Saint Maud was supposed to open back in April of 2020, and instead of throwing it to streaming, A24 has steadfastly resisted dumping the film onto a streaming service, until now, unfortunately. Ultimately, after months had passed without much progress, Rose Glass’ directorial debut arrived via a hybrid theatrical/streaming release, the latter rights going to struggling cable channel/streamer Epix. And that’s admittedly how I watched Saint Maud. Turns out it doesn’t matter how you watch some of these films, if they’re good enough, they will still hit you where it hurts. Saint Maud is every bit as good as Hereditary or The Witch, or anything else on the top tier of A24’s prestige horror slate.
Katie (Morfydd Clark) is a former nurse who now goes by the name Maud and works independently as a private care nurse in a bleak and tacky seaside town in England. After an experience with a patient she couldn’t save, Maud has found religion and become a devout Roman Catholic, and pushes her beliefs on everyone. She begins working for Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a terminally ill former dancer and choreographer, who is confined to a wheelchair. Amanda is an atheist who fears the oblivion of death, and Maud decides it’s her personal mission to save Amanda’s soul. And things get progressively worse from there.
Saint Maud is among the most confident first features I’ve ever seen, and easily one of the best horror debuts in recent memory. Rose Glass immediately jumps to the very top of my list of filmmakers to watch, because if her next feature can succeed even half as much as this, and gets the theatrical release it deserves, she’s going to be as important of an asset to A24 as Ari Aster, the Safdies or Robert Eggers. This is a remarkably assured film that only runs about 80 minutes, yet knows exactly what it wants to say, and doesn’t waste a second of its runtime, and most impressive, managed to completely blow me away on a 43-inch TV. Glass seems to already be a master of pacing and tone. The looming dread we feel in the beginning only intensifies the more we watch, and the film builds to something viscerally terrifying.
Morfydd Clark is a Welsh actress who I’m unfamiliar with, and she is absolutely transcendent here. You sympathize with Maud, but you question her every move, and you know she can feel herself beginning to lose her grip on reality, and Clark makes that journey horrifying, yet incredibly engaging at every turn. Jennifer Ehle, who has always reminded me of a Meryl Streep who doesn’t get the attention she deserves, is also very good here. Ehle is very much a second lead, and I think people forget just how specific an Ehle performance can be. We never see Amanda in her life before illness has ravaged her, but we can picture what that life might have been like so vividly, and it’s all thanks to Ehle’s performance.
Saint Maud is a harrowing nightmare of a film about the fine line between sinner and savior, the line between religious fanaticism and losing your grip with reality. Maud is simultaneously very pious and also seems to blame herself for everything that’s happened in her life. But religion hasn’t given her the catharsis of coming to terms with herself and the situation around her, It’s isolated her even further and has given way to the darkness that threatens to upend her entire life. She’s also an unreliable narrator, because it’s impossible to gauge how much of what we see from her perspective is actually happening, and this gives the film a constant uneasy tension.
I think the horror films that I ultimately respond to the most are those that leave you feeling terrible. Those that create a grim and desolate atmosphere, and then they keep it there, or go somewhere even darker. The films where there is no happy resolution or catharsis in the end, and the bad thing is going to keep happening long after the lights come up, and that’s exactly the kind of movie we have in Saint Maud. It’s an expertly performed, beautifully shot psychological horror show that will linger with you long after it’s over.