‘Immaculate’ review: Thanks to Sydney Sweeney, nunsploitation is back

(2.5 stars)

A young American nun encounters shocking horrors at a remote Italian convent in “Immaculate,” a modern Gothic slow burn that simmers in pedestrian frights until it finally boils over into bursts of delicious, gory violence. When it does, anchored by an impressive performance by Sydney Sweeney, the bloodshed isn’t just welcome but cathartic, a gonzo takedown of religious patriarchy with one hell of a memorable finale that reconfirms the good news: Nunsploitation is back, baby.

Sweeney (“Anyone But You,” “Madame Web,” plus this month’s SNL-centric discourse) plays Sister Cecilia, a novitiate from Detroit who travels to the rural Our Lady of Sorrows, a hospice for infirm and dying nuns (conveniently built over ancient catacombs!), to take her vows. Her recruitment has happened so fast, she hasn’t had time to learn basic Italian. A foreboding “Suspiria”-esque gust of wind greets her upon arrival, our first clue to what’s in store. Sweeney’s expressive doe eyes and whisper-soft voice convey a believable vulnerability, but there’s also gentle resolve beneath the surface as Cecilia explains to the church’s oddly friendly Father Tedeschi (Álvaro Morte) how a near-death experience at the age of 12 left her convinced that it’s all part of God’s plan.

She makes a fast friend in the rebellious Sister Gwen (Benedetta Porcaroli) and an even faster enemy in the stern Sister Isabelle (Giulia Heathfield Di Renzi), but the devout Sister Cecilia isn’t the type to investigate the strange sights she starts to notice around the convent, where creepy nuns stalk the place in crimson masks and apparitions visit her at night and in her dreams. Director Michael Mohan, working from a script by Andrew Lobel rife with convenient details but short on character development, serves ample misdirection as he sprinkles nods to 1970s horror throughout the film. Production design by Adam Reamer engulfs Cecilia in the abbey’s majestic courtyards, spooky corridors and candlelit chambers like a figure in a fresco, immersed in menacing ritual and beauty.

Are the dangers lurking in cinematographer Elisha Christian’s gorgeously textured shadows supernatural? Demonic? Something else? To cite its most obvious cinematic references might give too much away. The premise, though, is right there in the title: Shortly after her arrival, Sister Cecilia becomes pregnant. She is bewildered, since she is a virgin, while the convent’s mostly male leaders are eager to interrogate her over her sexual activity, then a tad too elated about the miracle gestating under their roof. When they forbid her to go to an outside hospital, a sinister ick starts to creep in, along with Cecilia’s survival instincts.

“Immaculate” fast-forwards to the real terrors from there, even if Mohan, reuniting with Sweeney after directing her in “The Voyeurs,” over-relies on loud, telegraphed jump scares. He mines stomach-churning thrills from visceral body horror — anyone sensitive to fingernail, teeth or tongue trauma is in for a scream, never mind the hazards that escalate the more Cecilia’s belly swells — and ups the atmosphere with creaking, bone-crunching sound design and a haunting Will Bates score of plinking strings and chorales that deepens the moody atmosphere.

Elsewhere, easy gimmicks and an otherwise chilling opening sequence involving those creepy red-faced nuns (great marketing tools that have little to do with the story) don’t add up to much. Not that the film cares to make sense, leaping over glaring plot holes to get Cecilia to her delivery date so that Sweeney can let her pent-up repression rip in a divinely profane, memorably blood-soaked finale.

“Immaculate” joins the recent “Benedetta” and “Saint Maud” in a new unholy trinity of genre fun with nuns, yet steers clear of matters of sexuality, a theme central to nunsploitation classics like “The Devils” and “School of the Holy Beast.” (Also see: “The Decameron,” “The Little Hours” and “The Nun” plus its sequel.) While religious iconography abounds — and makes for some handy weapons, in a pinch — Cecilia’s crisis isn’t one of faith but of bodily autonomy, an indictment of self-righteous authority figures who use religion to gaslight and control female bodies. (A brief mention of priests behaving badly, meanwhile, is the film’s only reference to real-world sexual abuse within the church.) The focus lends a simplified, sobering edge to the film and, especially in its wild final moments, clarifies “Immaculate’s” true aims as a pointed pro-choice horror tale for the post-Roe v. Wade era.

R. At area theaters. Contains strong and bloody violence, grisly images, nudity, and some language. 89 minutes.

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