Like a startlingly funny sermon delivered by your parish’s creepiest priest, “The Nun II” will leave you smiling despite yourself.

Director Michael Chaves (“The Curse of La Llorona,” “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It”) helms this surprisingly clever ninth installment in The Conjuring Universe, and his third at-bat for the horror franchise created by James Wan just over a decade ago. With a story by recent genre genius Akela Cooper (“Malignant,” “M3GAN”) — and a script co-written by her, Ian Goldberg, and Richard Naing (“The Autopsy of Jane Doe”) — this smartly crafted sequel-to-a-prequel marks a long-awaited upswing for Warner Bros.’ steadily declining demonology epic.

The exposition-heavy whodunit isn’t much scarier than past installments, and it may not mark a permanent about-face for a franchise that’s been struggling since “Annabelle: Creation” (2017). But “The Nun II” proves an invigorating Second Coming for the returning cast painfully let down by the first “The Nun” (2018) — and a redemptive triumph for The Conjuring’s merciless Mother Superior, portrayed once again by the devilishly divine Bonnie Aarons.

Set in 1956, four years after the demon nun Valak’s deadly re-emergence at a Romanian monastery, “The Nun II” stars Taissa Farmiga, reprising her role as the god-fearing Sister Irene. Cloistered in Italy alongside spunky newcomer Storm Reid as the novice Sister Debra, she begins the film leading a sacred life of simple, safe devotion. Post-“The Nun,” Irene’s days are filled with abbey duties, household chores, and healing — but pleasantly devoid of pentagram shoulder brandings and dead girls wearing bloody sacks for hats.

That is, until an evil force begins killing off priests and nuns across Europe, and the Church’s higher-ups charge Irene with conducting a sweeping paranormal investigation on her own. As our reluctant heroine sets off with a stowaway Debra (of course, she’s coming!), fellow “The Nun” survivor Maurice is seen maintaining the grounds miles away at St. Mary’s: an ill-fated Catholic boarding school in France that would seriously benefit from some sturdier doorframes.

Maurice is blissfully unaware of the fact that the last time The Conjuring fans saw actor Jonas Bloquet he had an upside-down cross bubbling beneath his neck skin. Now, that fact is apparently also escaping the French-Canadian’s adorable new pal Sophie (Katelyn Rose Downey) and her hot mom/Maurice’s love interest Kate (an especially warm Anna Popplewell). Every unwitting kindness shared between the three inches the teacher and her daughter closer to a man unknowingly playing puppet to the devil, while Irene and Debra doggedly attempt to find the source of this new, serial-killing evil elsewhere.

“The Nun II”

Brutally boring naming conventions aside (was “The Nun 2: Back in the Habit” already taken or something??), “The Nun II” is an across-the-board improvement from “The Devil Made Me Do It” (2021). That “true” story saw Chaves make a doomed attempt to shoehorn an entire legal drama into the middle of a crowd-pleasing horror tentpole, and left the director stuck in a multi-setting ghost story that repeatedly mistook scope for smarts. It’s a thorny trap that swallowed “The Curse of La Llorona” whole and would have just as easily devoured “The Nun II”— if not for Cooper’s pleasing narrative puzzle and Chaves’ increasingly sharp understanding of space.

The Conjuring Universe is at its best when boldly pushing the limits of haunted places, using trick cinematography to produce bespoke jump-scares best suited to hyper-specific environments viewers thought they already knew. That’s harder to pull off when you have the characters hopping between different locations, as so many of these spinoffs have (perhaps unwisely) required. But with “The Nun II,” Chaves proves it’s possible to achieve an organic balance of open-air exploration and oppressive structure in a Conjuring-appropriate way — allowing Maurice and Irene ample time apart in scary scenes that seem to bloom in front of them, before stylishly forcing them back together for a fiendishly fun final act that’s much tighter and more terrifying.

“The Nun II”Warner Bros.

Despite earning $366 million worldwide (the most of any Conjuring flick to date), “The Nun” remains one of the franchise’s most widely disliked entries. Director Colin Hardy’s tired choices somehow turned a shotgun-wielding fallen angel into a toothy, telekinetic bore. To exceed that low-low bar, all Chaves had to manage was having more fun than the last guy. With an undead altar boy brandishing a bloody thurible, a Beelzebub stand-in too good to spoil, bursts of genuinely funny school kid comedy (including a meanly hilarious skewering this reporter will be cuing up as soon as “The Nun II” hits streaming), and Valak having as good as time as Art the Clown in “Terrifier 2,” it seems safe to say Chaves had a blast.

Telling someone to catch up on The Conjuring Universe before taking in “The Nun II” would be like recommending a weekend guest binge the Bible before awkwardly sitting through one Sunday mass. But Chaves’ third Conjuring movie is decidedly more fun when you at least have “The Nun” to compare it to. Farmiga is undeniably stronger in this spooky endurance test than her last, bringing fierce magnetism to a character rapidly emerging as one of the series’ better final girls. And Bloquet does his best Eddie Brock/Venom impression as a possessed himbo doubling as the heart for both movies.

“The Nun II”

The easy-to-root-for Downey and Popplewell fit right into The Conjuring Universe as mother and daughter, but Reid’s oddly casual scripting holds her performance as a young nun desperate to believe in miracles back. (At one point, Debra actually asks, “Who is that guy?” — which would be fine if Sister Irene wasn’t the poster child for stilted speech and pious propriety.)

With so much going right for it, “The Nun II” suffers most from the original sins of all Conjuring movies: Its scene transitions are occasionally clunky; the dialogue is sometimes laughably bad (and way too often played off a recording); and The Conjuring Universe is first and foremost an action-forward multiverse about Catholic superheroes — and your mileage with that will vary!

Sure, a razor sharp-teethed nun with piss-yellow eyes isn’t exactly a flattering of depiction of Jesus’ earthly wives. But to deny the reality that good(?) ol’ Christian faith is what’s underpinning the sprawling cinematic universe of Ed and Lorraine Warren would be like suggesting Disney reimagine Star Wars without the lightsabers. (Seriously, a huge portion of this oddly pearl clutchy monster movie hinges on correctly explaining one of the sacraments in a completely serious way.) Still, if The Conjuring Universe is a horror force you want to believe in again, then “The Nun II” will bring you back to the faith.

Grade: B-

A Warner Bros. Pictures release, “The Nun II” opens in theaters Friday, September 8.

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