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A Nun Conventional Birthing Method

Immaculate (18)

Director: Michael Mohan
Screenplay: Andrew Lobel

Starring: Sydney Sweeney, Alvaro Morte, Simona Tabasco

Review: David Stephens

Some actors have just got “it”, and we don’t mean “Pennywise”. “It” is that envious combination of looks, talent, intelligence,  and a genuine personality. They somehow manage to appeal to all genders, whilst producing good work and avoiding career death by way of scummy press coverage or social media screw-jobs. Think of Keanu Reeves, Ryan Gosling, Emily Blunt, and Margot Robbie. And add to that Sydney Sweeney, who is currently everywhere at the moment. From appearances in projects that are critically acclaimed (Euphoria, The White Lotus, Reality), popular (Anyone But You), or universally derided (Madame Web), she is doing pretty well for exposure. It helps that she usually speaks some common sense, rather than promotional flim-flam. Better than all of that though is the fact that she likes horror, listing Nightmare on Elm St, Us, Hereditary, and others among her favourite films. Also, Immaculate is a project that she first auditioned for in 2014. It was never filmed but years later she revived it and took on the role of a producer, reached out to the writer, acquired and revised the script, hired a director, found financiers, and sold the film to Neon. Not bad. This got a great reception at SXSW and even some good critical reviews as it’s just been released in both UK and US cinemas at the same time. We seem to be in the midst of another wave of religious horror yet again with Deliver Us and The First Omen also being released within weeks of each other. So how does this im-match up?


Following a brief prologue where a Sister attempts a breathless escape from a remote convent… that doesn’t end well, we meet Sister Cecilia (Sweeney). Fresh from Detroit, she has gratefully accepted a summons from a picturesque convent in rural Italy. The remote and ancient building serves as a kind of hospice for aged nuns, where novices and experienced staff respectfully tend to their needs, as well as devoting their lives to Christ. Initially, Cecilia cannot believe her good fortune and settles in quickly. She bonds with fellow Sister Gwen (Benedetta Porcaroli), who is basically there to escape an abusive life. She also reveals the details of a near-death experience to resident Father Sal Tedeschi (Álvaro Morte from Money Heist). Everything changes though when she learns of an ancient relic and becomes the recipient of an apparent miraculous occurrence. Everyone’s attitude to her changes in some way and she fears becoming a prison of the convent while events play out. But is this really God’s work?


First off, yes, the narrative hook is not hard to guess, especially with that title and most of the reviews giving away Sister Cecilia’s “condition”. And yes, it does seem to be quite close to a whole bunch of films (including those recent examples mentioned earlier). Those who remember 2001’s Revelation with Udo Kier (not many people it has to be said), might also raise an eyebrow at the “MacGuffin” that is used as a plot lynchpin. But Sweeney and the crew have stated that comparisons with stories such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Handmaid’s Tale are intentional, dealing with similar themes and outcomes. To be honest, it feels unfair to call Immaculate a copycat of any kind or start to look for plot holes and deficiencies when the overall experience is as good as it is. And it is good, make no mistake about that. It may get lost in the family rush to Ghostbusters or hardcore genre fans waiting on The First Omen, but this deserves attention. After the dearth of “meh” PG-13 horror films during the last few months, it’s also a very welcome breath of stale, bloody, air.


One of the greatest tricks up the sleeve of Immaculate is the presence of Sweeney herself. Even as the producer, she does NOT give herself an easy ride. Cecilia starts as the innocent abroad and the fish out of water. “You are very sweet… and that is not a compliment” snipes one character. It’s a laidback and naïve portrayal which Sweeney has provided before, but the characterisation arc that follows is something else. From this supplicant beginning, she moves to a failed heroine, and then a force of nature. It really should not be spoiled or described, but most reviews have pointed towards the final act and Sweeney’s contribution to it… which is awesome. There’s a one-take sequence where the actress just nails it. And we’re talking Mia-Goth-in-Pearl goodness here people. Blood-soaked and totally uncompromising, we can be only grateful that noted actors are willing to go there and that studios can use this layer of storytelling to hold a mirror up to some of the worst elements of society.


Moving back from the lead’s excellent work, the film is something of a slow-burner at the start, but it’s an effective and creepy one. Miles head of The Nun films and stuff like Prey for the Devil, the style and tone of the beginning of the film feel like a classic Giallo. In fact, the structure even mirrors (the original) Suspiria to some extent. An unsuspecting American ingenue travels to an Italian institution, deaths and mystery occur as she arrives. In some parts, the sub-genre of the initial scenes feel like they hover somewhere between a “nunsploitation” film (although without the frustrated passion, sleaze, or gratuitous nudity) and folk horror. Alongside genre tropes such as masked figures, keyhole peeping, sudden jump-scares and creaky floorboards (loadsa them!!), there is a soundtrack that flirts with harpsichords, piano strings, and the inevitable choral flourishes. 


This is all slightly predictable, if well-filmed and enjoyable, but midway the narrative jumps several gears and becomes (much) more violent with (and this is important) an engagement in several layers of sub-text. One moral is that you should never underestimate the fury of a righteous woman (especially when blunt or sharp objects are involved). But it also encompasses several other ideas which are now more relevant than ever. It’s kind of signposted in a marvellous moment in a confessional box (with some great visuals by the way), where a character says, “If this is not the will of God, then why does God not stop us?”. It then becomes a study of what free will is and how disturbing some religious iconography is, along with the beliefs that go with them. The idea of a woman being merely a vessel or pawn in a game, rather than someone in control of their own fate is just as important now as it’s ever been. It also makes the animalistic ending that more impactful, whatever you make of it.


Hopefully, it will become a low-key hit (as an indie horror, it already stands a good chance of a profit) and will encourage more actors like Sweeney to support and enter the genre. The online buzz around it is an encouraging sign. It’s an extremely satisfying film on many levels and deserves some kudos for that. The director (Michael Mohan) and writer (Andrew Lobel) should also be applauded for keeping it mature, ladling on the violence, and changing the original ending to a much more visceral one. Undoubtedly one of the better big-screen horrors we’ll see this year. See for Sweeney and stay for the surprises, you won’t regret it.

Okay, so there’s a lot of religi-horror around at the moment and the central concept is not wholly original, but this is good stuff. Elevated by a welcome maturity in tone and a superbly committed performance by Sweeney, this is a surprisingly accomplished effort that gets better as it goes on. Nunsploitation without sleaze and a genuinely shocking ending. Not immaculate but pretty damned close.
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