Immaculate/The First Omen

I’m not a religious horror or nunsploitation connoisseur, but right now there’s a brief window of two new nun horror movies playing in theaters, and I’d heard good things about both of them, so I decided to do a double feature. IMMACULOMEN. IMMACULATE was already down to one show a day here, and I had to take the light rail up to Northgate to see it, but the timing worked out just right to get back downtown and see THE FIRST OMEN immediately after. As if by God’s will.

I enjoyed both of these movies, and they made a good double feature because they’re weirdly overlapping in their stories, but tonally and stylistically pretty different. Both are about an American woman who comes to Italy to become a nun and (mild spoiler?) becomes pregnant with something not normal. In one it might be Jesus and in the other it might be the opposite, and both happen as the result of a secret Christian plot that has been in the works for years, with many previous failures. Both have (spoiler) a not-up-to-spec c-section attempt, and a horrifying scene where a nun falls off of the roof of a convent. Also they have little insignificant similarities like I think they both have an extreme closeup of the protagonist’s eye when she wakes up, they have her peeking through a door crack or keyhole and seeing nuns torment someone, they have her get locked into a room against her will and then bang on the door and cry as the camera pans across the room, they have someone telling her how pretty she is before she takes her vows, they have a version of “Ave Maria” of course… the list could probly go on.

Both of them also pass the Sam Raimi “you must taste blood to become a man” test, but IMMACULATE is the pulpier, goofier one. In the opening scene some poor terrified nun (Simona Tabasco, The White Lotus) tries to sneak out of the convent at night. She has to steal a ring of big ol’ skeleton keys from a drawer next to a sleeping older nun, and the way she manages to jangle and bump those things in every possible way and wince each time but manage to make it out of there, only to then stand at the gate shakily trying each key one by one in the least efficient way possible as scary faceless Sister shapes materialize behind her kinda signals what type of fun we’re in for here. Maybe the crowd would be saying “get out of there!,” but there was no crowd, I was the only one in the theater. Anyway, she gets the-lonely-grave-of-Paula-Schulz-ed, and she doesn’t know the one-inch punch.

At some later point, Sister Cecilia (Sydney Sweeney, THE MARTIAL ARTS KID) has accepted an invitation from Father Tedeschi (Alvaro Morte) to join an Italian convent that acts as a convalescent home for elderly nuns. Everyone from the customs agents to the nun who gives her her tour, Sister Isabelle (Giulia Heathfield Di Renzi) assume she’s some doofus who doesn’t know what the fuck she’s doing and try to get her to back out from taking her vows. But she’s very sure of herself, having died for 7 minutes when she fell into a frozen lake as a child, and believing that God saved her for a larger purpose.

She makes friends with her roommate Sister Gwen (Benedetta Porcaroli, THE HUMMINGBIRD), kind of a cynical, rebellious nun who smokes cigarettes and makes jokes. Other than Gwen and the Father, nobody there seems to like Cecilia, until she starts violently puking, gets checked out and is told she’s pregnant. She swears she’s a virgin, the doctor who examined her upon arrival confirms this (and yes, I believe they would’ve had that checked out), everybody starts treating her like the new Mary.

Well, except Isabelle, who attacks her while she’s bathing and there’s a big underwater nun wrestling match. Pretty good movie.

There’s some other weird shit going on here: they are in possession of what they claim is one of the nails that crucified Jesus, nuns like to lay face first on the ground in front of it making weird murmurs. Also she sees them cut a nun’s tongue off to shut her up. Whatever happened to free speech?

Both of these movies are very thematically post-Roe – they have a heroine who is a believer and rejects these other Christians trying to force their reproductive decisions on her life. Here they won’t let Sister Cecilia see the doctor she wants to, in addition to making her get pregnant and have the baby. The most thrilling thing about IMMACULATE is how abruptly she decides “fuck this” and tries to take her destiny into her own hands. The extreme and harrowing things she does to get the fuck out of there make the last act a real freight train, and they culminate in the best final shot freaky acting performance since PEARL. It’s a breezy 91 minute movie and I’m pretty sure that’s including the credits. The brevity acknowledges what a no-brainer it is that she has to shut this shit down immediately. Nope. I won’t let you do this to me, church.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Sweeney originally auditioned for IMMACULATE in 2014 – maybe for a different role? I guess it would’ve worked with a teenager in the lead – more upsetting, even. Obviously it didn’t get off the ground then, but years later she remembered the script by Andrew Lobel when she was looking for a horror movie to produce and star in, and she hired director Michael Mohan, who she’d worked with on a Netflix show called Everything Sucks! and then the 2021 made-for-Amazon erotic thriller THE VOYEURS (which I watched after this and will review tomorrow).

Her doing IMMACULATE, and particularly her performance in the final stretch, made me think she was pretty cool, before I even knew it was kinda her baby. Her scary, scary baby. Good job, Sydney Sweeney.

