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Immaculate

“Immaculate” feels like both a throwback to another era of Italian horror and a timely commentary on woman’s bodily autonomy, but it can’t match the flair of the former and lacks the thematic thrust to convey anything resonant about the latter. Star Sydney Sweeney continues her “moment” after the success of “Anyone but You” and a gig hosting “Saturday Night Live” with a horror film that comes branded with the reputation of Neon, one of the most respected distributors in the industry. She does absolutely nothing wrong here, finding a potential new arrow in her professional quiver as a scream queen, but everything else around “Immaculate” crumbles due to its remarkable lack of ambition. “Immaculate” feels like a passion project for Sweeney, who produced the film too, but no one else. The rest of it has the sheen of VOD, leaving the poor star stranded in a project that doesn’t remotely operate on the same level. I kept wanting Russell Crowe to ride in on his “Pope’s Exorcist” Vespa and whisk her off to a better movie.

Sweeney plays Cecilia, a young woman who we know absolutely nothing about beyond her resolute devotion, courtesy of a childhood accident on a frozen lake that should have killed her. Like almost every character in “Immaculate,” Cecilia is a mystery, a pawn being moved on a genre board. That’s not always a problem if a film has the style to overcome a lack of character development, but Michael Mohan’s film almost defiantly lacks in visual language, drab when it needs to be vibrant and flat when it needs to pop. Many will compare this film to the Giallo genre because it’s Italian horror set in a convent, but Giallo is about big, vibrant cinematic expression in ways that “Immaculate” never considers, much less pulls off.

Cecelia arrives at an Italian convent in a relatively vague time period—when this film exactly takes place was never really clear to me in a way that was almost distracting—that’s deep in the remote countryside. We know that this house of the Lord is dangerous because we’ve seen one of those classic horror movie prologues in which a young woman is murdered by mysterious figures. In this one, it’s sisters in red masks, who pull a young nun from her escape attempt and bury her alive. Is Cecelia now taking her place? And will she meet the same fate?

Before any time passes at all really, Cecelia is struck by visions in the convent, and unsettled by some of the characters around what is basically both a training center for young nuns and a hospice for older ones. The idea that this setting, at which almost the entire film takes place, is sort of at crossroads of life and religion was likely centered in Andrew Lobel’s script but it’s tragically underdeveloped in the final product. Again, this kind of film needs to lean into its ideas and themes hard. Don’t hold back. Don’t bury potential themes. Blast them loud and proud like the great films that inspired this one did.

The plot of “Immaculate” kicks in when Cecelia discovers she’s pregnant, despite never having slept with a man. Is it a miracle? Or something darker? To say that Mohan and Lobel don’t really provide a lot of satisfactory answers would be an understatement. There are SO many interesting themes to play with but the team behind “Immaculate” are almost defiant in their unwillingness to do anything interesting with them, too content to use jump scares instead of actually crafting mood or maintaining atmosphere.

Through it all, Sydney Sweeney holds the camera. She’s an increasingly interesting actress, diversifying her early resume with projects as extremely different as “Reality,” “Anyone but You,” and now this one. Her obvious desire to challenge herself is admirable, and she goes dark places here, especially in an unforgettable final scene that could make viewers leave this one thinking they had just seen a good movie instead of just a good ending on a bad one.

This review was filed from the SXSW Film Festival premiere. It opens on March 22nd.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Film Credits

Immaculate movie poster

Immaculate (2024)

Rated R

89 minutes

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