the water getting pulled underwater multiple takes in contact lenses, please can you do it again, and she’d say ‘yeah hang on a minute’,” Hardy shares as he mimes Aarons spitting out water and fake teeth between takes. To him, Aarons’ character is a modern horror icon, “she just immediately kind of captured this iconic character that I felt was straight away, like, you know, you’ve got Michael Myers, you’ve got Freddy Krueger, and I think you’ve got the demon nun.”