BUFF, Film, Film Review

BUFF REVIEW: Immaculate (2024) dir. Michael Mohan

Part of the 2024 Boston Underground Film Festival


Of all the various and sundry “-sploitation” subgenres, nunsploitation stands alone in both its specificity and, I would argue, its inevitability. On its face, it seems absurd that such a niche premise– lurid, often sexually charged thrillers set within the walls of a convent– would produce so many films that there’s an agreed-upon name for it. But it makes perfect sense, really: the aesthetic is locked in, it gives exploitation producers an excuse to pack their films with attractive young actresses, and it taps into a subject about which many audiences have deeply ingrained hangups. Nunsploitation has never quite bubbled over into the mainstream, but it’s never gone away, either (cinematically, the form dates at least as far back as Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 silent phantasmagoria Häxan, and its roots can likely be traced through centuries of folklore and apocrypha). As long as people are bedeviled by sex and religion, nunsploitation will remain.

Michael Mohan’s Immaculate, the opening night selection for this year’s Boston Underground Film Festival, opens as films in the genre have since 1947’s Black Narcissus, with a pretty young nun (Sister Cecilia*, played by Euphoria it-girl Sydney Sweeney) checking in to her new home in a remote Italian convent. It is immediately evident that Cecilia is in over her head in many ways– she doesn’t speak a lick of Italian, and didn’t seem to realize that the main function of this convent is to provide hospice to elderly, dementia-addled nuns– but her faith is unwavering: she was rescued from a near-death experience as a child, and believes God kept her around for a reason. Her mission is complicated shortly into her tenure, however, when the on-site doctors make a startling discovery: Cecilia is pregnant, despite never having been with a man before or after becoming a nun. Cecilia soon finds herself elevated to a rarified status among her fellow sisters, but soon finds reason to suspect that not all is as it seems. 

There is a stretch in the middle act in which Immaculate seems to toy with becoming a wry meditation on what the presence of an actual immaculate conceiver would do to the social and religious order of a traditional convent: the rank-and-file nuns genuflect to this American neophyte whenever she walks in the room; the charismatic Father Tedeschi (Álvaro Morte) takes her under his wing; the Mother Superior’s intense-eyed right hand attempts to drown her, screaming “It was supposed to be me!” That last one should clue you in that subtlety is not on the agenda. Immaculate is at its best when it leans into the innately flamboyant tropes of gothic horror and old-world Catholicism. In the very first scene a woman is buried alive after having her leg snapped by pursuing nuns, and the torture implements of the Spanish Inquisition are repeatedly invoked. For long stretches, the film is content to simply put Sweeney in a nightgown and let her wander through dimly lit chapels and catacombs, a candle in one hand and a dagger in the other, gasping at one sinister work of ancient art after another. I am not complaining: these scenes work great, and I wouldn’t mind if they were twice as long.

Strictly speaking, as an actress, Sweeney is perhaps an ill fit for the material; her affect is a little too flat and middle-American to sell this sort of am-I-going-crazy nightmare (this sort of role requires a bit of twitchy energy– Thomasin McKenzie would have done well). But nunsploitation and Catholic horror are built on iconography, and to this end Sweeney’s casting is a stroke of genius. Sweeney is the latest of those incredibly of-the-moment sex symbols, like Pamela Anderson or Bo Derek– maybe not quite Marilyn, but certainly Jayne Mansfield. This moment being what it is, it is apparently even harder for people to be normal about Sydney Sweeney (who, it must be said, comes off as a talented and down-to-earth woman who does not need this) than it has been, historically, for them to be normal about the Catholic Church. The deployment of Sweeney as this possible new Holy Mother gives the film an undeniably subversive charge, particularly in the much-publicized dream sequence in which she’s done up in Virgin Mary drag. It’s an Icon’s Performance, and on that level Sweeney nails it.

Despite an enjoyably nutty third-act exposition dump involving holy relics, biblical prophecy, and medical experimentation, Immaculate never gets quite as crazy as you’d want it to. The thing about nunsploitation is that you’re working in the same genre as Ken Russell’s The Devils, and anything which doesn’t aspire to that level of madness will come up somewhat lacking. There are flashes, to be sure– the recurring image of nuns with featureless red masks stretched over their faces is a specifically nice touch– but I was prepared for an all-out assault of psychosexual religious psychedelia which never quite materialized. I had fun with Immaculate, don’t get me wrong– as I said, I’m a sucker for the pomp and circumstance of this particular vein of horror– but I went in expecting my jaw to drop, and it never quite hit the floor.

Until, perhaps, the ending. The horror hype machine has been talking up the final minutes of Immaculate as an all-timer moment of extreme horror. It isn’t quite that– if you’ve ever used the word “nunsploitation” in a sentence you’ve probably seen crazier– but it is good: an extended, unbroken shot (the nature of which, for obvious reasons, I will not spoil) which takes us on an emotional and visceral journey. The scene is the film’s high water mark for giddy thrills, as well as for Sweeney’s performance, which suddenly ventures into surprising and powerful new territory. It also contains some of the best sound design of the year so far: I could practically feel the entire BUFF crowd react in unison to the final, sickening sound. This is the promise and the delight of any good -sploitation film– and it’s what I keep coming back to BUFF for.

* – I did not realize until adding the link in the previous paragraph that this is also the name of the possessed nun in Häxan.

dir. Michael Mohan
89 min.

Part of the 2024 Boston Underground Film Festival – keep watching this space for the Hassle’s continuing BUFF coverage!

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