Inside the Terrifying ‘Saint Maud,’ the First Great Horror Movie of 2021
Filmmaker Rose Glass and star Morfydd Clark open up to Melissa Leon about their film centered on a woman consumed by religious fanaticism. (Warning: Spoilers)
Morfydd Clark is writhing on the floor, moaning and clawing at her face in ecstasy. In slow waves, she seems to be electrified—not by man, but by The Holy Spirit, touched in divine reward for her devotion to God. The light warps and dims around her. Her breathing grows louder. She is special. She is chosen. She is, for an instant, pulling the skin off her own skull, revealing a glimpse of red flesh underneath.
To use writer-director Rose Glass’s term, the “God-gasm” scene in Saint Maud is as unsettling as it is riveting—much like the rest of her unholy debut feature.
As Maud, a palliative care nurse looking after a once-glamorous dancer in her dying days, Clark is a spectacle of skin-crawling mortification. She concocts a queasy mix of devotion and delusion, god-complex narcissism and heartbreaking vulnerability. She’s Travis Bickle: a righteous and alienated loner—with a fetish for God.
Clark, 30, laughs at the term her director coined for the scene. “Maud would never, ever see them as God-gasms,” she says by phone from New Zealand, where she’s spent the length of the pandemic shooting Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings series. (Living in a country which all but banished the coronavirus eight months ago is “like being on Mars,” she says.) “For Maud, they were just brief moments of connection to something.”
Maud is a Christian zealot who barely understands Christianity. And her connection to God goes beyond spiritual. It’s almost a physical force, as Glass illustrates in the scene. “I didn’t want it to be just be this cerebral, academic, or entirely faith-based thing that’s just in her head, that we as an audience don’t have any access to,” the director explains. “Writhing around, seeming to have an orgasm, that’s something that people can probably wrap their heads around a bit more.”
Even those who don’t subscribe to religion might relate to “wanting to transcend your body and feel connected to something bigger. Tapping into the same kind of ecstasy that you can have in, yes, sex,” Glass adds, but also “drugs, meditation, prayer. Those kinds of states of mind.”
In the subject of her psychological horror study, now streaming via Epix, Glass has crafted one of the most fascinating—and recognizable—tragic villains of the genre in years.
Maud is a young woman consumed. In her religion, she finds purpose, identity, and solace from the trauma that seems to haunt her. But the misfit young nurse wants not just to be God’s disciple; she wants to be rewarded for her faith with greatness, marked as superior to the people among whom she’s an outcast. What she embodies is less faith than fanaticism, as blind as it is dangerous.
“To me, she is someone who didn’t grow up with religion,” says Glass. The idea of a zealot who only found their faith later in life, “in reaction to something that’s happened in their lives, so it’s playing a more active role in holding them together psychologically” compelled her. It rang true. One doesn’t have to look far across the real world to see why.
“There’s a lack of questioning in Maud’s way of viewing the world that I think is very prevalent now,” Clark observes. “And I think it comes from having people show you no respect for a long time. Then you’re like, I will not be told what to do at all.” As she sees it, the villain of Maud’s story is the society that left her to struggle alone. “And I think that happens and has happened a lot. We’re kind of reaping the bitter oats of that, in all the QAnony stuff and things like that.”
Clark is arresting in her performance of Maud’s egoism and fragility. She is compassionate in her depiction of the character’s misguided search for purpose, even as her delusions take stomach-churning turns toward destruction. Glass knew before she’d finished the script that Clark was the right actor, though her film’s financiers were less certain. “I think they thought maybe she seemed a bit too sweet,” Glass recalls. So she brought Clark in to perform a scene.
It was the demented inverse of the “god-gasm” sequence—a scene set after a devastating night out in which Maud collapses in turmoil rather than ecstasy. Onscreen, Clark thrashes like a woman possessed: trembling violently, vomiting, lurching to the window as fireworks rattle the walls of her decrepit apartment. At the end of it, suddenly, she levitates. “I got her to come in and film that in a sterile casting room with no special effects,” Glass remembers. She sent the tape off to her financiers. “It seemed to persuade them,” she says, sounding satisfied.
Clark draws a parallel from what those financiers first thought of her to the circumstances that torture Maud. “I do come across as sweet but that’s our public mask as women,” Clark says. “Women are so grim. I think we’re so dark. Like, we have periods every month, we go through a lot of brutal things.” Horror, as she points out, is baked into many women’s everyday existences. “So I really like that we’re finally seeing how multifaceted and gross and dark women are.”
She’s been told not to parse the film’s ambiguities to death in interviews, she warns me. But she can share what she saw in Maud: “I thought that she is in some way neurodivergent, which I am. I’ve got ADHD,” Clark says. “And I felt that she was masking a lot, going through the world neurodivergent and as a woman who is not socially adept, not good at lots of things that we’re supposed to be good at. The things that, for a long time, were the only things that women were valued as.”
“She’s clearly experienced sexual assault before,” Clark adds. “She experiences that within the film, but in a way that I think so many women have. But I also feel that there was intense anxiety throughout her life from getting things wrong, which I kind of understood.”
