As new releases get back on track and continue to roll out this year, it is often a reminder of how much has changed in the entertainment industry. Take “Saint Maud” for example.
The horror film first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2019, where it was then acquired by A24 with the hopes of a spring 2020 theatrical release. But now, thanks to the ever-changing theatrical landscape and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the film has finally hit theaters – only most of them in the United States are empty. Instead, most viewers will turn to EPIX, the premium cable channel, and paid VOD services to take in A24’s latest.
When they do, it will be worthwhile, as first-time feature-length director Rose Glass brings all the fear and sexuality possible into a religious horror film. “Saint Maud” walks a razor-thin line between depicting passionate faith and unholy obsession, evoking the same energy and mood of its thematic forefathers.
Maud (Morfydd Clarke) is a new convert to Roman Catholicism. The reasoning behind her recent conversion is a bit muddled and never fully explained, but it is safe to say, she is now completely devout. As a hospice nurse, Maud works with patients destined to pass, and with her newfound faith, Maud sees it as the perfect opportunity to save souls before it’s too late. Her newest dying patient, Amanda, is the latest victim of Maud’s spirituality. Their relationship starts off professional, but becomes increasingly more contentious and sexually charged.
Maud’s attempts to save Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) coincide with her experiences with God – the more she “feels his presence” the more emboldened she becomes with her actions. The times we see her talking to God are uncomfortable, as she seems to be experiencing sexual gratification during and after prayer, the first of many red flags that Maud may not be as holy as we thought. It would seem her experiences hearing from God may be sexual encounters with Amanda, but there are enough gaps in the evidence to cast doubt and leave you uneasy.
When her plans to save Amanda are thwarted and it feels as if God has forsaken her, Maud reverts to her old ways. Her passion bleeds into obsession, quite literally, as she explores a more masochistic ways of repentance.
Glass and cinematographer Ben Fordesman do a great job of setting the tone right from the beginning. A few odd-angled shots that are upside down or sideways coupled with Adam Janota Bzowski’s ominous score instantly give viewers a feeling of anxiety and dread. Glass’s writing is exceptional in that it leaves the audience questioning the horrors we are seeing – never quite knowing whether Maud is suffering from psychosis or revelation. If it’s not God, or a mental break, then who just made her float five feet in the air?
The line between religious fervor and irrationality is often a point of controversy in our daily lives, and Glass taps into those feelings. The exploration of loneliness and trauma as it pertains to a person’s gravitation towards faith is a very interesting question, but unfortunately it never gets wholly answered here. While the brisk 84-minute runtime isn’t necessarily a bad thing (please, make more 84-minute films) there just isn’t enough time to delve into the deeper questions being presented.
The film succeeds in creating a nervous energy that keeps you on edge with every part of the filmmaking process, keeping you taut with fear and dread. The ultimate hope with a slow burn is that it leads to an exceptional payoff, and while the ending of “Saint Maud” certainly isn’t a letdown, it feels a bit rushed. I can’t help but feel there is more to be seen. Or, maybe that’s just the unsettling mood that was created.
There is a lot to like about “Saint Maud.” It’s brimming with enough supernatural scares and body horror to satisfy genre fans, and at the same time there are enough heady questions and psychological horror to thrill the rest. Clarke is quite complementary to her role, capturing the mood perfectly with a balancing act between zealous nurse and unhinged.
In “Saint Maud,” Glass has crafted a unique horror film that leans into the best religious horror tropes at the best times, from projectile vomiting and levitation to possession, and as a result, what the story lacks in depth is made up for with mood and atmosphere.
Film critic and member of the North Carolina Film Critic Association.