I’m glad I got the itch to see the double feature. If I was gonna see only one of them it would’ve been THE FIRST OMEN. I don’t remember the original OMEN movies all that well, so I’m not a completist about the franchise, but when I first saw the trailer for this it looked like some kind of arty A24 thing. I thought “whoah… what is this?” and when it was THE FIRST OMEN it seemed even more intriguing. I personally was not in the market for an OMEN prequel and I doubt many people were, but somehow they sold me with one trailer.

It’s the feature debut for director/co-writer Arkasha Stevenson. She previously did a couple short films and some TV – the entire third season of Channel Zero, plus one episode each of Legion, Briarpatch and Brand New Cherry Flavor. I believe those are all considered cool and weird shows, so maybe doing that kind of stuff is the new doing-music-videos, but with more practice working with actors and dialogue.

Being a prequel to THE OMEN (1976), this takes place in 1971. The gloriously deep-voiced Ralph Ineson (FIRST KNIGHT, THE WITCH, BRAHMS: THE BOY II, THE NORTHMAN) plays Father Brennan, the character who told Robert Thorn that Damien was the son of Satan and then got killed by a falling lightning rod when he was played by Patrick Troughton in the first film. He witnesses another Father played by a great actor falling victim to a similarly catastrophic “accident” that’s maybe trying too hard to do an OMEN, but man is it cool.

Anyway Father Brennan is on the trail of some terrible conspiracy within the church, and he receives a vague clue: a photo of some nuns with a baby, the name “Scianna” written on the back.

Meanwhile, Sister Margaret (Nell Tiger Free, Too Old to Die Young, Servant) is our American who has come to Rome to say her vows, but unlike Sister Cecilia she has a little more time before she has to do that. Her roommate Luz (Maria Caballero) is a fellow newbie who’s much less buttoned down. She convinces Margaret to get dressed up and go out to the disco to have fun, even drink for the first time, like it’s her bachelorette party or something. It takes her a while but eventually she loosens up and dances with Paolo (Andrea Arcangeli), one of the pair of guys who approached them. When she wakes up extremely hung over the next day Luz jokes with her about how wild she was and she seems surprised and a little concerned about what that might mean, but not horrified.

Her work is at an orphanage, where she doesn’t mind the kids teasing her about not knowing much Italian. She gravitates to a girl named Carlita (Nicole Sorace) who gets treated as a bad kid, often locked in a room, and makes weird drawings from visions she has. That reminds Margaret of her own childhood, so she makes a connection with her.

Father Brennan approaches Sister Margaret in public, thinks Carlita is the baby in his photo, says evil things will happen around her. Okay, yeah, about that… do you think seeing Sister Anjelica (Ishtar Currie-Wilson) talk to Carlita and then go up onto a balcony with a crazy smile on her face and light herself on fire and fall off and there’s a noose around her neck and her body swings down and crashes into a window – would that count as an evil thing happening around Carlita? ‘Cause that happens. Yeah, I personally think that qualifies.

So Father Brennan convinces Sister Margaret and a Father Gabriel (Tawfeek Barhom, THE RHYTHM SECTION) of his fears that Carlita is the person radicals within the church believe will give birth to the Antichrist. They try to verify this by looking for the 666 mark she would’ve been born with. Margaret sneaks around finding secret chambers and files, having hallucinations, also seeing crazy shit that’s real. There are some great images (I love all the shots of her laying on the bed with her hair twirling out like tendrils) and some bits of horror and gore so ghastly they border on comical, which I support. When they figure out what’s really going on it’s not super surprising considering what this is a prequel to, but it’s still kind of alot to swallow, and involves some genuinely unsettling imagery, which I also support. A good mix of quality filmmaking and total outlandishness here.

There’s also a solid cast of veterans playing some of the clergy here: Sônia Braga (FROM DUSK TILL DAWN 3: THE HANGMAN’S DAUGHTER), Bill Nighy (CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER) and Charles Dance (SPACE TRUCKERS) are all in it. And there are some notable credits behind the camera: producer David S. Goyer (BLADE), editors Bob Murawski (ARMY OF DARKNESS, HARD TARGET, THE HURT LOCKER) and Amy E. Duddleston (PSYCHO [1998]), cinematographer Aaron Morton (EVIL DEAD [2013]), production designer Eve Stewart (A CURE FOR WELLNESS, THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB), and Mark Korven (CUBE, THE WITCH, THE LIGHTHOUSE, THE BLACK PHONE, RESIDENT EVIL: WELCOME TO RACCOON CITY) composed the skin-crawling, choir-heavy score. The script is credited to Stevenson, her producer Tim Smith, and Keith Thomas, writer/director of that movie THE VIGIL.

Just like IMMACULATE, our nun’s temperament builds to a feverish pitch just as the big day arrives. You know what’s funny, I think both of these reference a great movie in their birth scene. IMMACULATE plays giving birth as Sally laughing at the end of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, while THE FIRST OMEN’s is very clearly an homage to the subway tunnel freakout in POSSESSION. Strangely enough, IMMACULATE director Mohan told the Hollywood Reporter he showed Sweeney that very scene before shooting hers. Anyway, both of these scenes go beyond the reference and find their own brand of cinematic ferocity.

