THE STORY – Maud is a reclusive young nurse whose impressionable demeanour causes her to pursue a pious path of Christian devotion after an obscure trauma. Now charged with the hospice care of Amanda, a retired dancer ravaged by cancer, Maud’s fervent faith quickly inspires an obsessive conviction that she must save her ward’s soul from eternal damnation, whatever the cost.
THE CAST – Morfydd Clark & Jennifer Ehle
THE TEAM – Rose Glass (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 83 Minutes
By Cody Dericks
Exploring the narrow gap between religious fervor and madness is well-trodden ground in the horror genre. But “Saint Maud,” the grisly debut feature from writer-director Rose Glass, looks at it in a surprisingly new way. By hyper-focusing the film on one solitary individual amid a spiritual reckoning, Glass uses a personalized story to comment on humanity’s idea of faith and devotion. It’s chilling, moody, and upsetting.
Our title character (Morfydd Clark) is a palliative care nurse who obsessively follows a twisted version of Catholicism. She is tasked with caring for Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a former dancer in the late stages of terminal lymphoma. Maud quickly becomes fixated on a singular notion: she believes that she has been chosen to save Amanda’s soul in the name of God. This proves to be a harder task than Maud originally thinks as she begins to take increasingly drastic measures to help Amanda and simultaneously prove her own devotion.
As Maud, Clark is dizzyingly good. With a face like a haunted Victorian doll, she is capable of cracking her buttoned-up physicality in moments of brief and shocking expressiveness. These outbursts are impressive given the generally internal performance she gives for most of the film, which only goes to prove her versatility. It would also be easy for a lesser performer to turn a character like Maud into a repetitive machine of acting ticks, but Clark subtly varies her approach scene-by-scene, building Maud into a believable being right in front of our eyes. Also, in a delicious supporting turn, Ehle is astounding. It’s the type of part any actor would dream of: a boozy has-been with a taste for trying on wigs. But Ehle imbues Amanda with a flicker of sadness underneath all the layers of excess. She makes it easy to believe that Maud can see a hopeful soul inside of a sick exterior, desperate to be brought out to the light.
Now, as a horror film, this isn’t the type of film with a jump scare at every turn. Even with such a short runtime, there were only one or two moments that truly “got me.” The horror of this film comes from watching a character that inherently derives pity stumble down a path of darkness, which can lead to nowhere good. In the age of deep distrust in which we currently find ourselves, I’m sure many of us have had someone in our lives take a distressing fixation and turn it into a lifestyle. It may be an all-encompassing religious fanaticism, a cult-like political obsession, or any other similar unhealthy fascination. There are few things more terrifying than watching someone you love slowly transform into a shell of their former selves with paranoia and zeal where their personalities used to be.
This film takes that relatable and horrifying journey and puts it all into one unlikely vessel: our unmoored protagonist. And in doing so, Glass illuminates an area of fundamentalist fervor that I haven’t seen previously explored, which is the inherent narcissism of martyrdom. Maud truly thinks that God is speaking to and through her. In believing that she is tasked with such responsibility, she is unknowingly going against the tenants of humility that are also at the core of Christianity at its purest. She is either unaware of this hypocrisy or doesn’t care, and this steadfastness only makes her passion all the more frightening. Nothing can break through to her and we can do nothing but watch.
The film also doesn’t shy away from some truly squirm-inducing moments. In an endless and futile attempt to prove her devotion, Maud takes up several self-harming activities throughout the film. Of course, sacrifice and an appreciation of suffering are textually-supported plaudits of Christianity. By bringing them into her film, Glass shows the dangers of strictly following a set of beliefs even if it goes against mankind’s self-protective instincts. And the results fit right into a horror movie.
While it may be a bit too sparse for audiences expecting a scare-fest, Rose Glass’s existential dread-filled debut joins the ranks of other A24 modern horror classics like “The Witch” and “Hereditary.” If those films scare you, as is the case with me, pay a visit to the Church of Saint Maud soon.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A disturbing and bleak portrait of religious obsession that is all too believable, with two outstanding performances from Morfydd Clark & Jennifer Ehle.
THE BAD – It’s light on typical scares and slow paced, which may not appeal to those seeking a typical horror movie.