2010s

Review: Rose Glass’ ‘Saint Maud’

Saint Maud Movie Film

Saint Maud is the debut feature from writer-director Rose Glass, but it shows precisely zero hints of being a first film. Right from the chilly opening moments, which show the titular character (Morfydd Clark) sitting on the floor, covered in blood, after a mishap at her hospital job, there’s a remarkable amount of confidence on display, from the performances to the cinematography to the score. The recent discussion about so-called “elevated horror” from snobbish types will surely try to claim Saint Maud as its next victim. In fact, Glass reportedly didn’t originally envision her directorial debut as a horror movie, as it twisted into something darker as she developed the idea. Given how utterly bone-chillingly terrifying it is, however, one would be hard pressed to imagine the film as anything but. 

That purposely vague opening sequence includes an image of a cockroach crawling on the ceiling which, viewers are led to believe, has given perpetually-lost Maud hope that God is looking out for her. To that end, the lonely young woman descends upon the home of terminally ill former dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle, excellent) who needs caring in her final moments. When Maud asks Amanda’s former nurse how she is, the woman responds hilariously with “bit of a cunt.” Maud’s new charge is flirty, flighty, proudly bisexual and American, in other words the exact antithesis to Maud herself. Amanda, who chain-smokes despite her debilitating cancer, encourages the timid nurse to loosen up, and the two women form a tentative bond as they gradually spend more time together. Unfortunately, Maud interprets this as God providing a soul for her to save. 

Glass straddles an exceptionally fine line throughout Saint Maud, presenting her protagonist as someone who, depending on one’s personal belief system, could be viewed as a paranoid schizophrenic or someone who’s genuinely been chosen by a higher power. When Amanda affectionately describes Maud as “my little savior,” the young woman beams with pride. She’s evidently endured horrible trauma in her life, but the source is wisely left obtuse, making Maud far more difficult to read — is she a depressed, isolated person desperate for human contact or is she simply mad? Although Maud spends much of the movie in a state of buttoned-up reverence, she also goes out to bars and tries to butt in on people’s conservations in a pathetic attempt to make friends, and even heads home with a man to try to force herself to feel something. 

Glass’ stunning visuals, achieved in conjunction with cinematographer Ben Fordesman (shockingly also making his feature film debut, after working on Netflix hit The End of the F***ing World), are loaded with portent. There is a gothic eeriness to the film’s setting, a glum seaside town whose darkness is enlivened only by the flashing lights of the amusements dotted down the high street. Maud’s trek up the steep steps leading to Amanda’s imposing hill-house is reminiscent of The Exorcist, while the constantly thrashing sea waves could arguably represent her troubled mind. Water features prominently throughout, with Maud seeing swirling vortexes in drains, the clouds and even pints of beer, all of which signal the war being waged inside her head. Although, on the outside, she appears placid as a lake, Maud is evidently struggling just beneath the surface. 

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Saint Maud Movie Film

Clark’s deadpan narration, delivered using her own curious Welsh brogue, provides Saint Maud’s moments of levity by offering insight into her surprisingly caustic sense of humor. These monologues are delivered to God, who is informed about Maud’s period, for instance, and advised He will be seeing Amanda very shortly. There are only a handful of occasions when Maud’s mask shifts to reveal the darkness brewing underneath, one of which finds her attempting to convince Amanda’s lover, Carol (Lily Frazer), to leave her alone. When Carol suggests Maud might be homophobic, she spits about not caring whether Carol’s got “an 8-inch cock.” There are suggestions throughout the film that Maud is either not nearly as meek as she’s letting on, but she also has a vicious streak that’s being kept in check (barely) by her super-strict faith. 

The idea of hearing God’s voice is already plenty creepy to non-believers, but Glass makes it sound like Satan himself in The Witch. A booming baritone speaks to Maud in Welsh as she crouches in rapture over being chosen (after the director overheard Clark conversing with her sister in their native tongue, she thought it sounded appropriately indistinguishable). Evidently, a deity communicating with an ordinary human isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And yet, Maud’s religious experiences, one of which is represented on the film’s gorgeous poster, play out almost like orgasmic reactions. One finds her writhing about on the stairs, another sees her face contort as though she’s possessed. These moments are brilliantly executed by Clark, who shows a real command of her physicality whether twisting in ecstasy or contorting in pain. 

Saint Maud’s most frightening moments are also its quietest, whether it’s Maud silently kneeling down on some un-popped popcorn kernels, picking at a self-inflicted burn or, in arguably the movie’s most stomach-churning sequence, placing thumbtacks into her shoes before strolling through the town. Suffice to say, you’ll never look at a pair of Converse shoes the same way again. The visual effects, whether bloody or ethereal, are seamlessly integrated and uncomfortably tangible. Glass is utterly confident in her story, utilizing a refined palette and minimal score to deepen the visceral atmosphere with honks and throbs of bass upending the everyday nature of Maud’s plight. Meanwhile, news stories solely about death and destruction play out on the TV throughout; a nice touch that further evokes the feeling something terrible could happen at any moment. 

To describe Saint Maud as simply a triumph would do it a great disservice. Glass’ debut is remarkably assured in a way that makes it difficult to categorize, and indeed there will be those who deem it unworthy of the horror label because it’s smarter than something like Truth or Dare which, let’s face it, is aiming for an entirely different crowd. The reality is horror takes many different forms, which is what makes it such a wonderful genre to work in and to watch, too. Saint Maud proves, once again, that horror, and particularly indie horror, provides the opportunity for first timers to take real risks. A movie like this — filmed in Scarborough, with a Welshwoman as the lead and a protagonist/antagonist whose true nature is not made explicitly clear — could never be made in the studio system, and that’s precisely why it’s so special. 

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Saint Maud Movie Film

Saint Maud, like The Witch, Get Out, Revenge and others of their impressive ilk, is the kind of movie that only comes along occasionally, and typically out of nowhere. It’s a massive achievement, impressive on a whole other level that belies its genre trappings. By making the film a scary, intense and thought-provoking experience all in one, Glass showcases how much can be done when horror isn’t limited to jump scares and mindless gore. Praise Saint Maud indeed. 

Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.

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