There’s an entire subgenre of horror films devoted to the religious fervour of young women – and it pretty much is always young women – who may or may not be under the influence of God or Satan: The Last Exorcism, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose... basically anything with ‘exorcism’ in the title. The problem? Time and time again, the culprit is Satan.
Saint Maud, the debut of writer/director Rose Glass, elegantly sidesteps the problem by making its protagonist so devout that we never know whether she’s being influenced by God, the Devil or, to quote Blackadder, Mad Jack McMad the winner of last year’s Mr. Madman competition. The latest horror offering from A24 (Hereditary, The Lighthouse), the result is as assured as it is oppressive.
Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a pious young nurse in a washed-out seaside town. “I hope you will reveal your plan for me soon,” she prays, before receiving a new assignment: tending to dying dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) who lives in a spooky house on the clifftops. “How she is?” Maud asks her colleague as they swap shifts. The refreshingly frank response tells us this is a film that won’t be pulling punches.
Against the odds, Maud and Amanda form a bond: the ascetic and the aesthete. Amanda is intrigued by Maud’s faith, calling her “my little saviour”, but things start to go south when Maud sends Amanda’s lover (Lily Frazer) away, and gets sacked. Turns out, she isn’t quite the paragon of innocence she appears. A scene in which she bumps into an old colleague (Lily Knight) sows the first seeds of doubt. During an extraordinary dark night of the soul, Maud completely unravels, dragging the film’s claustrophobic composure along with her.
In an awful bar, as the camera moves in closer and closer on the drinkers’ large, leering faces, she starts seeing vortexes in pint glasses. Then comes an even more intense hook-up with a stranger (Turlough Convery) that delivers one of the film’s strongest shocks. The hallucinatory vibe continues with a canted angle that shows her stumbling home down some dark, back-alley steps, her whole world tilted on its axis.
There’s more: the third act is full-bore cray cray, with Maud’s behaviour even further beyond the pale: “I am transformed and soon everyone will see!” she declares. After 70 minutes of simmering dread, the final confrontation between Maud and Amanda is truly startling, providing genre fans with a proper conclusion while staying true to the character and the mysteries of her faith. If the coda disappoints it is only a question of ambition besting budget. To say more would be sacrilege, because Saint Maud is worth discovering at your own pace. In fact, quibbles aside, it’s one of the boldest horror debuts of recent years.