SHARE
Sydney Sweeney stares down the only person who can help her out of her unique jam in "Immaculate." Courtesy Neon Releasing.

My mother thinks that horror movies only ever come out during Halloween and can’t fathom why anyone at any time of year would want to watch a film to be scared. That’s why I’m writing this review and not her. Prior to a weekend with a bumper crop of new films about ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night, I saw Immaculate and Late Night With the Devil instead of the Ghostbusters sequel, and now I feel pretty good about my choices.

I do like it when the hot people try to prove they can act. Even when the result is disastrous, I respect the effort, and Immaculate is not disastrous. Sydney Sweeney typically plays sexy roles in Anyone But You as well as TV’s Euphoria — I need to catch up with that show — so it makes sense that she moves in a different direction from those by playing a Catholic nun. She doesn’t fit the part perfectly, but she does enough to convince you of her chops.

She portrays Cecilia Jones, a Detroit native who travels to Italy to take holy orders and become Sister Cecilia. She’s acclimating herself to the routines of the 17th-century abbey where she lives and works when she’s discovered to be pregnant, even though she swears by her God that she has never had sex with a man. The convent doctor (Giampiero Judica) confirms that she is a virgin via physical exmination, and the cardinal (Giorgio Colangeli) proclaims a miracle. This leads to a striking shot of Cecilia dolled up and posed as the Virgin Mary by the churchmen in front of the congregation, tears streaming down her face while her fellow nuns pray directly to her.

Static_Display-Amazon_300x250_LittleBigTown_SugarLand_2024_Regional_DICKIESARENA_1122_Presale

That shot crystallizes the visual approach of Irish writer-director Michael Mohan, imitating the opulence of Black Narcissus rather than the realism of The Exorcist, not that Immaculate is in either film’s league. This movie isn’t creative enough with its scares, and while Will Bates’ harpsichord-forward score is refreshingly different for the genre, the story doesn’t match. Cecilia’s childhood brush with death that led her to the convent life doesn’t pack a deeper resonance, and her shaky grasp of Italian doesn’t pay off. The film nods to the idea that its heroine might be in danger from nuns who think she’s giving birth to the Antichrist instead of the new messiah, but doesn’t follow that up. Better stuff comes in the last third of the film, when the religious conspiracy driving her caretakers/jailers is revealed to be even crazier than the plot of The Da Vinci Code (in a good way). The mysterious nuns wearing red ski masks over their faces is a nice touch, too.

The best reason to see the film is Sweeney, who gets off to a slow start playing a meek servant of God but hits her stride as an increasingly pregnant Cecilia realizes just how wrong her new home is and that no one will help her break out. She’s the centerpiece of a bravura single-take climactic sequence where the camera remains tight on her face as Cecilia gives birth, alone and standing up. This sequence shows us the determination and resilience of this slasher-movie final girl in stark terms, especially in her resolve to deal with whatever has been inside her. These are qualities that have nothing to do with this actress’ hotness, and they’ll serve her well down the road.

Laura Gordon, Ingrid Torelli, David Dastmalchian, and Ian Bliss prepare to create a night of unforgettable television in “Late Night With the Devil.” Courtesy IFC Films.

Late Night With the Devil takes place during a TV broadcast in New York on Halloween night 1977. Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian), the host of the late-night talk show Night Owls, has invited a paranormal expert (Laura Gordon) on his show for sweeps, along with her 14-year-old patient known only as Lilly (Ingrid Torelli), who supposedly communes with a demon she calls Mr. Wriggles. Jack hopes to coax the demon out on live TV in the presence of a Uri Geller-like celebrity psychic (Fayssal Bazzi) and an Amazing Randi-like spiritual debunker (Ian Bliss). Having recently lost his wife (Georgina Haig) to cancer and about to lose his show to low ratings, Jack is easy pickings for a demon. So he’s about to pull a ratings stunt that will endanger his guests, network executives, technical crew, musicians, and members of his live studio audience, many of whom are dressed in Halloween costumes for the holiday.

This is the work of brothers Cameron and Colin Cairnes, and considering that they’re Australian, their American pop culture references are on point — Jack cracks jokes about Billy Carter and Reggie Jackson. In fact, all of the fakery involved in creating Night Owls is pretty amazing, from the shag carpeting on the set to the editing rhythms to the “More to Come” title cards that take us to the commercial breaks. The illusion that we’re watching a 1970s TV talk show holds fast even when the debunker transforms Jack’s comic sidekick (Rhys Auteri) into a giant worm.

The weakest parts of the film are the black-and-white interludes supposedly showing the behind-the-scenes footage from the broadcast, which are too smooth by half. It doesn’t make sense that that sidekick would be the one warning everybody that they’re messing with supernatural forces that they don’t understand. The ending is a bit of a stumble, too, though these found-footage horror films seldom stick the landing. We know that the movie can’t end with some documentarian presenting the film to an audience and saying, “And that’s how we proved that werewolves exist” while a crowd applauds (Although just once, that would be a cool anticlimax to see.) I don’t know what conclusion would have worked better than the film’s ending, but I do know that what’s here doesn’t work.

No matter, though. Torelli is pretty scary when Mr. Wriggles takes control of Lilly, more so for being in a public place where people are supposed to be safe. Even better is Dastmalchian, who has so often been cast as creepy types since playing one of the Joker’s minions in The Dark Knight. He has been funny in the past (in Ant-Man and the Wasp and The Suicide Squad), but he looks completely in his element here portraying a professional funny person who hammers home punchlines in his monologues and mugs his way through corny comedy sketches. Late Night With the Devil shows us this unsuspected side of this well-traveled character actor, and then turns him into an object of pathos as Jack’s lust to overtake Johnny Carson in the ratings ends up unleashing hell. A quarter century since The Blair Witch Project coined a new subgenre of horror movies, this film shows us that creative filmmakers can still mine it for something new.

Immaculate
Starring Sydney Sweeney. Written and directed by Michael Mohan. Rated R.

Late Night With the Devil
Starring David Dastmalchian. Written and directed by Cameron and Colin Cairnes. Rated R.

LEAVE A REPLY