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19 March 2024

In Immaculate, Sydney Sweeney is Gen Z’s scream queen

At 26, the rising star has her own production company – and this body horror set in a nunnery is its first film.

By David Sexton

A vehicle is a means of conveyance, a structure in or on which persons or things are transported. Immaculate is Sydney Sweeney’s latest ride. The film opens a little ominously. In a dimly lit room, a scared young nun steals a bunch of keys from beside a sleeping man. She runs to a locked iron gate and frantically tries to get out, but four cloaked figures grab her and break her leg on the bars of the gate. Next, she’s being buried alive, hopelessly screaming for help.

Fair warning, as a pre-credits sequence. This institution may not be wholly benign. And now here comes Sydney Sweeney, as Sister Cecilia, a young and ravishing nun from Detroit, being questioned by sceptical Italian customs officials, because she’s arrived on a one-way ticket to join this convent. “What a waste,” comments one, in Italian, which she doesn’t speak.

After a long drive, deep into remote countryside, Sister Cecilia arrives at the vast looming convent (Villa Parisi in Frascati, which has hosted many previous horror, zombie and vampire films). She meets the scary Mother Superior (Dora Romano) and the jealous Sister Isabelle (Giulia Heathfield Di Renzi). Apart from Sweeney, the cast is mostly Italian, throwing her into high relief. “You’re very sweet,” observes Sister Isabelle. “Thanks,” says Cecilia. “I don’t mean that as a compliment,” retorts Isabelle.

But Cecilia does make one good friend, the disaffected Sister Gwen (Benedetta Porcaroli), fleeing an abusive relationship. Does she even believe in God? “Of course I do!” says Gwen. “Life is so cruel, only a man can be responsible.” A concise theology.

That night, Sister Cecilia takes her vows in a grand ceremony and meets the charismatic man who has brought her to the convent, Father Sal Tedeschi (Álvaro Morte). He mentions that he used to be a scientist, a biologist in fact. Cecilia for her part discloses that when she was 12, she fell through ice and her heart stopped for seven minutes. “God saved me for a reason.” That is all the backstory we ever get on her, which again puts all the onus on Sydney Sweeney here and now to propel us into terror, through her face, body and voice alone.

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Almost at once, amid nightmares and sinister occurrences in the convent, Cecilia finds that, despite being a virgin, she is pregnant. All at the convent, save sturdy Gwen, believe she has been blessed. The outcome may be guessed, thanks to Rosemary’s Baby and the entire Omen franchise (the sixth instalment, The First Omen, a prequel featuring Bill Nighy to be released in a fortnight, was also shot at Villa Parisi).

Immaculate, directed by Michael Mohan, is carefully made, a slow burn punctuated by jump shots and splashes of gore, driven by a powerful score. Sweeney carries the film, just. In a truly extreme climax, now covered in blood, she screams her head off for a good long while, thus lodging her application to be the scream queen of her generation. Then she takes drastic action, for if Immaculate has a message it is about a woman’s right to choose – even after the third trimester. But its cause really is nothing but the furtherance of Sweeney herself, now a defining star of her generation, alongside Timothée Chalamet, Jacob Elordi, Zendaya and (slightly older) Austin Butler.

Sweeney’s story is even more extraordinary than Sister Cecilia’s. Born in Spokane, Washington, in 1997, when she was 11 Sweeney presented her parents with a five-year business plan for her to become an actress. The family duly moved to LA when she was 13, and, though her parents filed for bankruptcy and separated, Sweeney auditioned for six years. She was Eden in The Handmaid’s Tale, a pampered teen in The White Lotus. In 2019 she became the star of the high-school series Euphoria, and was part of the Manson family in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. In 2021 Michael Mohan cast her in The Voyeurs, a nasty update of Rear Window with much nudity. Her 2023 romcom with Glen Powell, Anyone but You, grossed $212m on a $25m budget. At 26, she has her own production company, Fifty-Fifty Films, Immaculate being its first project.

Her remarkable looks (wide eyed and open mouthed, slim and curvy) have engendered furious debate as to whether the return of “the giggling blonde with an amazing rack”, as one Spectator piece put it, is deplorably retrograde. “Are Sydney Sweeney’s breasts double-D harbingers of the death of woke?” the National Post in Canada recently asked. Sweeney herself has said: “I like them. They’re my best friends.” And: “I find empowerment through embracing the body that I have.” Funnily enough, Immaculate is pretty chaste.

“Immaculate” is in cinemas now.

[See also: The mad brilliance of Emma Stone]

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024