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Sunday, April 14
The Indiana Daily Student

arts review

COLUMN: Sydney Sweeney is deliciously deranged in nunsploitation horror ‘Immaculate’


The world owes Sydney Sweeney an apology. 

After she was thrust into the pop culture spotlight for her breakout role as Cassie in “Euphoria,” it seemed like everyone everywhere had an opinion on her body, her acting, her personality you name it. She’s still objectified and belittled by faceless trolls online, even after diversifying her filmography with films like “Reality” and “Anyone But You.” Sweeney shouldn’t have to prove herself to be respected in the industry, yet she constantly does so. 

Her latest film, “Immaculate,” is her most radical work to date. Sweeney originally auditioned for the lead role over a decade ago, but the project dissolved in development. Years later, she acquired the script, revised it, joined the project as a producer and got her collaborator and friend, Michael Mohan, attached to direct.  

Sweeney plays Cecilia, an American nun who travels to a convent in the Italian countryside to serve the local community. One morning, she wakes from a traumatic nightmare and discovers that she’s pregnant. Because she’s never been with a man, the convent heralds her as the next Virgin Mary. But as Cecilia’s pregnancy progresses, she begins to uncover the convent’s sinister history and the unspeakable horrors hidden deep within its walls. 

“Immaculate” truly belongs to Sweeney. Her passion fills every frame. Even the image of her dressed in a nun’s habit could be interpreted as an act of defiance because of the way people objectify her. But despite the film’s provocative subject matter, it’s clear it wasn’t made as a statement; it was made out of love for the horror genre. 

The scares are plentiful, albeit a bit aimless at times. Even though some of them are thrown in haphazardly, it’s refreshing to watch a horror film that’s wholly committed to being a horror film. For every stereotypical jump-scare, there’s a moment of squirm-inducing body horror or an unexpected reveal. The chilling cold open features a young nun being buried alive in a wooden coffin and establishes a high level of tension and intrigue that never lets up. 

“Immaculate” thrives when it goes for broke, but the buildup feels tame in comparison to the bonkers conclusion. Still, Cecilia’s meandering and the moody atmosphere make the convent setting feel purgatorial. It should be a safe haven, but it functions like a prison. Faith is Cecilia’s emotional anchor but it’s also a tool of oppression and manipulation, twisted and skewed to fulfill man’s selfish desires. 

As Cecilia’s pregnancy develops, her innocence and helplessness drive the narrative forward. She’s a ticking time bomb of (literal) biblical proportion. Sweeney is perfectly adequate in these between-the-scream scenes, but her performance in the unhinged finale cements her as a new horror darling. 

In the sequence, she doesn’t just flirt with ferocity she commands the screen with her grotesque, visceral screams, leaving everything on the bloody ground where she stands. When I found myself thinking the scene couldn’t go on for much longer, Sweeney only intensified her deliciously deranged and borderline cathartic performance. The camera locks on Sweeney’s face as Cecilia regains her autonomy and purges herself of the horrible weight she’s been afflicted with. It’s equal parts hellish and liberating. 

It’s rare for such a small chunk of a film’s runtime to do so much heavy lifting, but “Immaculate” understands the art of the set-up and pay-off and rightfully depends on Sweeney to deliver the goods. It doesn’t feel unreasonable to champion her alongside iconic scream queens like Isabelle Adjani (“Possession”) and Sheryl Lee (“Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me”). While I desperately hope she continues working in the horror genre as her career progresses, I’m just happy she’s thriving in the industry that tried to tear her down.

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