There are moments of THE FIRST OMEN that I think qualify as clunky – a couple cheap jump scares, a really stupid line at the end to underline what you absolutely do not need underlined about how this connects to THE OMEN – but mostly it feels very confident, certainly more artful than you would assume when you hear “2024 prequel to THE OMEN.” In fact, I’m one of the world’s only defenders of THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER, but this feels more like an EXORCIST sequel to me as far as having the production value to feel like something special. (It’s definitely a way better movie than Renny Harlin’s prequel EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, and it’s slicker and more coherent than Paul Schrader’s version DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST, though I might prefer the latter for its ideas.) And despite the one head-slapping line the epilogue left me imagining what happens next besides the events of the original movie.

When Sister Margaret first arrives her car ends up in the middle of a worker’s march, and the Cardinal frets that these young people are against authority and therefore the church. He seems like a fuddy duddy but he turns out to be much worse. I really like the modern twist (or maybe I just never got this about THE OMEN) that it’s not just Jesus people vs. Satan people, it’s Christians trying to bring on the antichrist in order to polarize everybody and scare them away from secularism. This premise rings very true and current today with a rise in Christian nationalists and others whose political stances are based in wanting to bring on the Second Coming or whatever apocalypse they believe in. It would be fine if it was just some lone wacko with a sign, but unfortunately we know how many of the most backwards zealots out there are in politics and other positions of power. I like that these movies recognize that.

It might be too late to do it theatrically, but I really would recommend the IMMACULATE/FIRST OMEN double feature if you’re able to do it. They’re both a fun time and I think they accidentally play off of and strengthen each other. They tell us there are nice religious people but they gotta look out for those other motherfuckers just like we do. How do we fight it here in America, do we send all our best nuns to Italy? I’m not sure. But if you’ve ever wanted to see a couple movies about that with some goo, some laughs, some repulsiveness and really good, going-for-it lead performances, the cinema of Spring 2024 has answered your prayers.

This entry was posted on Monday, April 15th, 2024 at 7:32 am and is filed under Reviews, Horror. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

5 Responses to “Immaculate/The First Omen”

  1. Vern, only read the Immaculate section as I’ve haven’t watched The First Omen yet.

    I thought Immaculate was solid horror with an ending that elevated the film in its willingness to just go there and make a clear statement while being brutally bleak.

    I had not watched anything with Sweeney besides White Lotus and it’s awesome that she pursued the role and was all in.

    Between these, Late Night with the Devil, Stopmotion, and some upcoming ones 2024 is turning out some solid horror releases. Still got to check our Moon Garden as well.

  2. Growing up, movies had me believing that nuns would be a big part of my life, but despite being raised Catholic, doing my confirmation, cannibalizing the transmogrified flesh of The Christ, etc., I don’t think I’ve ever spoken a single word to a nun in my entire life. I don’t think I’ve even laid eyes on one in 30 years. Where all the nuns at? You could at least count on them for a sight gag in an airport scene but now you don’t even get that. It’s like they disappeared. Is there a nun shortage I’m not aware of?

    I guess what I’m saying is I don’t know how relevant these Catholicspoitation horrors are anymore. I think they may have gotten to the point that scary clowns have gotten to. Clowns used to be scary because they weren’t supposed to be scary. They were allowed to lurk amongst us under the radar, being undeniably creepy but in a way that the world at large seemed to accept as normal. Now the only clowns you see are scary clowns. That’s what Catholic shit is like. It’s not part of the fabric of existence anymore, and it’s certainly not treated as normal. And I live in a predominately Catholic area. The only time Catholicism is even mentioned anymore is in horror movies that act like they’re really speaking truth to power by showing priests as major creepolas with some fucked up beliefs. So how scary can this shit be be if it’s no longe subverting anything, but merely presenting the dominant view of the subject?

    Then again, THE POPE’S EXORCIST was pretty fun, so maybe there’s some juice left in Da Choich as a pure pulp construct, an easy, uncomplicated source of villainy on par with Nazis or hive-mind aliens. It’s not like masked murderers or werewolves have ever actually been a factor in my daily life and I’ll still watch horror movies about them.

  3. Vern, only read the Immaculate section as I’ve haven’t watched The First Omen yet.

    I thought Immaculate was solid horror with an ending that elevated the film in its willingness to just go there and make a clear statement while being brutally bleak.

    I had not watched anything with Sweeney besides White Lotus and it’s awesome that she perused the role and was all in.

    Between these, Late Night with the Devil, Stopmotion, and some upcoming ones 2024 is turning out some solid horror releases. Still got to check our Moon Garden as well.

  4. Fun reviews!
    I haven’t seen these yet, and my appetite has certainly been whetted. But for both, I heard a LOT of comparisons to 2023’s “The Devil Conspiracy”, the handsomely-budgeted batshit bad taste version of these that I’ve been hoping you’d review.

  5. Sweeney seems pretty cool, generally trying to make interesting looking projects.

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