Contrary to the idea of ‘elevated horror‘, genre movies focused on atmosphere and psychological themes are not new. Not too long ago an Esquire article boldly claimed that the 2010s was the decade that “horror got smart”. But the author glosses over decades of clever, unnerving horror. In the late 1960s, George A Romero re-imagined the zombie as a vehicle for social criticism. Years later Wes Craven deconstructed the slasher in Scream. There’s always been big ideas in horror. Yet even if elevated horror isn’t really a thing, it’s hard to argue that independent studio A24 hasn’t carved out a niche for itself in its less than 10 years of existence. If you’re a diehard horror fan, you know an A24 film when you seen one. Now A24’s latest release – which at least critics have embraced – has made its way to Netflix.
Sometime ago a nurse named Katie loses a patient while performing CPR. Now a devout Catholic and using the name Maud she works as a palliative care nurse. When she meets her new patient Amanda, a terminally ill ex-dancer and atheist, Maud believes she has found her purpose in life. As the two women grow closer, Maud increasingly believes that God is directing her to save Amanda’s ‘wicked’ soul. With lines blurring between what is and what is not real, Maud’s obsession with Amanda’s salvation teeters towards madness.
Saint Maud a Tense and Disturbing Meditation on Dogmatic Faith
As compared to past A24 movies, Saint Maud is a trim, relentlessly tense movie, coming in at just under 90 minutes. What’s even more surprising is that this religious horror movie marks writer and director Rose Glass’ first feature length effort. You would never know it. Simply put, Glass demonstrates a supreme confidence and mastery over her craft. On one hand, Glass delivers the kind of slow burn horror that has set A24 movies apart. Saint Maud is more invested in what really gets under our skin rather than cheap jumps. But Saint Maud is also a tightly paced exercise in increasing tension. Glass scatters discomforting hints of where things may go early in the movie. Alongside Adam Janota Bzowski’s haunting score, there is a constant feeling of unease.
But it’s the movie’s climax and final scene that fully deliver on the full-out horror.
When Saint Maud accelerates the pace or introduces violent imagery, it’s all the more shocking when contrasted with the movie’s overall atmosphere. Rose maximizes these jolts with expert set-up and framing, while the editing ensures these scenes achieve their maximum effect. Both the movie’s cinematography and editing seamlessly blend Saint Maud’s contrasting ‘real’ with Maud’s potentially delusional fantasies. But it’s the movie’s climax and final scene that fully deliver on the full-out horror. Though it’s not necessarily a twist, Maud’s final confrontation with Amanda both terrifies and raises more questions. And Rose’s final scene is disturbing. That it abruptly segues into the the final credits only ensures that it will linger with you.
Saint Maud Draws Its Horror From Unwavering Belief
Arguably, Saint Maud’s lasting impact stems from Glass’ intentionally ambiguous story-telling. Though it’s a religious horror movie, Saint Maud spares us another tired demonic possession narrative. Instead, the movie explores the meanings of belief and faith – the horror that emerges when unquestioning faith clashes with reality. Like folk horror classic The Wicker Man, Saint Maud juxtaposes religious dogma with faithlessness but with the perspectives flipped. As Glass positions her ‘Maud’ as an unreliable narrator, it increases your unease as the line between what is real and what Maud merely blurs. Does Maud hear the voice of God? Are we witnessing something supernatural? Don’t expect to find any clear answers. Saint Maud’s horror in part stems from this subjectivity giving the movie a lasting impact.
…Saint Maud’s horror in part stems from this subjectivity …
Aside from a brief appearance in Alexandre Aja’s Crawl and Netflix’s Dracula miniseries, Welsh actress Morfydd Clark will be unfamiliar to North American audiences. As ‘Maud’ (or Katie), Clark delivers the kind of riveting performance needed to sell Saint Maud’s ambiguity. It’s her commitment to the role – a remarkable investment in the character – that casts further doubt on what to believe. And Jennifer Ehle’s performance as the terminally-ill Amanda offers the contrast necessary to heighten the movie’s tension. She embodies a mix of cynicism and fearful hope one might expect from the character.
Saint Maud Continues A24’s Growing Horror Legacy
While there’s no doubt it’s an A24 movie, Saint Maud presents a more urgent story with an almost relentless tension. In true slow-burn fashion, writer and director Rose Glass allows the audience to see where thing may go. There’s also a sense of dread to the movie’s story. And this is where Glass’ use of an ‘unreliable narrator’, provision of limited background information, and tapping into deeper themes widens Saint Maud’s impact. That last shot is one of the more disturbing images in recent horror movie history.