Review by Robert Rosado
The term “elevated horror” has been met with some derision by genre fans, and understandably so. It implies a sense of superiority and pomposity that isn’t necessarily called for in horror. However, it is suitable for independent film distributor A24. The company has made it a priority to select works that acknowledge genre conventions while at the same time offer a bolder, more challenging vision.
The latest A24 release, Saint Maud, is very indicative of this trend. The debut feature of writer-director Rose Glass is an intoxicating entry of the “religious horror” subgenre, joining the likes of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. But unlike The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which straddled the line between perception and reality with ambiguity, Saint Maud is extremely clear in what it says about devotion to faith that is left unbalanced by a lack of human connection.
Maud (Morfydd Clark), a hospice nurse and devout Catholic with a traumatic past, is hired to take care of Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a former ballerina now living with terminal cancer. As Maud and Amanda bond, Maud is overcome with the notion that her life’s purpose is to save Amanda’s soul.
Over the course of the film, we learn the origin of Maud’s trauma and about her unshakable belief in a greater salvation. Her increasingly warped and unreliable perspective is made more tangible by Glass’s expert direction and Ben Fordesman’s foreboding cinematography. The film’s most potent visual metaphor is Maud’s interaction with God, or at least as she perceives it. The character reaches a state of pure ecstasy in these moments, and the aesthetic that surrounds her helps us to understand why she wishes to chase this heightened adulation.
Morfydd Clark gives an extraordinary breakthrough performance in the title role, downplaying Maud’s inherent madness and accentuating her vulnerability. Her trauma makes sense, and it is through that emotional aperture we relate to her righteous, but inevitably destructive quest. Tony Award-winning stage actress Jennifer Ehle is beguiling as Amanda, the object of Maud’s fixation and a complex figure in her own right. Amanda may not be the most sensitive person, but she is magnetic and worldly. It is rare when a screenplay consists mostly of a deep, philosophical dialogue between two female characters, let alone with this level of nuance.
The more discernible horror elements do not reveal themselves until the third act, where Maud’s convictions take her to places we’d rather not be privy to. It is, indeed, difficult to watch. And with the final minutes, we witness the tragic pinnacle as Maud’s arc turns from rapture to ash. Saint Maud is a thought-provoking, haunting film, and arrives to us already feeling like a modern classic. Despite the appearance, it is not a condemnation of religion, but instead, an examination of religious delusions which psychosis can, and does, take to far more harmful extremes.