'The Nun II' Director Michael Chaves Ramps Up the "Horrific, Blasphemous" Terrors of 'The Conjuring'
"I was raised Catholic. And you're kind of built in with a natural respect and reverence for that. From the very beginning, I wanted to show that we were going to be ruthless in this movie."
Published Sep 08, 2023From the first incendiary moments to its unflinchingly raucous end, The Nun II is fearless. Directed by Michael Chaves, the film takes a no-holds-barred approach to visual and narrative horror, setting all that is sacred ablaze.
"I was raised Catholic," Chaves tells Exclaim! over Zoom. "And you're kind of built in with a natural respect and reverence for that. From the very beginning, I wanted to show that we were going to be ruthless in this movie. That we were not going to pull any punches and that we wanted to start in the most terrifying, unsettling way possible."
Indeed, within the first few moments of the sequel, a priest is lifted up into the cavernous dome of a church by an invisible force and set afire. As a young child, clutching a rosary, watches on in unmoving terror, the stage is set for The Nun II's demonic nightmare.
The film takes place swiftly after the events of 2018's The Nun, as it charts the haunting of the doomed Maurice (Jonas Bloquet), introduced in the first The Conjuring film, who begins experiencing unsettling phenomena. In a boarding school in post-WWII France, Maurice, working as a handyman at the school for girls, becomes increasingly and disturbingly under the possession of the Demon Nun (Bonnie Aarons), a horrific force within The Conjuring Universe. The embodiment of the demon Valak, the Demon Nun clings to Maurice like a virus, manipulating him to achieve her own mysterious, damned ends.
The onslaught of the opening — an unabashedly belligerent dose of the franchise's delicious brand of supernatural unreality — was something Chaves says he insisted upon: "It was funny. It was something that I actually had debated, and I think even James [Wan, creator of The Conjuring Universe and producer for The Nun II] brought [it] up," Chaves recalls.
He continues: "The question is: is this too intense of an opening? I mean, it's a very horrific, blasphemous cold open, and it's funny. I have so much respect for him [Wan], so I hang on every word he says. I'm like, 'Okay, maybe I'm going crazy. Maybe.' But [ultimately] I stood by the idea. I really just thought it would be an incredibly intense way to open the movie and signal that anything can happen in this movie, and you better be on guard."
The visual and narrative horrors that follow in the film run the gamut from defiling the most sacred religious iconography to placing precious children in harm's way. Chaves ratchets up the frights in this chapter in ways that build upon and honour the horrific achievements of the first instalment while also enriching them. The Nun II offers audiences something new to be afraid of: those spaces and figures that, for millennia, have been the symbols of goodness and light.
It's a gift that Chaves did stick with the burning priest, for it not only smirkingly hints at the jubilant sacrilege to come, but also, impossibly, eases the viewer into the film's (and franchise's) uniquely unrelenting mode of horror, which Chaves finesses here.
The monsters in The Conjuring Universe have always contained an imposing, frenetic physicality; they have a heft that is refreshingly distinct from the gossamer-like wraiths and demons of traditional horrors. The demon in something like The Exorcist is only ever embodied in a living child or an effigy, otherwise moving unseen on gusts of wind. Relying on the living, traditional demons, those creatures are seldom given a moving body of their own that reflects their terrifying soul. But in The Nun II, we get the figure of the Demon Nun manifesting Valak in the ghastly pallor of her skin, and in the abysmal darkness in her eye sockets, where the only light within them are two glowing pinpricks like hellfire.
"I think that the great, terrifying thing about demons is that they can take any form," observes Chaves. "The idea that Valak takes the form of a nun is really just this blasphemous twist on [a] religious icon. And I wanted to do that in different forms."
In the film, Valak has a tendency to appear to various characters as their greatest, core-stirring fear. "For each character, everyone has their point of weakness," he explains. "And so you see these different forms that she [Valak] takes. Of course, the movie's called The Nun, so that needs to be your primary form."
Throughout the film, Chaves deftly seizes every opportunity to embody Valak in ways that upturn the sacred and terrify his characters — and, in turn, the audience.
The Nun II is a visual feast. In the way that the narrative's horror is unafraid to desecrate sacredness — ultimately with the aim to rebuild it on stronger footing later on — it also is unafraid to be a lush playground for the horrific. A love letter to the sensuous richness of Gothic horror, watching the film often feels like being consumed by a painting. To craft the film's brazen, imposing and audacious visual horror, Chaves drew inspiration from the genre's classics.
"The two key film touchstones were [Francis Ford Coppola's] Bram Stoker's Dracula, [which] had a big influence on the first Nun with the Gothic castle and everything," notes Chaves. "I love that movie; I loved the practical effects. I also just love the drama — it was really cool, it was scary. One of the monsters in this movie was totally inspired from that movie. If you see it, it's very obvious. The other reference would be [Henri-Georges Clouzot's] Les Diaboliques."
Clouzot's film was produced in 1955, a year before the action of Chaves's film is set, taking place in an all-boys boarding school. "Actually, the first draft [of The Nun II] was not set in a boarding school, but it was set in France. And I just thought, 'Well, what if we do a French boarding school like Diaboliques?'" he remembers.
Chaves takes such integral inspiration from the landmark visual horrors of Clouzot's psychological horror that The Nun II contains a direct visual reference to Les Diaboliques, which stands as a salute to modern horror's indebtedness to the film.
"The headmaster [in The Nun II], Madame Laurent [played by Suzanne Bertish], has this little altar that she prays at, which the main character in Les Diaboliques prays at," he says. "We recreated it. It was something I think I haven't told many people about. It was just the crew that knew that."
To avoid anachronism in the film's visual aesthetic, Chaves turned to photography. "Obviously I love movies — I grew up watching horror movies," he shares. "[But] I didn't want that to be the only reference. I really wanted it to be authentic to the '50s. So we looked through a lot of street photography of the '50s in France, and that was incredibly helpful and really anchored us in the time."
Chaves continues, "I think it really made the film feel like you're time travelling. You really are transported into the '50s. There were also scares that were inspired from some photography that made its way into the movie."
The Nun II and Chaves are fearless and breathlessly euphoric as they reimagine the possibilities of horror. As The Nun II boldly leans into a kind of visual and narrative fearsomeness audiences have never before witnessed, the film mightily carries on its franchise's torch as today's most exciting gift to horror fans.