Immaculate: Religious horror for our troubling times

Sydney Sweeney in Immaculate - Courtesy of Neon
Sydney Sweeney in Immaculate - Courtesy of Neon /

I'm not surprised that Immaculate is resonating the way that it is. Yes, the film has quite a bloody and bonkers final ten minutes, but beyond that, there's something deeper going on with the film's resonance. There must be a reason that it just broke a box office record for its studio, Neon. Horror always responds to greater societal fears and anxieties. Ever since the fall of Roe V. Wade in 2022, we've seen some recent horror movies grapple with bodily autonomy, including last year's Clock. I suspect that we're going to see more and more genre films wrestle with this topic. In that regard, Immaculate feels incredibly timely, despite its flaws.

Immaculate is, through and through, a film about a woman's agency and control over her body. Director Michael Mohan's film has already been compared to Rosemary's Baby, including by The Guardian. While i wouldn't say the film lives up to Ira Levin's novel or Brian De Palma's stellar adaptation, it does traffic in the same warranted fears, especially in a Post-Roe America. Ultimately, this is a film about a group of priests and nuns in the Italian countryside trying to control the reproductive process of Sister Cecilia (Sydney Sweeney), a young nun who takes her vows for seemingly all the right reasons.

Prior to Cecilia's introduction, the film opens at night, with another young woman fleeing several nuns dressed in black, with red masks over their faces. Who or what she's running from isn't clear until much later, but it establishes the film's grim tone and indicates to the audience something isn't quite right at this convent. Not long after that gripping opening, we meet Cecilia. The film does have a few plot holes, including the reasons for Cecilia's decision to leave the states and take her vows in rural Italy. It's not like she's doing it in Vatican City.

immaculate-9 Sydney Sweeney in IMMACULATE_Photo Courtesy of NEON_rgb
Immaculate /

Despite a lack of answers regarding Cecilia's decision to move, the setting here is quite effective. The convent feels incredibly isolating, and Cecilia is warned more than once that it's not too late to turn back. However, convinced she's touched by God, she decides to stay and take her vows. There's simply something about the convent that feels cold, maybe it's Cecilia's drab, barely furnished bedroom, or the shadowy hallways. It's clear, though, that the priests and nuns keep secrets.

Because this film is a lean 90 minutes, it really doesn't take long for the horror to ramp up. At one point early on, Cecilia has a vision of hands mauling her body. Not long after, she's pregnant, though she never had sex. There are plenty of parallels here to the Virgin Mary, including close-ups of statues of Mary and even some of the costume choices. Yet, deeper into her pregnancy, Cecilia suspects something sinister is afoot, even if the nuns and priests see her pregnancy as some kind of miracle.

Without spoiling the ending, which is really one of the best final ten minutes I've seen in any horror film this year, I will say it's a sheer delight to watch Cecilia's transformation from a wide-eyed, innocent, would-be nun to a fierce and even feral woman who claims her agency. The ending is blood-soaked and wild alright. Most importantly, it feels earned. While Mohan's film does have its flaws, namely some major plot holes that raise questions, the pacing is not one of them. This film's ending hits so hard because Immaculate never operates at an 11 the whole time. It builds atmosphere and Cecilia's character first and foremost, taking its time to do so.

There are other ways that Cecilia defies the Church's patriarchal norms, too. For instance, she befriends Sister Gwen (Benedetta Porcaroli), who curses, smokes, and certainly doesn't walk the straight and narrow path, even sexually. Porcaroli steals nearly every scene she's in. I only wish the relationship between Sister Gwen and Sister Cecilia was given a little more breathing room.

8 Sydney Sweeney in IMMACULATE_Photo Courtesy of NEON_rgb
Sydney Sweeney in Immaculate - Courtesy of Neon /

With Immaculate's success and the forthcoming Omen prequel, it very much feels like religious horror is back in a big way. While Immaculate is by no means perfect, it has one of the strongest endings of any genre film this year, and a heck of a performance by Sweeney, who may end up a scream queen soon enough.

Immaculate is currently in theaters.

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