Indie distributor A24 has been carving quite the impressive path throughout this golden age of the rather ill-defined sub-genre known as “thoughtful horror”, giving such new voices a platform to unsettle the crap out of us for over five years now. From Robert Eggers’ brow furrowing period pieces The Witch and The Lighthouse, to Ari Aster’s emotion searing breakouts Hereditary and Midsommar, the company has managed to sniff out these incredibly impressive debuts and then steer these talented imaginations into equally interesting sophomore efforts while simultaneously altering the perception as to what a horror movie can be.
Well, chalk up yet another seismic impact in the realms of slow burning dread machines because Rose Glass’ Saint Maud is yet another quiet, intense character piece that effortless crawls under your scalp and lazily loop the loops itself inside your brain for days…
After quitting her job as a nurse, Maud has found solice in God whom she believes talks directly too her with literal eye-wideningly euphoric effects. Her extreme embrace of Roman Catholicism seems to have stemmed from some vague trauma at her last job but now she finds employment as a live-in carer for people with fatal illnesses; which is how she finds herself looking after Amanda, a former dancer now crippled with lymphoma of the spinal chord. At first, Maud’s overly pious ways amuses the slightly bitter Amanda, while her bohemian ways alarm the reclusive nurse; but soon Maud realises that maybe God has entrusted her with a special mission to save Amanda’s eternal soul and that if she can be turned from her sinful ways then they can both enjoy the rewards the almighty has planned for them.
However, Maud isn’t exactly what you’d call stable and whatever trauma that happened to make her turn to religion has also left her unable to tell what is real and what isn’t. As her visions grow in intensity and her grasp on her sanity dissipates like so much steam, Maud locks on to Amanda as a last hope to save her own soul, no matter the cost.
Definitely to be filed under “movies you can tell are going to have an unhappy ending five minutes after it starts” Saint Maud attacks and scours the soul magnificently, especially considering it’s a debut effort. Director and screenwriter Rose Glass has an enviable and iron-like grip on the all-encompassing dread that envelops the film like a suffocating plastic bag as the story drip feeds us just enough mind jangling imagery to keep us horribly enthralled as the doom laden path our main character finds herself on.
As the film starts, Maud’s visions are fairly subtle (if you count the orgasmic writhing and split second CGI augmented widening of her eyes at “climax” subtle) but as things deteriorate, her behavior starts to spiral into self harming acts of contrition (hello to wearing tacks in her shoes, goodbye to any nice emotions you currently have) and this is where the horror settles in…
You see, where most films would play up the “are they visions or aren’t they” card in order to keep the audience off balance, Glass elects to make it pretty damn clear that little, mousey Maud is blatantly NOT on an even keel and the vast amounts tension stems from what exactly this break with reality is going to make her see or do next.
Another thing that’s so impressive with the director complete and total control over the material is her amazing usage of that old horror movie crutch: the jump scare; so many fright flicks employ cheap, dime store “stings” that you’d think some of them have a government mandated quota for them, but Saint Maud only has about three; however they are so expertly handled that they all prove to be nothing short of utterly devastating with one of them surpassing Bilbo Baggin’s infamous “scare face” in Fellowship Of The Ring towards being genuinely upsetting – it’s that unexpected.
As fantastic as Rose Glass’ direction and script is, it’s the two leads that guarantees that it soars to it’s terrible heights and while Jennifer Ehle is obviously relishing her role as cynical, dying Amanda (described by another character succinctly as “a bit of a cunt”), it’s newcomer Morfydd Clark as the titular carer who stuns the most. Sporting the pinched intensity of a young Jodie Foster, the diminutive actress turns in a performance that’s both equally heart rending and genuinely chilling as she scrambles to make sense of the world while trying to understand the visions of angelic wings and heavenly openings in the clouds while she quickly deteriorates in the hellhole of a seaside town in Scarborough (I can relate…).
However, once again I feel I must add some sort of warning here as time and time again I’ve had to listen or read complaints of people complaining that films of Saint Maud’s ilk simply aren’t scary because they are “boring”. This movie is not an Annabelle sequel, nor is it the usual kind of cookie cutter multiplex fare that’s only there to make you jump and snuggle with your significant other (not that there’s anything wrong with that) – no, this is a raw and intelligent character study of a woman who is violently losing her grasp with reality that, if watched correctly, will burrow into your psyche and be with you for days after you’ve experienced it (the last shot is quite possibly the most magnificently nihilistic ending you’ll see all year) but if you’re expecting to bowl into the screen loaded down with snacks expecting a boo-fuelled rollercoaster; then do everybody a favour and save your money.
Expertly directed, impeccably acted and poised to flip your brain like a pancake that tastes of religious extremism and mental illness, Saint Maud may be the best horror film of the year (even if COVID-19 hadn’t fucked us all around I’d still expect this to be true) and is just as an expert at merging of horror and religion as The Exorcist. Not to mention that in amongst all of it’s upsetting secrets and haunting imagery, you won’t actually believe something so horrifically moving could come from Scarborough…