Immaculate: Scientific Religious Exploitation

Sydney Sweeney finally goes into horror territory with her new film Immaculate, her first as a producer. Coming from director Michael Mohan, who she worked with on The Voyeurs, Immaculate finds Sydney at the center of a crazed convent of nuns who take care of their elderly sisters who are close to meeting their Maker.

Cecelia (Sydney Sweeney) arrives at the Italian convent as evidence of a miracle, having survived a deadly experience as a child in the cold waters of Michigan. Now, she is seeking a new life like the other sisters who are escaping the constraints of the modern world. Cecilia also finds Father Sal Tadeschi taking an interest in her and her story. Soon though, this escape from the world ends up being not so peaceful as the convent shows signs of darkness and evil. Then, one day, Cecilia is found to be pregnant despite her vow of chastity. The rest of the convent declares that she is a miracle and appear to adorn her as the new Mother Mary. Confused and scared, Cecilia tries to accept this role and the attention it gives her but, as her health worsens through her pregnancy, the sinister elements of the Convent start to reveal themselves and soon Cecilia understands that she is not safe… and neither is the baby.

Religious horror can be effective. It often carries a lot of weight as faith and loyalty can be exploited and keep characters in some remarkably dangerous situations. However, Immaculate often relies on the horror elements to grip the audience instead of creating more interesting situations for Cecelia to navigate. Cecelia remains mostly passive in this script until the break into the final act (and the final act itself).

What saves this film from losing its audience are the hints that it drops about what makes the convent dangerous. Constantly, there is a jump scare or a horrific event that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats and afraid for what might happen to Cecelia. However, many of those elements are not followed up on, leaving the audience to guess what much of the build up was serving beside the tension in the moment. As the atmosphere and stakes become clear, Cecelia is not only surrounded by women who are controlled by men but she also has a baby inside her. The dangers of the convent seem to provide ample opportunity for horror but this film is better when it focuses on its plot, instead of building tension.

The question of a woman’s agency is one presented early on in the film as Cecelia, along with the other women, seek to control each other while being at the behest of the priests who run the convent. When Cecelia is discovered to be pregnant, her child is tied to the convent. Suddenly, there is no escape for her and they have the final word on what happens to her. They won’t let her leave to go to a hospital and won’t take concerns over her health seriously, leaving Cecelia is a very vulnerable position. There are hints at the sexism and control the Catholic Church has over the women who serve it but it’s never fully explored.

The film also seems to carry a sexual edge, though the film never is able to thoughtfully comment on those ideas. The ending tries to deliver on the question of women’s agency where Cecilia becomes a lot more active and allows Sydney Sweeney to deliver a harrowing horror performance. However, this ending does feel disconnected from the ideas and events earlier in the film and its reveals of what the convent is doing become a lot less effective because of that. The lack of answers is not fulfilled by the film’s ending and seems to be its own radical horror film that mostly disregards the details that were shown in the first act.

What this film has to say is left mostly vague and its final action, while dramatic and horrifying, doesn’t give the audience satisfaction over what they spent the last 80 minutes watching. For the runtime, the film is effective at building up suspense but it also feels too small. So much of what we see was delivered in the trailer and it feels like there is a missing component to make this situation truly horrifying. The editing within the scenes is paced well but many scenes and sequences felt wasted for the ending of the movie. The cinematography, while capturing its sets and costumes well, never takes a step beyond conventional indie filmmaking. Sydney Sweeney is clearly very talented and no one will deny that she sells this movie but her performance and character remain too one-note throughout most of the film, making her excellent work in the final act seem empty.

Still, this is a film that will likely scratch a horror itch for a lot of audiences and, perhaps, some will get more out of the religious themes. Even so, the script–while smart and intriguing throughout–never fully delivers great themes to think about or contemplate. It seems a lot more focused on keeping you in the moment and asking you to simply forget a good amount of what you witnessed before.

Immaculate is in theatres on Friday, March 22nd, 2024.

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