Saint Maud is an uncomfortable yet mesmerising horror experience that is equal parts shocking and sorrowful.
Watching the trailer for the bleak and grisly psycho-horror Saint Maud you’d easily be led to believe that it was a simple possession story. The film is interspersed with the genre hallmarks — there are indeed floating bodies, strange voices, and a vulnerable individual assailed by a dark and insidious torment — but that is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the tale Saint Maud is really setting out to spin.
The film has a simple set-up. “Maud” (Morfydd Clark), who we learn is really called Laura, is a nurse who has suffered a mysterious, traumatic incident at work, which leads her to become a devout and zealous Catholic. Maud works in palliative care, where she is assigned to famous dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). The two stand in stark contrast — Amanda has terminal cancer and is, in Maud’s eyes, cynical and hedonistic, while Maud is, in Amanda’s eyes, prudish and naive. Maud’s faith leads her to an obsession with Amanda’s salvation, and the two form an unusual but absorbing relationship. Their love-hate interplay, accompanied by two equally absorbing performances, gifts the viewer with many moments of rich drama.
Clark captivates as Maud, portraying both her sweet, saintly exterior and the lingering darkness that festers beneath the surface. The character and performance are a powerful mix of unnerving and heart-breaking: Maud is at once an inspiration of fear and an object of our deepest sympathies. This performance is coupled by a creeping tension, between what we see — the ordinary world of the seaside town Maud resides in — and the shadows that haunt her past and present. This duality, between Maud’s crumbling psyche and everyday life, is among Saint Maud’s most enthralling assets.
As Maud’s care for Amanda proceeds, she is increasingly subject to otherworldly activity, but this is no possession by a demon. Maud is convinced she is being spoken to by God. What follows is a grisly, unsettling guessing game. Is Maud insane? Possessed? Is God real? The film denies you any clear answer until you reach its final moments. The truth of what is really happening to Maud is far more upsetting and hard-hitting then the traditional horror ending you might expect.
Writer-director Rose Glass fashions a hypnotic experience for the audience: every single shot and sound adds to the creeping feeling that something inescapably awful is going to happen. Saint Maud is not simply horrific or thrilling, it is an anxiety-inducing experience that you feel in your body as much as see with your eyes. Every moment is touched by this seeping unease that gradually builds up to a tormenting fever pitch and then erupts into a truly distressing finale. It’s impressive how much Rose Glass achieves with her feature debut. Saint Maud’s story runs like clockwork and Glass accomplishes truly affecting results with a fairly minimal setup in terms of visuals and story.
Saint Maud doesn’t offer a simple horror villain, a simple demon we can exorcise and return to normal life after vanquishing. What it gives us instead is a look at a vulnerable, isolated individual who is a prisoner of her own mind. Despite visually dabbling in surreality, Saint Maud ultimately finds its source of awfulness in the life of a far more ordinary, everyday person, and the demons that afflict her. Rose Glass excels at placing us in this mental prison with Maud, making the audience feel as paranoid and unstable as she does. The film is a slow burn, but when it reaches the point of maximum fear and madness it meticulously builds to, it’s well worth the wait. My only complaint is that we didn’t get to spend as much time at this fearful point; but if anything, that only makes me excited to see what Rose Glass will do if she’s given the reigns of a bigger production.
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