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Immaculate review: Sydney Sweeney’s pregnant nun horror doesn’t go bump in the night

Ecclesiastical-based horror Immaculate clearly wants to take a bold and principled stance on religious mania and the church’s attack on bodily autonomy. Its heroine Cecilia (Sydney Sweeney) arrives in Italy to join a convent, and take its vows of piety and celibacy, yet quickly discovers that she’s become pregnant – despite never having had sex.

She’s pushed to the edge, physically and psychologically, purely so that she can transform into a vessel of unfiltered female rage. In short, it’s a film reverse-engineered from the image that we get of her at the end: blood streaked across her face, matted into her hair, screaming so gutturally it might awaken her entire female bloodline. Its ideas, though, are undernourished.

Cecilia finds herself doted on, objectified, and controlled by the men around her, who dress her up in the Virgin Mary’s gilded laurels and pale blue robes. But this is a horror film, after all, and Immaculate feeds entirely off the notion that every eerie occurrence – from the elderly nun who likes to stand in the doorway to Cecilia’s bedroom, to the bird that flies full pelt into her window – are clues to some larger, nefarious puzzle. Except they’re not. Most scenes are simply filler, old horror tropes wheeled out for convenience until the film’s 90 minutes are almost up and we can finally drop the truth on poor Cecilia.

There’s a committed performance from Sweeney, at least, who took a central role in ushering the film into reality. She auditioned for a version of Andrew Lobel’s script around a decade ago, before circling back with her accumulated clout from Euphoria and The White Lotus to acquire the rights, touch up the script herself, and hire Michael Mohan (who she previously collaborated on Everything Sucks! and The Voyeurs) as director.

Sydney Sweeney in ‘Immaculate' (Fabio Lovino)
Sydney Sweeney in ‘Immaculate' (Fabio Lovino)

Mohan, and his cinematographer Elisha Christian, at least make Immaculate look good, with all that soft, natural light poking through the courtyard colonnade. At times, it gestures towards the beauty of Seventies Italian horror films. And you can see what drew Sweeney to the project, especially as an actor whose body has been made a constant point of discussion, with seemingly no regard for her personhood.

There’s an interesting scene, early on, where Cecilia shares her childhood practice of mortification of the flesh, in which she’d press her palms down onto the ice until the pain became unbearable. As the film goes on, we watch her suffer morning sickness. She waddles painfully from room to room. She hoists her legs up into stirrups in the examining room. Is Immaculate, then, trying to draw some connection between religious ideas of penance and the disregarded physical sacrifices of pregnancy? If it is, it makes no effort to actually come out and say it. All that you’re left with, in its final scenes, is the reminder of that other, very famous horror film about pregnancy, Rosemary’s Baby.

That, and the fact that Sweeney – even on Euphoria, playing a teen, screaming about whether her outfit was Oklahoma!-esque “in a good way or a bad way” – has a particularly good handle on teeth-gritted hysteria. Immaculate isn’t the right way in, but there could be a future in the genre if she’s keen to embrace it.

Dir: Michael Mohan. Starring: Sydney Sweeney, Álvaro Morte, Benedetta Porcaroli, Dora Romano, Giorgio Colangeli, Simona Tabasco. 15, 89 minutes.

‘Immaculate’ is in cinemas from 22 March