The horror genre and religion pretty much go hand-in-hand; either the Devil orders a lost soul to do something monstrous, or a noble person is possessed, and audiences eat it up when the demon inside them is finally exorcised. In Saint Maud, the Devil is only a mere component in a film where religion and devotion to God is taken to extremes. As Rose Glass’s directorial debut slowly explores its main character’s relationship to God, it eventually burns to an intensity — one that will have horror fans smiling in utter delight.
Maud (Morfydd Clark) has recently-converted to Christianity after a barely-talked-about experience that pushed her to work in private care. She now looks after Amanda (Jennifer Ehle, who is deliciously evil), a former dancer turned bitter, and who needs very personalized care in her final days. Maud becomes obsessed with her, believing that God has driven her to take care of Amanda for a reason, and insists on trying to save the dying woman’s soul before she passes away. In order to redeem her from her past misdeeds, Maud will go to extraneous lengths to save Amanda, as well as prove her fealty to God.
Saint Maud works as well as it does because it takes its time with Maud as a character. Things are obviously not as cut-and-dried as Maud simply desiring a place in Heaven by God’s side; she is working through something, which is made all the more obvious by Clark’s incredibly subdued, but emotional, performance. Maud’s past brought her to this point, but the film wisely chooses to focus more on her present struggle; if the past manifests in any way, it’s natural. Maud is always hiding something behind her neat, comforting facade, and it’s not something healthy. Yet, it’s enough to make her actions more and more believable as the film escalates into more familiar genre fare.
The escalation is what gives Saint Maud its very slow-burn nature, as the narrative doesn’t necessarily start moving until much later. In lieu of narrative progression is that aforementioned character development, as well as some genuinely sincere chemistry between Amanda and Maud. The way they become attached is what makes some of the latter components of the story work. For horror fans, however, the slow-burn will likely be enticing due to so many beautifully creepy shots, and one key component of Maud’s character — she can hear and feel God talk to her — which brings out a tension that builds in every scene in which she has those communications.
A psychological horror thriller, Saint Maud is more frightening than it initially lets on. The decision to pace itself slowly and deliberately pays off in dividends by the end, as the characters iare fully fleshed out to service the climax — one where the final shot will stick with audiences for a very long time after. Chilling in its depiction of religious fanaticism and the lengths one will go to for redemption, Saint Maud is one of the most assured horror debuts in recent memory.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15