Immaculate

Sydney Sweeney turns in a stunning scream-queen performance worth worshipping in this excellent convent-set horror film.
Sarah Ward
March 21, 2024

Overview

Add screaming to the ever-growing list of things that Sydney Sweeney can do spectacularly well. Indeed, thanks to Immaculate, which gets the Euphoria and The White Lotus star putting her pipes to stellar bellowing use, the horror genre has a brand-new queen; long may she reign if this is what audiences have to look forward to. This film about a nun who moves to a convent in the Italian countryside, then mysteriously becomes pregnant without having had sex, isn't just a job for Sweeney. She auditioned for the movie a decade back, it didn't come to fruition, but she strove to make it happen now. She stars. She produces. She enlisted Michael Mohan, who she worked with on Everything Sucks! and The Voyeurs, as its director. The passion that drove her quest to bring Immaculate to viewers is just as apparent in her formidable performance, too, including echoing with feeling — and blistering intensity— when she's shrieking.

No one should just be realising now how versatile an actor that Sweeney is. Her portrayal of Sister Cecilia, who found her way to becoming a bride of Christ after a traumatic near-death incident in her younger years, is exactly what the film's title suggests: immaculate. It's also a showcase of a role that requires her to be sweet, dutiful, faithful, ferocious, indefatigable, vengeful and desperate to survive all in the same flick — and she kills it — but adaptability, resourcefulness and displaying a multitude of skills has been her on-screen wheelhouse beyond just one movie. Take Sweeney's last four cinema releases, for instance, all of which hail from 2023–24. Reality, Anyone But You, Madame Web and Immaculate couldn't be more dissimilar to each other, and neither could the actor's parts in them. Throw in her Saturday Night Live hosting stint, and she's firmly at the "is there anything that she isn't capable of?" stage of her career.

When the virginal Sister Cecilia arrives in Europe from Detroit, it's on Father Sal Tedeschi's (Álvaro Morte, The Wheel of Time) behest after her home parish closed down. He's patronising in his attitude in-person, however. Before that, customs share the same demeanour when they stop her for not having a return ticket, commenting about whether she looks like a nun. Prior to that, though, Mohan opens Immaculate with another sister (Simona Tabasco, from season two of The White Lotus) having an unholy time of it at My Lady of Sorrows. She attempts to flee, which ends badly. Even her fellow devotees aren't a help. That something sinister awaits Cecilia is hardly a shock, then — and while the setup might seem like nunsploitation 101, or even just the basis of much in the sizeable religious-themed horror canon, Mohan and screenwriter Andrew Lobel (Mysteries Unknown) possess the same willingness to commit that their star beams with from within her tunic and wimple.

Their novice's introduction to the abbey flutters through donning the requisite apparel, getting shown around, taking her vows, literally kissing the ring of the bishop overseeing the proceedings and endeavouring to settle into a life of piety where tending to older sisters entering their final days is the main task. In the also-twentysomething Sister Gwen (Benedetta Porcaroli, The Hummingbird), Cecilia finds a friend, luckily, as well as someone who isn't willing to meekly take whatever rules and restrictions are thrust her way. But any sense of routine is short-lived. Carrying a child wasn't Cecilia's plan, obviously. Neither was being grilled about it, then worshipped for it, then controlled because of it, all while sparking envy among some of her fellow nuns. Cecilia is as surprised as anyone, with that jolt evolving from astonishment to distress the more that her belly expands, the convent exerts its sway, and the expecting nun begins both investigating and fighting back.

Awash in red hues — in blood, costuming and lighting alike — alongside darkness and shadows, while constantly subverting religious iconography and whipping up a claustrophobic air, Immaculate delivers not only bumps and jumps, but a deeply visceral viewing experience. No one is shy about brutal or gory body horror. Sudden cuts are no stranger, either, but do such a feverish job of plunging the audience into Cecilia's mindset that they prove far more than mere easy scares. Reteaming with familiar talents off-screen, too — such as cinematographer Elisha Christian (The Night House), editor Christian Masini and composer Will Bates (Dumb Money), all veterans of at least The Voyeurs — Mohan fashions the film around sharing his protagonist's inner state in every stylistic touch. With its church setting visibly opulent, yet winding through secret laboratories and dusty catacombs similarly in the plot, production designer Adam Reamer (another The Voyeurs alum, who also has Insidious: The Red Door on his resume) achieves the same feat: My Lady of Sorrows is meant to be the ultimate refuge for Cecilia, but it becomes creepier, more terrifying and more of a trap at every turn.

When a movie is this detailed with its aesthetics, and so finely tuned to disturb, it keeps drawing out an instinctive response again and again. As it digs into the power that religion, especially Catholicism, can hold over its adherents — plus the treatment of women and their bodies, including the lack of agency, that theology can inspire — Immaculate also unsettles thematically. These trains of thought aren't new, of course. In the 60s and 70s, the likes of Rosemary's Baby, The Devils and The Exorcist were paving the way for Sweeney and Mohan's third collaboration. Giallo, Italy's brand of lush horror-thrillers that came to prominence at the same time, is clearly and expectedly an influence, and not just via Suspiria. More recently, 2021 nunsploitation Benedetta also says hello. Pivotally, this is a feature made with affection and respect for what precedes it, though, without trying to be anything's second coming.

On the lengthy lineup of elements that work stunningly in Immaculate, such as its handling of suspense despite viewers knowing that something wicked is afoot from the get-go, its seductive atmosphere, its bold and wild leaps, and its willingness to get surreal, the film's lead casting is miraculous. It's no wonder that Mohan and Christian adore relaying this tale by staring at Sweeney, and by seeing Cecilia's reactions in her eyes — again, what a range that she can convey. She doesn't solely shine in big moments, of which there's plenty. The tiniest glimmer of fear can say everything when it's written across her peepers. The first burst of life-or-death resolve does the same. And there's nothing more haunting than Immaculate's last two minutes, which demonstrate that rich, raw and riveting performances aren't just a habit for Sweeney — they're a calling.

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