Immaculate review: a gripping, lean Catholic horror movie

Sydney Sweeney holds a candle in Immaculate.

“Sydney Sweeney’s scream queen turn anchors Immaculate, director Michael Mohan’s succinct new slice of religious horror.”

Pros

  • Sydney Sweeney’s transformative lead performance
  • A third act that knocks you upside the head
  • Elisha Christian’s subtly striking cinematography

Cons

  • An undercooked script
  • A first act that drags in parts

Immaculate, director Michael Mohan’s new homage to the nunsploitation movies of the 1970s and the bone-breaking, blood-soaked giallo works of the same decade, is as no-nonsense as a horror movie can get. Its cold open, which follows a desperate young nun (The White Lotus season 2 breakout star Simona Tabasco) as she tries to escape an Italian convent in the middle of the night, wastes little time getting to its climactic instance of stomach-churning violence. The moment in question, destined to provoke plenty of screams in movie theaters around the world, expertly rides the line between inevitable and shocking. Even more importantly, it announces the danger of the film’s setting and Mohan’s punchy, shock-based approach to its story right out of the gate.

From there, the film lives up to its early promises. Mohan drapes its central, centuries-old countryside Italian convent in countless red flags, whether it be the distant sobs of its worshippers’ fanatical prayers, the comically loud creaks of its doors and floorboards, or an elderly nun who wanders through its halls at night like a ghost. The filmmaker packs Immaculate‘s first two acts with startling cuts and jump scares, most of which are accompanied by shrill screams or loud crashes. Some feel more earned than others, but they all come with the same sly, knowing wink. Immaculate is a film that knows what it is and what it’s doing at all times, and that allows it to achieve a level of control over you that makes many of its 89 minutes hit with brutal efficiency.

Hands grab at Sydney Sweeney's screaming face in Immaculate.
NEON

A pleasingly eccentric mishmash of horror influences, Immaculate‘s plot is part Rosemary’s Baby, part Suspiria. Andrew Lobel’s script follows Sister Cecilia (Madame Web star Sydney Sweeney), a naïve young nun from Michigan who relocates to an Italian convent at the request of its head priest, the seemingly friendly Father Sal Tedeschi (Álvaro Morte). While there, she quickly bonds with one of the convent’s other young nuns, Gwen (Benedetta Porcaroli), and finds herself plagued by unsettling visions at night. Shortly after arriving at the convent, Cecilia’s life is upended when she discovers that she has suddenly become pregnant.

Cecilia’s pregnancy leads Tedeschi, the local Catholic cardinal, Franco Merola (Giorgio Colangeli), and the convent’s mother superior (Dora Romano) to hail her as a second Virgin Mary. Mohan marks this narrative shift with a showstopping shot of a veiled Sweeney standing solemnly, tears brimming at the edges of her eyes, on a church’s highest balcony as those around her bow and pray in her honor. The image, its visual splendor sharpened and twisted by Cecilia’s pained expression, concisely lays the stage for what is to come once Cecilia begins to wonder whether the circumstances surrounding her pregnancy are really as miraculous as she’s been led to believe.

Immaculate wisely doesn’t shroud Cecilia’s situation in too much mystery for too long. After clueing viewers in early on to the dangers that lurk beneath the surface of her new Italian home, the film steadily peels back more and more of its layers before ultimately revealing the disturbing truth at the center of its story. Once Cecilia has become pregnant, Mohan and editor Christian Masini allow her suspicions to grow at a brisk pace that just further reinforces the overriding sense that both she and the film’s audience are locked into a ride that they have little control over. The rapid dramatic escalation of its second half helps make up for the dreariness of Immaculate‘s first act, which relies on little more than a handful of purposefully overdone, occasionally contrived jump scares to keep its momentum up.

Sydney Sweeney wears a veil in Immaculate.
NEON

The percussive, cut-driven nature of the film’s first 50 minutes only makes Mohan’s transition into a more patient style in its final third all the more impactful. The director builds Immaculate‘s climax largely out of controlled, unflinching shots that force the viewer to experience the full weight of every one of its final beats and feel every emotion that Sweeney’s Cecilia does in real time. The film’s final scenes stylistically stand in stark contrast to those that make up its first half, but rather than coming across as a jarring miscalculation, Mohan’s eventual shift in approach feels like a visual progression that perfectly matches the evolution of Immaculate‘s story. By forcing viewers to sit in certain moments longer than he has any other, the director also makes the movie’s go-for-broke, in-your-face conclusion feel all the more visceral.

The artistic choices that Mohan makes in the film’s gonzo, unforgettable third act depend entirely on Sweeney’s ability to sell Cecilia’s final girl-esque arc, which she more than does. In recent months, Sweeney has cemented her place as one of the biggest young stars of her generation, and her performance in Immaculate reminds you why she landed roles on shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, Sharp Objects, Euphoria, and Mohan’s own underrated Netflix original series Everything Sucks! in the first place. Cecilia is a role that asks her to play both doe-eyed naivete and gritted-teeth rage, and she not only does so with equal intensity, but she even more impressively makes her character’s journey from one emotional extreme to another seem natural.

Sydney Sweeney runs through a field in a bloody dress in Immaculate.
Fabia Lavino / NEON

Immaculate marks Sweeney and Mohan’s third collaboration after their work together on Everything Sucks! and the underseen 2021 erotic thriller,The Voyeurs. Their latest film, though a bit narratively undercooked, makes it clear why the two are a good match for each other. In Mohan, Sweeney has found a filmmaker who will let her go to darker and more provocative places than many of his peers. In Sweeney, Mohan has found a performer capable of anchoring even the most heightened genre films in identifiable, frequently terrifying shades of humanity. With Immaculate, they’ve made a horror movie that is deceptively straightforward in both its style and telling. It so effectively traps you in its grasp that you don’t even realize how hard it’s going to hit you until it’s already too late.

Immaculate is now playing in theaters.

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