‘Immaculate’ Review: Sydney Sweeney Is Wide-Eyed but Sly


Damsels in distress take different forms and come with diverse temperaments, skill sets and screams. The standard-bearer tends to be a pretty young thing who has enough life in her that you don’t want it or her snuffed out (well, usually). Sometimes she’s babysitting in suburbia; at other times she is tiptoeing around a mansion with dark secrets and groaning floorboards. Every so often, she turns up wearing a nun’s habit, cloistered in a convent where things are never as they seem, as is the case in the slickly diverting, undercooked shocker “Immaculate.”

Set in the Italian countryside far from Rome — in more ways than one — “Immaculate” is a scare-fest with a plucky heroine, an irreverent hot-button twist and just enough narrative ambiguity to give viewers something to argue about. The time is the present, give or take a few years, and the place is a grim, gray stone convent with sweeping grounds and formidably high walls. With a remodel and better lighting, the building could pass for one of those castles for princesses and their happily-ever-afters. The creepy opening scene and sepulchral vibe here, though, suggest that whatever happens next will definitely be very unhappy.

Working from Andrew Lobel’s script, the director Michael Mohan delivers his damsel — a fresh-faced American, Cecilia, played by Sydney Sweeney — to the convent with unceremonious briskness. As she meets and greets her new sisters in faith, Mohan zips around, providing a sense of its scale and labyrinthine interior (and exits). The overly compressed 89-minute running time doesn’t allow him to linger, so he tends to go fuzzy and generic. Cecilia’s back story is conveniently vague, for one: She’s come to serve God and surrender herself body and soul. Mostly, she is there because it strategically isolates the character, limits her choices and gives the movie a dank whiff of Old World exoticism.

Some details and faces quickly stand out, including an ingratiating, uneasily friendly priest (Álvaro Morte) and the no-nonsense mother superior (Dora Romano), who keeps both old and young in line. As Cecilia settles in, she befriends one of the other novices (the appealing Benedetta Porcaroli) and fields puzzling hostility from a young nun (Giulia Heathfield Di Renzi). Cecilia also encounters a wizened nun with large cross-shaped scars on the soles of her feet. That’s certainly a grabber, but so too is a communal bathing scene in which Cecilia and some of the other younger women pose prettily in a vaulted room, lounging and grooming in semitransparent bathing gowns that reveal just how fit they are.

Much as Mohan did in the 2021 movie “The Voyeurs,” his take on the old-fashioned (a.k.a. 1980s and ’90s) erotic thriller, he is doing his part in “Immaculate” to resurrect another disreputable film favorite. In the earlier thriller, Sweeney plays a Peeping Tom whose habit of spying on her hot, hump-happy neighbors leads to a familiar overheated mix of sex, violence and vengeance. If the milieu and Sweeney’s character are more interesting in “Immaculate,” it’s partly because of the convent’s relative foreignness. What Mohan has largely done here, though, is whip up a genre pastiche that shrewdly combines horror-movie frights, paranoid-woman thrills and the special kinky pleasures of 1970s-style nunsploitation.

“Immaculate” is considerably tamer than that subgenre’s wilder exemplars, like the 1974 Japanese film “School of the Holy Beast” with its whips, thorny roses and weird nuns. (Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta,” from 2021, is ostensibly higher brow.) Even so, things get strange and stranger when Cecilia becomes pregnant and her “Song of Bernadette” adventure edges into “Rosemary’s Baby” terrain, or so it seems. Like a lot of contemporary movies that play like feature-length elevator pitches, “Immaculate” works best at the start, when mystery still envelops the characters and their world. Once its parts are in place, the movie skims and skimps, rushing to wrap everything up before its banging finale.

“Immaculate” doesn’t try to reinvent anything but instead cheerfully embraces the familiar, which is part of what makes the movie enjoyable. It borrows from established genres and reliable conventions, deploys shock cuts and jump scares and simultaneously winks at the audience and tries to make it squirm. Better yet, Mohan and Sweeney together turn a vaguely sketched, potentially iffy character into the kind of heroine whose survival becomes the movie’s very reason for being. Sweeney’s full-throttle performance is crucial in this regard because it smartly exploits her looks, or rather our perceptions of what a wide-eyed, innocent babe is capable of, slyly drawing us in before she goes deliriously, bloodily amok.

Immaculate
Rated R for horror-movie gore and violence against chickens. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes. In theaters.

Leave a Comment