Sister Death succeeds everywhere The Nun II failed

Sister Death. Cr: Netflix.
Sister Death. Cr: Netflix. /

It’d be nigh impossible to discuss Paco Plaza’s latest movie Sister Death, a prequel to his 2017 movie Verónica, without mentioning this year’s other nun horror movie, The Nun II, set in The Conjuring universe. Interestingly, both The Nun II and Sister Death are set in the mid-1900s in European all-girls boarding schools. Each movie also features a significant reference to Saint Lucy and a novitiate enduring a crisis of faith.

In every way, Sister Death is more effective than The Nun II in everything it tries to accomplish, and the main reason for that is because Plaza’s film doesn’t try to do too much. It keeps things simple, deceptively so. Like Verónica, Sister Death doesn’t necessarily tread new ground in terms of its story, but its execution is what makes it successful. Whereas The Nun II was beholden to the larger Conjuring universe lore, Sister Death was able to focus on a more streamlined story and triumphs because of it.

Muted star Aria Bedmar plays the movie’s main character, Sister Narcisa, the young version of “Sister Death,” the blind nun who helps Verónica in the 2017 movie. In 1939, at the end of the Spanish Civil War, a young Narcisa received attention for supposedly seeing the Virgin Mary. Her story made headlines, dubbing her a “holy child,” and thus made her of interest to the nuns at her new place of employment, a former convent turned school for girls.

Upon arrival, Sister Narcisa is met with skepticism by another nun, Sister Julia (Maru Valdivielso), and adoration by the Mother Superior (Luísa Merelas). She’s there to work as a teacher, replacing another nun who departed under suspicious circumstances.

Given the heraldry she was treated with as a child, Narcisa is struggling with a crisis of faith and she finds enlightenment in an unlikely place during her time at the school. When you’re considered a “holy child” by newspapers, praised for bringing about a miracle during a time of significant duress, it’s hard to live up to everyone’s expectations.

During her first meeting with Mother Superior, the abbess makes it clear she has looked to Narcisa’s story as a beacon of hope in the darkness, even pointing to a framed photo of the newspaper clipping hanging on her office wall. This meeting sets the tone for the Narcisa’s arc as she tries to live up to the expectation while suspecting something is deeply wrong with the school.

In terms of horror, Sister Death is not overtly as in-your-face horror like Verónica was, instead favoring a slow burn, precise sound design, and disturbing imagery to evoke feelings of unease and foreboding. There are minimal jump scares as the script prefers focusing on Narcisa’s character journey and the gradual unraveling of the school’s haunting past. It’s a really grim and somber story, at times playing out like a dark psychological drama more so than a traditional horror movie, but it’s that story that makes the scares more harrowing.

But, as I mentioned above, Sister Death might appear rather cut and dry in some ways, yet it offers a surprising amount of depth. I’ve been pondering its themes and peeling back its layers about since I finished watching it. Immersive and haunting as it is, Sister Death creeps up on you and is hard to shake off.

One of the most striking elements of this movie is its visual appearance. Sister Death is beautiful to look at. Every frame was clearly chosen with reverence. Paco Plaza is a bold and assured director who excels at elevating written material and performances with his direction.

Filmed in 4:3 aspect ratio, Sister Death harkens back to the medium’s early days, which is fitting given that it’s a period pace. The restricted framing is never severe though, it lovingly embraces Bedmar’s character, highlighting her performance and heightening the emotional beats by pulling the eye to her and keeping the overall production design minimal. This movie is her story and the framework ensures you won’t forget that.

If I had one complaint, it would be that the movie favors using dreams as a copout for some of its more frightening moments. I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but there were a lot of “oh that’s so f*cked up” and then “just kidding she’s dreaming!” instances that can’t help but leave you a tad deflated with the build-up and letdown.

And yes, for those curious, the ending has a neat little tie-in to Verónica. Sister Death starts streaming on Friday, October 27, on Netflix.

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