Review: Even Sydney Sweeney can’t save horror flick

‘Take thee to a nunnery’ the wrong advice for ‘Immaculate’ director

Where: In theatres
What: Movie, 90 minutes.
When: Fri., March 22.
Genre: Horror
Rating: NN (out of 5)
Why you should watch: The convent-set, Sydney Sweeney horror vehicle packs on plenty of gore but lacks in soul.

MOST film fans, even horror film fans, have at least one thing they can’t bear to see on screen — an animal in peril, needles, open-mouth chewing — and it is a testament to Immaculate’s determination to push buttons that, in the first five minutes, I was subjected to two of mine. Following a young American nun, Cecilia (Sydney Sweeney) who joins a remote convent in Italy where the priests have a grisly ulterior motive, Immaculate is trying hard to get under your skin. But there is a distinction between pushing buttons and pushing boundaries, and while Immaculate has plenty of gore on display, none of it feels particularly transgressive or much fun.

Nuns and horror films are a grimly happy match: there is ample opportunity for chills in the gruesome Catholic imagery, dark echoing stone halls and black-clad figures. But most compelling of all is the way horror can reinforce faith’s battle against evil (as in The Conjuring series and 2018’s The Nun) or reveal the darker side of organized religion. Immaculate is firmly in the latter camp, which becomes obvious in the opening scene when a young nun is cruelly dispatched for wanting to leave the convent. But the film puts so little effort into exploring Cecilia’s faith (or, in fact, of anything that might motivate her) that her exploitation by church leaders (as the film title suggests, the chaste Cecilia becomes pregnant) feels inevitable, not emotionally impactful. Of course, not all horror films aim for psychological realism — many are more about the pleasures of style, ambience and gore — but Immaculate doesn’t deliver on either; the scares are dour and the meanings are shallow.

The film is perhaps most notable for its lead, Sweeney, who is proving to be a bankable movie star after the unexpected financial success of last year’s romantic comedy, Anyone but You. With her vocal fry and seeming fragility, Sweeney was perfectly cast as one of the bored, internet-addicted and deeply insecure teens in Euphoria and the first season of White Lotus. But she has fared well even when cast against type, making her lackadaisical nature work for the notoriously energetic rom-com genre or playing a nerdy high-schooler in Madame Web (2024) despite her cool-girl aura. While Sweeney certainly nails Cecilia’s meekness and vulnerability (she perpetually looks like someone has just yelled at her), she can’t quite accomplish the fierce catharsis of her ultimate, vengeful rampage. It makes this bloody fun feel like a chore.

The gore, too, feels forced (and sometimes looks quite fake). In one scene, Sister Isabelle (Giulia Heathfield Di Renzi), who has been driven mad with jealousy over the sinister miracle of Cecilia’s pregnancy, throws herself from the top of the cloisters. But when she is turned over, the bloody mess that remains of her face is almost laughably out of proportion to her fall. The final scene is such an overwrought and immature imagining of childbirth that I wondered if we should have a temporary moratorium on men directing pregnancy-themed horror.

There were flashes of a more evocative and entertaining film beneath the slog; I was particularly taken with the mysterious nuns who appear like spectres in black habits, their faces covered in red fabric. (And who knew Italian convents provided such a luscious spread of food and wine!) But the red figures are abandoned halfway through, and the film doesn’t do much with its geographical setting (and does so little with its time period that I have no idea when the film is set). Perhaps a less squeamish viewer will find Immaculate more redeeming, but after enduring 90 minutes of unimaginative torments, I had lost the faith.