Review: ‘Saint Maud’ is religious horror done right

Ever since The Exorcist, the concept of religiously infused horror has been quite stale and ineffective. Countless cheesy possession and melodramatic apocalyptic movies have graced our screens, but none have stayed particularly relevant in the popular imagination. The Conjuring films have been the closest, but have often been let down by their forced sitcom-like happy endings. Yet, here to break the dreaded curse is writer and director Rose Glass’ wicked and ungodly religious body-horror, Saint Maud.

 

Pulling inspiration from Carrie, The Exorcist, and A24 films, such as First Reformed, Saint Maud offers a particularly bleak vision of Christian belief. Glass tells the story of an extremely religious and pious young nurse, Maud (played by Morffyd Clark). In the opening sequence, we see Maud covered in blood, sitting on the floor, and looking scared. What happened here we might ask? Immediately, we cut to Maud in her rather monotonous routine before sitting at the dining table in her dimly lit apartment. She starts praying to God before her meal, “Forgive me for my impatience, but I hope you will reveal your plan for me soon.” Maud is a lonely individual and her life seems empty. The only human connection in her life is that of her patient, Amanda Köhl (played by Jennifer Ehle). Amanda, we learn, was a bright and successful contemporary dancer before being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Everyday Maud cares for Amanda, making her dinner, helping with her exercises, and giving her medicine. Until one day, Maud’s divine purpose is revealed to her – she must save Amanda’s soul before she dies.

 

See, Amanda is a hedonist. She is a heavy smoker and a chronic drinker. Every night, she calls her friend-with-benefits, Carol (played by Lily Fraser), where they indulge in sexual and sensual activities. Most important, Amanda is an atheist, one more interested in life’s sinful pleasures than religious obligations. As Maud tries to save the “lost” Amanda, she gets painful sensations in her stomach that culminate in strange somewhat supernatural episodes. The surroundings around her start shaking, her mouth and eyes stretch open, and the framing of these attacks are sexual. Is Maud possessed? If so, by whom? Is this all a part of Maud’s imagination or is she truly chosen by God for a greater purpose?

 

Photo Credit: Studio Canal
And here sets the stage for one of the year’s best horror film. Rose Glass has crafted a clever, burgeoning look into America’s crisis of faith. This demented possession film makes sense in the current religiopolitical landscape. Still reeling from the Trump era, religious fanaticism has caused much destruction. From the Capitol insurrection to the endless QAnon conspiracy theories, we have seen the devastating effects of evangelicalism. The American Christian context is increasingly becoming more radical and extreme, extents we haven’t see in quite a long while. As we try to understand how this is possible, Saint Maud gives us an insight. Glass frames Maud as a tragic character, a young woman who is missing the healing touch of human connection. From Saint Maud’s opening scene, it is clear that Maud is reeling from some sort of traumatic experience. However, Glass chooses to leave the details of Maud’s past largely hidden. Only from small subtle hints may the viewer try to piece together the pre-converted Maud. These elements might resonate especially in our pandemic-ridden world where human connection is often scarce, distant, and cold. Maybe belief in God is one of the ways connection can be established without the fear of Covid-19.

 

As for the performances, Morffyd Clark and Jennifer Elhe are both exceptional. Played with such subtlety, much of Clark’s performance is conveyed through body language. Maud’s timid and soft-spoken character is made interesting by Clark’s ability to communicate feelings of frustration and desperation without words. Her performance, while magnificent, is only outshone by the exuberant Jennifer Elhe. Amanda’s character, while not having as much to do, is brought to life by Elhe’s complex and sassy mannerisms. The focus on the actors’ bodies perfectly coincides with Glass’s eventual turn to body-horror in the last act, albeit taking a much different approach to the works of famous body-horror director David Cronenberg. Throughout Saint Maud, however, the body takes center stage and is often juxtaposed to the film’s more supernatural elements. For Amanda, the body is a vessel for her sensualist desires but now, is failing her. In contrast, Maud understands her body as a place of great discomfort and disgrace, one that makes her vulnerable to sin. Maud’s punishments for her transgressions are self-inflicted and heavily center on her body. Many of the tactics are not so foreign as one only has to look at the ascetic practices of many of the most popular Catholic saints.

 

Just as Saint Maud culminates to its shocking ending, Glass refuses to let the viewer conclude easy answers. The worlds of Maud – the embodied and the spiritual – clash to create probably the most unsettling final scene of a horror movie this decade. However, Glass’s ending might be fitting for Maud’s story but it abandons the otherwise historical accuracy of what came before it. As perplexing as it may be, ultimately, the ending is impactful on both a narrative and cinematic manner. Though fans of the Conjuring films’ calculated ending might be disappointed. Glass instead unpacks the pieces and trusts the viewers will do the rest. She forces you to grapple with tough questions – questions that some may not be ready to ask themselves. Either way, Saint Maud is a worthy take on the religio-horror genre. It may even be the modern day Exorcist film we have all been waiting for.