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Home Culture From immaculate nuns to superheroic exorcists: horror cinema prays to the Catholic Church | Culture

From immaculate nuns to superheroic exorcists: horror cinema prays to the Catholic Church | Culture

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‘The First Prophecy’ and ‘Immaculate’ update the classic icons of religion and demonstrate their validity on the screen through fear

Trailer for ‘The First Prophecy’.

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Trailer for ‘The First Prophecy’.Photo: Moris Puccio/20th Century Studios | Video: 20th Century Studio

“Welcome to your Sunday mass.” Since it was completed in 1929, Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles has seen filming such as Sister Act 2 o John Wick, but nothing had bordered on heresy as much as what happened in this neo-Gothic construction one night last March. A woman, actress Sydney Sweeney, welcomed the most devoted moviegoers to see the horror film on the big screen Immaculate, rated Mature for including profanity, sacrilegious jokes, gory violence, nudity, and infanticide. The Confederation of American Pastors had classified it as morally offensive. For the distributor it was one more excuse to use Catholic imagery and multiply its marketing campaign.

Nuns who are silent more than they say, savior exorcists, burning crosses, deformed devils… Immaculate, which premieres on May 1 in Spain and stars one of the stars of the moment as an immaculate nun, is the latest example of a subgenre of horror that, despite the secularization of society, continues to produce and transform iconic images at the cinema. She does it in this case as everAnglo-Saxon name for that aesthetic that covers everything from fashion to pop culture through the fascination with nuns.

The genre that exploits the fear of nuns dates back to 1922 with The witch. In recent times it has had a successful exponent (exceeds 600 million dollars) in The nun (2018), which is part of the saga Warren expedient, horror landmark based on real events. Today this niche that nuns occupy within the subgenre of Catholic horror cinema has another exponent in theaters: The first prophecy, prequel to the five-film saga where a novice warrior fights against a clerical conspiracy to resurrect the antichrist.

It doesn’t even matter that Catholic orphanages or strict nuns no longer occupy a central role in the childhood landscape; the imagery does not lose meaning, maintains director Paco Plaza, who has become Veronica o Sister death in one of the great exponents of this subgenre in Spain: “The fear of the unknown, for what we cannot catalog empirically, always remains. It is the seed of any phobia. Catholicism is an inexhaustible source of iconic images, starting with the cross, which was actually an instrument of torture and is now used for everything. No one would think of carrying an electric chair as a pendant. “Catholicism is very rich in providing eternal images.” Why does it still work? “There is an aesthetic fascination with priests and nuns because, although they coexist in our world, they live with one foot in another reality. There is a certain everydayness of the supernatural there. That image of priests in cassocks and nuns in habits gives uniformity. The annulment of individuality surrendered to God is a powerful aesthetic decision. “Icons related to physical pain are a breeding ground.”

Still from the film 'The Prophecy' (1976), by Richard Donner.
Still from the film ‘The Prophecy’ (1976), by Richard Donner.

Plaza highlights, in fact, Paco Delgado’s costumes in the latest installment of The prophecy. A film that, he says, has surprised him despite what is known, because of how this saga born in the seventies with a diabolical child as the protagonist (who later grew up in Sam Neill as an antichrist) now plays and uses the aesthetics of Catholicism in Rome, from the cathedral to the pictorial. “For 12 centuries the only manifestation of art was religious, it has its own brand. Whether we like it or not, it is our culture that appeals to us,” Plaza points out about a Church that based its teachings on terrors converted into cinematographic icons. It is no coincidence that at the center of the plot of newcomer Arkasha Stevenson’s film there is a rape. Nor that in 1971, where she is located, the loss of faith is reflected. The genre updates its message despite the usual image, although Plaza trusts that a movie about nuns could be shot in the present: “I take it as a challenge.”

Immaculate has known how to speak with this contemporary world of networks better than the Church. One of the videos was as simple as watching Sydney Sweeney, also a producer, reading a bible passage. A very measured provocation that angered some follower who had made this blonde and voluptuous actress a muse of conservatism, for associating her parents with Trumpism and going so far as to publish that her cleavage was antiwoke. In another campaign, the actress Euphoria I accompanied some shepherdesses to watch the movie, while they made a disgusted face. The imagery has been used to the maximum: on April 3, tickets in the US cost, in the middle of Easter, $6.66, appealing to the devil’s number. Director Michael Mohan confesses that he is a great connoisseur of this universe: “I grew up as a devout Catholic and we even had meetings to burn tapes with demonic songs,” he told IndieWire.

‘Immaculate’ trailer.

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‘Immaculate’ trailer.Photo: Diamond Films

The somersault came by placing on the posters the real reviews of Catholics in X: “Sacrilegious, diabolical and disgustingly offensive. Spit in the face of all that is sacred,” cried a sign in giant letters. The film is already the fourth highest-grossing film in the history of independent distributor Neon. And until its star, who was denied filming it when she was unknown, recovered the script from the discarded pile, no one wanted to produce this story that, like Saint Maud (2019), has the female body and its reproductive rights at its center.

But it is not the first time that devotees have campaigned for a film for free. In 2023 the International Association of Exorcists made a statement against The Pope’s Exorcistin which Russell Crowe plays Gabriele Amorth, one of the founders of this Vatican entity on the paranormal and to whom his friend William Friedkin, responsible for The Exorcist, already dedicated a documentary. They called Crowe’s film “pretentious” and “insulting” to real exorcists. Today it has a sequel announced. Horror, usually cheap, is a winning investment at the box office. In a brand-craving Hollywood, Catholicism has survived for centuries.

‘The Exorcist’, still the most influential

“The Exorcist it changed everything. Not only did it change the perception of religious cinema, but also our perception of the priest in the real world. They said the mafia behaved like gangsters in The Godfather after seeing the movie, and the same thing happened here,” says Plaza about the film that has influenced everything that has come after: “The Exorcist He turned priests into heroes, something that remains provocative and risky. He has a patina of superhero cinema against evil.”

Exorcists or savior priests have not stopped fighting against the unknown since then. The classics are numerous, but the recent examples of clonal names are a long rosary: Devil inside, The last Exorcism, The Eastfield Exorcism (based on real events), Emily Rose’s exorcism, 13 exorcisms o The rite. The original saga also launched a sixth film with the actresses from the first, The Exorcist: Believer(2023), in which Universal spent $400 million that it did not recover.

Television has also opted for Catholic terror. In a 2018 series, actress Geena Davis resurrected the famous possessed girl from the seventies film, who became a mother forty years later. This subgenre of Catholic horror appears in 30 coinsby Álex de la Iglesia, the vampires of midnight mass y Evil (the latter mixes classic rites with recent fears such as addiction to technology). The same modernity appears in The Cleansing Hour, where an exorcism is a live show on YouTube. And beyond, the Sevillian video game Blasphemous uses the iconography of Holy Week, and has exceeded two million sales.

Although in the end the meaning is the same: “I think there is a tendency to return to spiritual refuge and rituals now that superficiality prevails. This cinema mixes both things,” says Plaza. “The aesthetics are unmatched. That is why it has been maintained for centuries.” Thus, cinema transforms icons, which, in the absence of Sunday masses being moved, are transmitted through codes that seem trivial. Because if there is a cinema of rituals, it is terror, with its congregations, its loud ecstasies, its marked codes and its devotion. Watching a scary movie is still a ritual.

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Eneko Ruiz Jiménez

He is a journalist in the social media section, although what he likes most is talking about movies, series and comics. He doesn’t know how to ride a bicycle.

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