Review | Immaculate | 2024

Sydney Sweeney in IMMACULATE. Photo courtesy of Neon.

I can't remember a movie marketing campaign as sly or subversive as Neon's go-for-broke promotion of Michael Mohan's new horror film, Immaculate. With star and producer Sydney Sweeney front and center, showing it to pastors for shock value and selling tickets for $6.66, Neon has positioned Immaculate as a gleeful piece of blasphemy, thumbing its nose at conservative backlash with its subversion of the story of Christ's immaculate conception.

Is the movie really that sacrilegious? Not really, no. Of course, it is unfair to judge a movie by its marketing, but it is key to understanding the film's self-image when contrasted to its actual content. Immaculate wears its inspirations on its sleeve - Suspiria chief among them, as it follows a young American novitiate (Sweeney) who travels to Europe to join a convent, and soon discovers that dark forces are afoot within its frescoed walls.

Upon learning that she is pregnant, Sister Cecilia becomes the subject of both adoration from her superiors and jealousy from her fellow nuns. Is her mysterious pregnancy the result of a miracle from God? Or something much more sinister? Those who want to go in with as little information as possible should stop reading now, because it's hard to dissect the film's POV without divining into its secrets. The convent, it turns out, is home to a Catholic sect bent on "resurrecting" Jesus Christ through cloning - using DNA collected from a nail that was supposedly used in his crucifixion. Cecilia, it turns out, has been chosen by the sect to be the new Virgin Mary, the mother of their new savior, whose birth they hope will usher in the second coming and, in turn, the end of the world.

Sweeney reportedly fought hard to bring Immaculate to life, having first auditioned for the role when she was 16, then resurrecting it (heh) through her own production company years later after the project had stalled. You have to admire the chutzpah it takes to bring something like this to life - it's bold and edgy and goes places that mainstream horror films rarely dare to touch. But in going where it goes, one almost wishes it had gone farther. Director Michael Mohan conjures an agreeably eerie atmosphere, and Sweeney is terrific as the would-be Mary whose journey becomes one of reclaiming her bodily autonomy in the face of repressive religious dogma. Still, in the shadow of Suspiria, this story almost begs for something more surreal and dreamlike than the more literal film we ultimately get. No matter how far it thinks it's going, there's always a nagging sense that it wants to go further. And while it's impressive for a film of this size to go for broke in the way that it does, its transparency about its own mysteries ultimately holds it back from being something really special, even if it still has some gruesome surprises in store.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

IMMACULATE | Directed by Michael Mohan | Stars Sydney Sweeney, Álvaro Morte, Benedetta Porcaroli, Dora Romano | Rated R for strong and bloody violent content, grisly images, nudity and some language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.


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