‘Saint Maud’ Is the First Must-See Horror Movie of 2021
Filmmaker Rose Glass’ stunning debut centers on a disturbed woman who believes God is communicating with her—and telling her to do increasingly horrifying things.
Few things are scarier than religious fanaticism—which, according to Saint Maud, is indistinguishable from unhinged insanity. Pity those who come into contact with the deranged protagonist of writer/director Rose Glass’ feature debut (out Jan. 29), or dare cast a sidewise glance at, much less question, her piousness, which has the intensity of a conflagration burning wildly, self-destructively out of control.
With a surgical efficiency that typifies her entire film, Glass wastes no time painting Maud (Morfydd Clark) as less than altogether there. In a mysterious prologue, the blood-splattered young nurse cowers in the corner of a medical room, staring at both a female corpse lying on a table—its head falling off the side, and hair hanging low—and a giant beetle crawling on the ceiling above. The look in Maud’s eyes suggests possession, and her copilot, we soon learn, is God, whom the twentysomething speaks to in earnest narrated prayer. Later, as she makes her way from a tiny flat in a seaside English town (which she refers to as a “dump”) to the boardwalk below and, finally, to a stately abode on a hill overlooking the water, Maud pleads for the Lord to inform her of her “mission”—a request that, following the preceding close-ups of bubbling soup, tips one off to the lunacy simmering beneath her plain, unassuming exterior.
Having previously worked at a hospital (where the aforementioned incident seems to have occurred), Maud is now a hospice nurse, and her current patient is Amanda Köhl (a coolly confident, riveting Jennifer Ehle), a famous dancer now suffering from fatal spinal cord lymphoma. Prone to wearing headwraps and wigs to cover a scalp with severely thinning hair, and puffing on a cigarette whether in bed or in her wheelchair, Amanda is an imperious figure, even in her diminished condition. Yet despite her formidable presence, and the fact that her prior nurse describes her as “a bit of a cunt,” Ehle’s infirm artist is far from a cold fish. And despite Maud’s admission to God that she usually dislikes “self-involved” creative types, the mismatched duo soon establish a warm, respectful rapport.
Nonetheless, seeds of disaster are sown early when, during physical therapy, Amanda spies Maud’s dangling Roman Catholic necklace (her patron saint, tellingly, is Mary Magdalene). Fearful of what awaits her once she shrugs off her mortal coil, and eager to develop a bond with her new caregiver and to break up the monotony of her housebound existence, Amanda tries to engage Maud about her faith, which leads to the girl’s confession that she’s a recent convert, and that she both converses with God and feels him around and inside her, “pulsing.” Somewhat playfully, Amanda refers to Maud as “my savior,” and the nurse reacts as if she’s received divine revelation (she must save Amanda’s soul!), subsequently climbing a staircase in a state of euphoria that director Glass—employing dreamy slow motion and diagonal visual lines—depicts as a rapturous reverie of prophecy revealed.
As underlined by an ensuing episode in which Maud is overcome by His spirit—leading to writhing contortions and mouth-agape expressions—and Amanda, semi-seriously, agrees that she too feels His presence, Maud’s faith boasts a clear carnal element. The holy and the profane are hopelessly entangled inside this woman (a kindred spirit to Stephen King’s avenging teen angel Carrie White), whose search for blessed communion is furthered by a book of William Blake poetry given to her by Amanda. The good times are not to last, though, as Maud soon tries to sabotage her employer’s relationship with a young lover named Carol (Lily Frazer) and, for her efforts—driven by covetousness more than homophobic disapproval—she’s callously fired. Thus her true descent begins, first in dingy bar bathrooms and strange men’s bedrooms where she reverts back to her old Magdalene-ish ways, and then in her spartan flat, where beetles scurry about kitchen countertops (and along the edges of her fraying sanity) and God answers her calls in an ancient, ominous tongue.
Encounters with a former colleague as well as her replacement in Amanda’s home thrust Maud into ever-darker places, and Saint Maud charts her deterioration with unnerving concentration and precision. Blending electrostatic buzzing and thudding strings, Adam Janota Bzowski’s superb score sets a harrowing tone that expresses Maud’s disintegrating psyche. So too do Glass and cinematographer Ben Fordesman’s askew and upside-down compositions, many of which (such as those of Maud’s original victim, and posters and videos of Amanda) mirror each other in subtle, sinister fashion. Also bolstered by Mark Towns’ jarring edits—culminating in a sharp, damning, unforgettable closing cut—the film’s aesthetics generate mounting dread while simultaneously plumbing, and exposing, Maud’s faith as a warped byproduct of her loneliness, self-importance, need for purpose, and batshit craziness.
Saint Maud’s lean, mean psychological portrait wouldn’t hold if not for the startling lead performance of Clark, whose every far-off glance suggests dark interior thoughts. Even when she’s directly engaged with others, it’s as if Maud is elsewhere, and her severe attitude and anxious mannerisms amplify the impression that she’s become gripped by a relentless sort of mania—one in which cleanliness is akin to godliness, self-harm is the key to enlightenment (“never waste your pain,” she intones at one point), and recurring visions of swirling vortexes are signs of the heavenly journey that awaits her at the conclusion of her from-on-high task. Throughout, Clark never oversells Maud as a cartoon, imparting an empathetic sense of the woman’s sorrow, isolation and righteous arrogance, which grounds her “transformation” in relatable human terms. She’s all the more chilling for being not a supernatural monster but, rather, a lost girl convinced that zealotry, and the violence it demands, is the path to eternal happiness.
As it creeps toward its finale, Saint Maud becomes increasingly awash in shimmering, biblical imagery—manifestations of a corrupted brain only capable of process things in salvation-or-damnation terms. The real and the unreal become indistinguishable, if not to us then certainly to Maud, a terrifying true believer who locates ecstasy, ultimately, in unimaginable agony.