Saint Maud Rose Glass religious fervour horror Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle

Morfydd Clark is incredible as a religious zealot in the horror film Saint Maud

The debut feature by Rose Glass is a nifty bit of oppressive horror.

Horror and religion have gone hand-in-hand on the silver screen ever since, at the very least, the release of The Exorcist, but religious fervour isn’t nearly as often a central tenet of horror as much as simply a bit of contextual paprika on the sandwich. When religion shows up in horror, it’s mostly to explain things — explain why a character is possessed, explain how one can reverse a curse or what have you — and rarely the basis of the whole thing, which is often reserved for crisis-of-faith films like First Reformed. Paul Schrader’s feel-bad modern classic is often mentioned as a touchstone when describing Rose Glass’s Saint Maud, a nifty bit of oppressive horror that leans heavily on religious themes in a way that, for once, doesn’t just feel like window dressing.

Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a nurse living in a decrepit seaside resort town some time after a traumatic event in which she was unable to save a patient in her care. Evidently shaken from the event, she now leads an extremely pious life, living in a barebones studio apartment and working as a personal nurse for Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), an American dancer who is dying of lymphoma. Acerbic and thoroughly bitter at the prospect of death, the atheistic Amanda couldn’t be more different from Maud — which is probably what prompts her to decide to save Amanda’s soul. Amanda, however, has no such plans for herself, which sends Maud into a tailspin of uncontrollable religious fervour.

It’s difficult, I think, to depict characters who have completely unhealthy rapports with their own religion because there is something both banal and extremely theatrical about the extremes of religious belief. Everyone experiences religion in a different way, obviously, but there’s a certain amount of pageantry to the uber-pious that’s difficult to put across to an audience that, broadly, is assumed to not be as pious. Saint Maud can’t work if we don’t fully believe that Maud is consumed by a form of religious fervour that is both unreachable to us and yet believable on the outside. If all she does is walk around stabbing herself with a crucifix and speaking in tongues, the movie immediately and irreparably moves into gonzo territory. 

In that sense you can draw a pretty clear line between classic cinema of religious madness and Saint Maud, which builds its horror slowly, methodically and (for most of it, anyway) in a quasi-invisible manner. Saint Maud is a horror film only because of our propensity to pigeonhole movies — and because it builds to an impressive fever pitch of doom and gloom that stays with you beyond the film’s meagre running time. Saint Maud is a very sparse film in many ways — not too generous on the character development front and certainly not interested in pleasing the audience who came to it for a jump scare every eight minutes — but its calculations pay off more often than not.

A great deal of Saint Maud rests on Clark’s shoulders, since the role demands that she be both boiling on the inside and yet blank and anonymous enough to be able to simply exist in the world without ever being noticed until she requires it. Clark gives the kind of performance that rarely earns plaudits since so much of it is deceptively banal, but without her particular brand of constant, low-level physical and spiritual pain, Saint Maud simply cannot work.

Like many films of its general ilk, Saint Maud threatens to peter out before the end. The slow-and-low method gives way to an inevitable conclusion that shouldn’t really surprise anyone — but as a first film, it’s remarkably precise and controlled. ■

Saint Maud is available on VOD as of Friday, Jan. 29. For more details about the film, please visit its IMDB page. Watch the trailer below:

Saint Maud by Rose Glass, starring Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle

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