Her family’s experiences in medicine helped her understand the character’s guilt. Clark’s mom is a pediatrician. Two of her cousins are doctors and one works as a nurse. “I didn’t realize how much guilt was part of working in health services,” she says. “If you’re not there to change someone in time and you feel part of their humiliation, that kind of guilt is terrible. And I felt that with Maud, her guilt is definitely her biggest cross to bear.”
Clark unlocked more of Maud’s dysfunction after watching Aubrey Plaza as an influencer-obsessed groupie in Ingrid Goes West. “Sometimes I feel aspects of religion in social media,” she explains. “You’re either feeling superior or inferior, never comfortably in the middle. And I found that that was really helpful with Maud. When she is feeling like she is above everybody and when she is feeling like she is just worth nothing—the intense seize of those swings kind of throw her through the plot.”
Maud craves spiritual redemption in reward for her pain—some of which she inflicts herself. She kneels to pray on scattered kernels of corn; later, she places her hand for a moment on a hot stove. And in one spectacularly gruesome sequence (which sent the theater where I first saw the film a year ago into yelps and squirms), Maud lines the inside of her sneakers with thumb tacks, held in place by prayer cards. She steps into them, squelching in her own blood, then takes a blissful walk of penance through her sleepy seaside town.
“I think initially in that scene she self-flagellated or something,” Glass reports breezily. “But she’s an imaginative person. I thought she should come up with a more interesting way of doing it.” She chanced across the idea while “on a self-bondage website, in a forum—doing research, obviously,” she deadpans. “I saw people giving tips and drawing diagrams about stuff you could do to yourself to make your experience a bit more painful, for people who like tying themselves up.”
One diagram suggested digging thumb tacks into your feet. “But they used gaffer tape instead of the cards,” Glass notes. “Anyway, I remember seeing that and being like, ‘Bloody hell. Going to put that in something.’ So I stole that, I have to say.”
The 31-year-old filmmaker is often breathless in conversation—she talks quickly and cheerfully about her film, with none of the loftiness one might expect from a budding horror auteur. When we spoke, Saint Maud had just been pushed from its original 2020 release date. “I was gutted,” she said at the time, “because we’d all been getting ourselves geared up mentally and all that kind of thing. But we’ll see what happens. I’m much more peaceful and at an acceptance now, just trying to get on with some writing stuff.”
It was the early days of the pandemic then—just six weeks into quarantine in London, where she called from the garden of her home. “I’ve ended up being incredibly lazy most of the time,” she sighed. “Like, ‘Oh, I’ll be so productive now! I have all the time in the—oh, it’s 5’o clock already. You’ve done nothing.’” (Saint Maud would end up delayed twice more, debuting nearly a year later.)
She had little interest in aggrandizing the film’s intentions. No, there’s no real comment on organized religion in it, she said. (Glass grew up attending Catholic school, though her family belongs to the Church of England. “I wasn’t especially interested in it,” she says of religion in those years. “It was just kind of a thing that I was very much around.”) Why’d she choose the name “Maud”? Because it sounded good, though she imagines the character dubbed herself so because it’s “somber and serious and a bit different.” And she notes that what Maud believes in isn’t necessarily Catholicism: “She’s created her own specific, individual, strange interpretation of Christianity. It’s kind of cherry-picking things from here and there.”
As for the question of what is real and what is not in Saint Maud, Glass is forthcoming. Throughout the film, we see only what Maud believes is real, demons, body horror, divine interventions and all—until the film’s searing final frame.
Draped in a tablecloth with a rosary around her neck—and hours since she attacked and killed her patient—Maud douses herself in a clear fluid on the beach. Passerby freeze in horror; no one moves to stop her. She clicks a lighter aflame and sets herself ablaze.
For a moment, we see what Maud does: a final act of devotion rewarded with glory. She glows like an angel, joyful tears rolling down her face. Those witnessing her ascension fall to their knees. She turns her gaze skyward—and for a stunning split second, the illusion breaks. We see her blackened, melting flesh and hear her voice scream in agony before an abrupt cut to black.
“I wanted the whole story to be always told from her perspective, except for that one shot at the end,” Glass says. She knew how her story would end from the start. And she knew for it to work, the audience must stay inside Maud’s reality until that point. “But I still wanted people to be questioning it the whole way along.”
Clark followed Glass’s lead, surrendering to Maud’s delusions even as she speculated what might have dragged her there. “I played her as someone who has experienced burnout and then experienced a kind of period of psychosis,” Clark says. “I ultimately just played it as everything that happens to Maud happens to Maud. It’s all real.”
The troubled Maud’s demise may have been extraordinary, but her struggles in life were not. “She’s just an incredibly lonely, alienated, quite vulnerable person who’s probably in quite bad need of some help and isn’t getting it,” Glass says. Maud’s obsession with God helps her “feel seen and important.”
“So many of us could be there,” Clark says. “I definitely know that if I hadn’t had the family that I was from or just had behaved slightly more extremely at different times or met less forgiving people or forgiven less… We could all be very lonely.”
“We all share the same world but we all experience it so subjectively,” Glass notes. “We’re all trapped in these weird fleshy bodies. Everyone’s got this weird, messed-up world going on in their heads and sometimes everyone else around them has no idea what’s happening.”
At the movies, though, we might feel less alone. “You watch a film and it’s one of the only times, really, that you can have a go stepping inside someone else’s head and someone’s else experience,” she says. It’s not quite playing God. But it’s close.