Immaculate Review | Divine Conception

by Andrew Parker

An effectively eerie and sometimes shocking bit of religiously coded paranoia horror, Immaculate treads on familiar hallowed ground, but does so with confidence and competence. While there’s not much in director Michael Mohan’s tale of demonic entities hiding within the Catholic Church that hasn’t been offered up in dozens of films that came before it, Immaculate boasts a nicely mould breaking star performance from Sydney Sweeney and a sense of escalation that starts off measured before flat out breaking the metre at the end.

Sweeney stars as Cecilia, a young American nun who’s invited to take her vows at a traditional convent in the Italian countryside, after her old parish in Detroit burned down. In addition to the obvious language barrier and culture shock that she has to overcome, Sister Cecilia notices that she’s not being welcomed by everyone with open arms, save for the kindly Father Tedeschi (Álvaro Morte) and a gruff talking, cigarette smoking fellow nun (Benedetta Porcaroli). The ever watchful Sister Isabelle (Giulia Heathfield Di Renzi) really seems to dislike Cecilia, but that’s okay because she seems to already hate everybody. It’s not long before Cecilia starts to notice that nothing is what it seems at her new convent, and the grounds of Our Lady of Sorrows could be harbouring a breakaway sect of the church that seeks to include her as part of their evil, blasphemous experiment.

I don’t want to give too much away about Immaculate here, but suffice to say that the title offers a big hint as to where Mohan (The Voyeurs, an underrated chiller which also starred Sweeney) and writer Andrew Lobel are heading with this. It honestly isn’t much of a grand reveal, with the game being exposed rather early on, but the film approaches this twist as if it’s a major deal, so I’ll refrain from talking about it at any great length. Suffice to say that most genre buffs will know what they’re getting into with Immaculate pretty early on, and the gothic, rural trappings of the story and themes of religious good and evil won’t come as any huge surprise.

A sense of inevitability isn’t always a bad thing for a movie, and that’s certainly the case with Immaculate, which is pleasingly atmospheric, tense, and consistently engaging. There’s a sense of going through the motions to get from point A to points B and C in the early going, but Mohan’s composed style and conviction anchors the viewer nicely into their seats. The plotting is measured, but never slow. The production design is familiar (right down to the convenient inclusion of mysterious catacombs below the convent that will obviously come into play at some point), but rigorously detailed by the standards of a low-to-mid budget production. And outside of Sweeney, the low-key MVP of Immaculate is the lush and inventive musical score from Will Bates, which is one of the most memorably eerie and catchy horror scores this side of Ravenous.

Rocket strapped star in the offing Sweeney will probably be what draws most viewers into seeing Immaculate, and she doesn’t disappoint. While it might seem a bit unusual to find the Anyone But You and Euphoria performer playing an earnest and devout nun at first, Sweeney finds ways to imbue the character with keen streaks of curiosity and earnestness at the start that make Cecilia a compelling protagonist instead of just another fish out of water. As things grow more intense, and Cecilia’s situation becomes increasingly dangerous and dire, Sweeney is more than up to the task of balancing strength and terror in equal measure.

Truth be told, for most of its running time, Immaculate is just barely a cut above the average horror movie; one that’s overly reliant on predictable (but well staged) jump scares, and which benefits greatly from the fact that so many recent religious horrors (The Pope’s Exorcist, The Nun II, The Exorcist: Believer) have been outright duds and chores to sit through. Immaculate is ultimately caught somewhere between recent “elevated” horror offerings and old school B-movie chillers, without ever fully landing on either side. But then Mohan’s final act kicks in and the last twenty minutes or so offer up some truly gnarly visuals, grotesque body horror, and intense cat and mouse action that more than makes up for any perceived slightness that came before it. It goes out strong and hard as hell, which is likely what most viewers will remember it for. Quite often, people remember the ending of a film the most, and it tends to define the overall experience, and Immaculate has an absolute banger of a climax. It unquestionably elevates everything else around it, but it’s definitely not for the squeamish.

Immaculate opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, March 22, 2024.

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