The Number One Movie in America: The Nun
By Sean Collier
October 18, 2020
“The Nun” is the second highest-grossing film in the “Conjuring” series, but it didn’t really earn that title on its merits.
The movie is okay at best and was received poorly. It holds a Rotten Tomatoes score of 26%, the series’ lowest; opening-night audiences polled by CinemaScore gave it a dismal C grade. Yet it earned $117.4 million, outgrossed within the franchise only by the original “Conjuring.” It’s the 27th best earner of 2018, outdrawing the likes of “Creed II,” “Fifty Shades Freed” and Best Picture winner “Green Book.”
Why? Because spooky season now begins in September.
Traditionally, horror films aiming for the holiday market opened in mid-October or even later — last week’s subject, “Halloween II,” was released on Halloween Eve — in hopes of earning a boatload over one or two weekends, then fading quickly. In recent years, however, audiences have begun expecting all things autumnal almost as soon as September arrives. The moment August is in the rear-view mirror, the pumpkin-flavored beverages arrive, Spirit Halloween locations spring up and, yes, audiences seek out big-screen scares.
This is a relatively recent development, and many studios have not yet taken note. As such: “The Nun” ran relatively unopposed for more than a month. It opened September 7, 2018; the only other seasonal fare appearing that month consisted of a family offering, “The House With a Clock in Its Walls,” and an under-the-radar, low-budget flick, “Hell Fest.” “The Nun” didn’t receive real competition until the “Halloween” sequel opened on Oct. 19.
For six full weeks, “The Nun” got to be the hit horror flick for audiences looking for an R-rated, scary movie. At that point, it hardly mattered if it was any good; it was neatly filling a role.
And while “The Nun” isn’t good, it isn’t quite as bad as its reputation. A spinoff from the main “Conjuring” films about a demon taking the form of a malevolent sister, the movie stars Demian Bichir and Taissa Farmiga as a priest and novitiate investigating strange goings-on at a Romanian abbey. The story is hare-brained and Farmiga falters — she’s talented, but way out of her comfort zone — but the setting, filmed on location in a remote Romanian castle, and a bushel of jump scares keep the train on the tracks.
That shouldn’t be confused with an endorsement; “The Nun” has none of the intensity or charm of the main “Conjuring” films, nor the fun of its sister series about the wide-eyed doll Annabelle. Like fellow franchise one-off “The Ghost of La Llorana,” the film fundamentally misreads what makes these films work and opts instead for an empty series of plot twists.
For the audience it was seeking, however, that was all that was needed. Hopeful horror hits, take note; you’ve gotta be good, like 2018’s “Halloween” or the recent “It” revival, to become a blockbuster. If you’re not quite there in the quality department, however, there’s another way: Make sure you’re in theaters the moment the pumpkins return to Starbucks.
“The Nun” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1977. Please listen and subscribe!
Next time: We’ve got three witches in a small village, but don’t confuse it with “Hocus Pocus.” This is a more grown-up tale.