Every year sees the release of half a dozen religious horror movies with interchangeable details, which seem to exist only to make a quick buck. (This is a business, of course, much as we would like to imagine filmmaking first and foremost as an art form.) Think The Nun, The Pope’s Exorcist, last year’s Exorcist reboot or next month’s Omen reboot. What these movies have in common – other than nuns, priests, the supernatural, and hushed Latin prayers building to a frenzy – is that you remember nothing about them after the credits roll.


This will not be a problem for Immaculate, the new religious horror from director Michael Mohan. The film starts off as indistinguishable from the many others that populate this subgenre, before radically distinguishing itself with a wackadoodle third act – but wackadoodle in the very best, and most confronting, sense of that word.

The film stars Sydney Sweeney, who had worked previously with Mohan on The Voyeurs. Sweeney plays Cecilia, a prospective nun from Michigan who was set on the path to find herself, religiously, by surviving a childhood incident where she fell through the ice and her heart stopped for seven minutes. Quite young for a nun, or so everyone comments, Cecilia puts her hand up for a post in an Italian monastery that doubles as a hospital/convalescence home for other nuns who are nearing the ends of their lives. She doesn’t yet speak Italian and there are other shocks to this change in lifestyle, but Cecilia is determined to do God’s will and make good on His decision to save her.

In addition to commenting on her age, the others in the convent also comment on her beauty – mostly harmlessly – which raises the ire of jealous other nuns around her age. This includes Sister Isabelle (Giulia Heathfield Di Renzi), who can barely be bothered to show Cecilia around the grounds without spitting on her in disgust. As Cecilia gets the hang of the routines and befriends another sister, Sister Gwen (Benedetta Porcaroli), she also gets the attention of Father Tedeschi (Alvaro Morte), who takes an interest in her background. Soon a reason beyond her beauty is going to trigger the envy, but also the awe, of those around her: Cecilia turns out to be pregnant. Which shouldn’t be possible, because a medical examination upon her arrival confirmed that she’s a virgin.

Immaculate is a Trojan Horse of a horror movie. It disguises its true nature through a rather banal opening half, which features any number of images and moments from a game of Religious Horror Bingo. Fortunately, this is all done competently enough to carry the viewer through to the awesome final 20 minutes, which take things off the rails in a manner that includes both shocking moments and twisted humour. (A single line of dialogue from the supposedly devout Cecilia – “Goddammit!” – might bring the house down in a delighted audience that finds itself on this movie’s wavelength.) It’s almost as though the traditional opening is there only to provide material for the sort of vanilla trailer the studio thinks might be necessary, if they want to attract viewers who don’t demand much from a horror movie.


Those who do will eventually be very pleased. And a lot of this is on the shoulders of Sweeney, whose character is understandably more muted at the start, when she is just the dutiful new girl eager not to make waves. By the end, Sweeney is plenty successful at proving she is more than the pretty face the movie frequently tells us she is. Mohan calls upon every bit of her technique in a harrowing finale that provides a resolution to her imprisonment at the hands of this sinister monastery. Perhaps their previous experience working together is what allows her to produce such blood-curdling screams of anguish and rage.

Immaculate sometimes recalls the more gonzo mainstream horrors of James Wan, such as Malignant. To pull off what Wan pulls off in the delightful Malignant, you have to present this material with a straight face and let the joy arise organically from the absurdities inherent to the situation. This tricky balance allows you to maintain your respect for the film while still luxuriating in its twisted genre pleasures. Neither a purely comedic approach nor a purely sober approach would land so well.


If the pleasures of Immaculate weren’t so backloaded, it might have earned an even stronger recommendation. (And if it didn’t run contrary to the mandate to avoid spoilers, that backloaded portion would be worth talking about a lot more.) As is, Mohan’s film delivers the goods and then some by the end. When a film finishes with its strongest content, it’s a kind of miracle indeed.


Immaculate opens today in cinemas. 

7 / 10