by Kylee Webb
With a blend of eroticism and repulsion, possession and madness, Rose Glass sires one of the richest films in recent horror history.
At this point, it is incontestable: A24 is currently dominating horror. Yes, the plucky art-film studio is perhaps surpassing Blumhouse with its terror prowess. Saint Maud deftly follows the steps of horror giants within A24’s pantheon like Midsommar, Hereditary, and The VVitch to name a few. The cinematic debut of emerging director, Rose Glass, proves that in spades. The Mozart-like precision and control she employs exudes significantly from the production elements. Every moment of the incredible one hour and twenty-four minute run time is meaningful—this film is a short slow burn that never condescends to the audience. Some impatient members of the moviegoing crowd may despise this but it is clear that this film is not marketed to those who can’t wallow in their disturbing feelings.
Saint Maud tracks a former hospital nurse who, after undergoing a tragic workplace accident, finds herself as a private palliative care nurse to the enigmatic Amanda Kohl. There, she becomes obsessed with her patient’s salvation. Kohl was a former avant garde choreographer and dancer who we will find challenges Maud in more ways than spiritually.
Many of these horrific feelings that seep from the frames are created by the painterly cinematography of Ben Fordesman. Every shot and frame appears like monstrous, emotional works of Goya (his famous picture of Jesus comes to mind) or the austere and horrible pictures found in churches of the suffering of the saints and Christ. It’s no wonder that William Blake makes an appearance because this film itself is a marriage of heaven and hell. It is both striking and disgusting, titillating and revolting. These dingy images are complemented by Adam Janota Bzowski’s haunting score. The music utilizes all the notes that are intended to make you sick or disturbed to a merciless degree and it is gorgeous, easily comparable to the ethereal repulsiveness of the score of A24’s darling, Hereditary. The pulsating booms and low chords mimic demonic possession and make the audience feel as if they’re either going mad or becoming possessed themselves. The same can certainly be said for the sound mixing and sound design. There are moments in the film where you can viscerally hear the most disgusting parts of her ascetic lifestyle and yet again, it transcends the horor to become beautiful. There is also some truly terrifying voice work that will make even the most secular of audience members feel like falling to their knees and praying.
To speak of praying, the real winner of the film, besides Morfyyd Clark’s highly believable and visceral performance, is the thematic elements within Glass’ script, particularly her grasp on character. Saint Maud is a character piece about an unreliable narrator more than anything else. It is clear that one of the most interesting elements the film explores is how Maud understands the futility of saving the body (hence why she abuses her own) and turns to save the soul instead. But one might also wonder if her goal is truly to save others or whether it actually is to save herself. This is how it fits into the controversially named “elevated horror” genre. It focuses more on character and less on cheap jump scares and if there is one, it is entirely earned through Glass’ firm grasp on tension. No matter which horrific image threatens your eyes, you will not be able to look away.
The film does not come without its problems, however. This may or not be a true criticism, but because Glass has such prowess with character building, this reviewer would have liked to see more of the subject of Maud’s obsession. Jennifer Ehle gives perhaps my favorite performance within the film. Her brilliant control of craft is on full display through masterfully and subtly playing a considerably unsubtle personality type. It is within her scenes that the erotic nature of Maud’s strange condition finds their clearest catalyst. Because of this, it would have been satisfying to develop further why Maud is so obsessed and include more scenes between the two. Given the film’s short run-time, there would have certainly been more time to do that. Plus, A24 is no stranger to formidable run times. For example, Ari Aster’s next film (currently titled Beau is Afraid) is projected to clock in at about four hours. Saint Maud is a horror must-see for those who are a fan of A24 slow burns and for those who appreciate films such as The Exorcist, Carrie or even Midsommar. If you are not faint of heart, this film could cause psychological cardiac arrest and you will leave thanking Maud for giving it to you.