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IMMACULATE and Cinematic Salvation

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For decades, the dark side of Christianity has fascinated horror filmmakers; depictions of cursed convents, demonic nuns and dingy stained-glass chapels have become as synonymous with the genre as abandoned cabins in the woods or teenagers left home alone on a dark and stormy night. Immaculate, the passion project of actress Sydney Sweeney in her second collaboration with horror director Michael Mohan, is no different, a film whose promises of relentless gore and controversial, must-see affronts on the Christian religion have thrust it into the cultural zeitgeist.

 

In short, Immaculate follows Cecilia (Sweeney), an American nun who moves to an archaic Italian convent with nothing but the clothes on her back, and the terrors she finds looming below the surface as she takes on a very special role in the religious hierarchy of the parish. It’s hard to applaud the film’s ingenuity without venturing into a territory that would reduce the watching experience for those unfamiliar with its content, it’s certainly best enjoyed without previous knowledge of the journey on which it will take you. All this aside, Immaculate is certainly one of the most inventive and original horror movies of the last 5 years, and its progressive theming paired with its antiquated setting makes for a fascinating interaction between filmmaking and ideology. The film sits comfortably between a traditional, mass-appealing horror film and an elevated horror in the vein of A24’s catalogue, providing it with the unique scope to meet the needs of casual enjoyers and horror cinephiles alike.

 

It only feels right to continue this review with a tip of the hat towards Sweeney, who co-produces Immaculate along with starring in its lead role. This role is hardly what audiences have come to expect from Euphoria-alum Sweeney, who appears to be redefining her agency as a woman in the entertainment industry to great success. The actress also did a lot of heavy lifting for the film’s marketing, appearing in any interview she could find in order to give Immaculate the best chance possible at the box office. Sweeney is perhaps the only reason that this film exists, and it is for this reason that criticisms of her performance are all the more disappointing to voice. Perhaps it’s due to the overwhelming number of incredible horror actresses working today, whether you look to Pearl’s Mia Goth or Ready or Not’s Samara Weaving, even Jenna Ortega in Scream, but the unfortunate truth is that Sweeney’s performance simply doesn’t have enough weight behind it to secure a spot for her within the horror canon. Perplexingly, it isn’t the horror aspects of the film that Sweeney struggles with, she very convincingly manages the ever-increasing chaos of the third act, where she actually falters are the quieter, character-driven moments of the script. Scenes like these are few and far between in the film, which prefers to speed the audience along to the next squirm-inducing kill, but it’s Sweeney’s awkward and jarring line delivery in these scenes that prevents her character from feeling well rounded and properly realized. For a film so centrally concerned with its main character, it’s a major issue if unconvincing acting stands between the audience and their sympathies. Despite this, it seems unfair to judge Sweeney too harshly in this regard, it’s important to remember that Immaculate is her first proper experimentation with horror in this more established stage of her career, and it’s much more pertinent to applaud her convincing appeals to the conventions of the genre rather than get bogged down by criticisms that can be addressed more effectively by the actress’ other, more dramatic works.

 

As cleverly repurposed by the movie’s marketing campaign, Christian film journalists have pegged the film and its unmediated depiction of their religion as “Diabolical,” a movie that “debases Mary, Mother of Christ,”. These declarative statements set a considerably high standard for those whose morbid curiosity compels them all the way to the box office, and it’s safe to say that, for those individuals, they won’t be left disappointed. Immaculate begins as an expertly crafted exercise in tension and suspense, eerie soundscapes and an abundance of point-of-view shots make sure that its scares feel completely earned and justified. For much of the film’s first and second act, we explore the convent alongside Cecilia, a setting whose dark corners and shadowy hallways lead to a fresh horror whenever they’re uncovered. Much of the credit here goes towards Adam Reamer’s production design, the setting of the film is essentially a character in it of itself, it provides a perfect, period-appropriate shell for the action of each and every scene, from the most light-hearted to the most perverse. Immaculate’s second half takes an unexpected turn, one that will leave many viewers, myself included, longing for more of the same style found in its beginning, but there are certainly merits to the ideas presented in this polarizing section of the film, even if its motives aren’t nearly as effectively communicated as they once were. At the film’s ending, audiences are treated to one of the best long takes in recent cinematic memory, a scene that provides a gratifying and cathartic resolution to the narrative, even for those who might’ve gotten lost along the way.

 

All too often, films that simply exist within the horror genre are pushed to revolutionise the on-screen depiction of blood and gore, but Immaculate manages to defy these expectations, and its comfortability within its genre and artistic style is exactly what makes it such an important release in what has been an especially dry few months at our cinemas. If you’ve got a spare 90 minutes and an appreciation for stories that are satisfied by their own limitations, Immaculate might just be for you.

 
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