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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Saint Maud (2020)

For a while, a large majority of the horror genre went through a bit of a lul-phase. An endless wave flooded our peripheral with sexy teenagers getting murdered by a crazed man wielding an *insert pointy, rusty or sharp weapon here*. The psychological horror took a backseat to slashers that seemed to be everywhere. The odd film would come along and challenge conventions of the genre, but unfortunately a large portion of horror films became a diluted mixture of jump scares, gore, the aforementioned sexy teenagers, and a lack of any of the thematic and emotional power the genre is capable of wielding, creating a desensitized audience and barely tapping into our psyches like the genre has the power to do.

Thankfully, especially over the past decade, psychological horrors that thrive on atmosphere and challenging themes have made a strong comeback. Horrors are meant to bring out and feed on your fears, the large flurry of meaningless schlock that was churned out barely challenged the audience with deeper fears - it was all surface-level scary with not much, if anything at all to say. But thanks to smaller distributors and independent filmmakers outside the big studio setup, the output of quality horror films is becoming more consistent, especially with psychological horror films.

Saint Maud is one of these works returning the genre back to its terrifying, glorious self. Rose Glass’ debut feature film follows Maud (Morfydd Clark), a reclusive nurse who is now in charge of looking after a retired dancer, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), who is dying of cancer. Maud, a recently devout Christian makes it her divine mission to save Amanda’s soul from damnation.

Don’t expect a jump scare fest in Saint Maud, although there are instances of sudden scares lurking in its thick atmosphere. Much like a quality psychological horror, its strength is in its ability to prey on your internal fears and challenge your perception of relatable themes instead. Faith and guilt benefit each other perfectly, and with Maud’s recent dedication to her supposed purpose, it is entirely shaped by the coexisting nature of faith and guilt. Glimpses of what drove her to a breakdown and adopt this new life choice indicate the magnitude of her guilt and how faith is her way of hopefully making up for that. Saving the soul of her patient is what pushes her to hopefully be rid of this, fulfilling the purpose she has so blindly believed in. Her fanatical belief in being chosen by God for a purpose creates an eerie demeanour in her.

We often find Maud punishing herself for lapses in faith, with scars of previous punishments providing further insight into her guilt-stricken journey. The justification to self-harm in hopes of it ridding some of the guilt, wickedness or lapse in faith, is something that hit home hard for me. Being raised in a somewhat religious environment, I’d often physically harm myself whenever I did something that was deemed as wrong in the eyes of those within my church. It doesn’t make things better, it just makes things worse, forming an unhealthy relationship with yourself and a supposed higher power. With Maud, her self-perceived devout relationship with God continues to break her down physically and mentally.

Rose Glass creates a claustrophobic world that feasts on the overwhelming sense of dread hanging over Maud. Maud’s blind faith only strengthens a dark cloud that hovers over her, with a heavy sense of guilt continuing to drive her towards madness in the hopes of a divine rebirth. Shots are transfixed on Maud, crafting a breathless environment that has us feeling more on edge every time she is on screen. Each moment is as wildly unpredictable as Maud, creating an uncertain fear that grows with each passing moment. Atmosphere, for me at least, is one of the most important ingredients to creating an effective horror. Some of the great masters of the medium have perfected it, with this recent flurry of horror auteurs in the likes of Aster and Eggers prioritizing it when so many mainstream horrors have completely abandoned the ability it possesses. Rose Glass is no different in utilizing it to its maximum effect, creating an environment that lets each medium shine in their duty to bring her nightmarish vision to life. Adam Janota Bzowski's score is a notable highlight, composing a pulsating score evil in intent, and unpredictable in nature.

The obvious standout of Saint Maud is the performances of both Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle. Ehle’s cancer-stricken Amanda is a tragic portrait of a woman who has all but accepted her fate, while Clark’s chemistry with her creates a perfect dynamic which pushes each of them towards each other as well as tearing them apart. Clark in particular deserves the highest praise in the land. The constant degradation of Maud’s mental and physical health is exhausting to the viewer, but is sheer agony for her, delivering a character doomed to suffer with her relationship to God and herself. Instances of one of Maud’s rewards from God has him taking control of her, resulting in an orgasmic sensation completely taking over her body. These moments are disturbing and terrifying, with Clark pushing the film towards body horror territories. One of the truly great performances of the past year, it will also go down as one of the most memorable of the genre.

Religion has featured heavily in horror, but Saint Maud is a unique piece within the genre that questions the co-dependent relationship faith and guilt have with one another as well as the dangerous results it has on religious fanaticism Maud is so fervently a part of. Saint Maud is without a doubt one of the best films of 2020, and I am extremely excited to see where Rose Glass’s vision takes us next, whether it is within the horror genre or not, the medium has gained a startling new talent that needs to be taken seriously.

Saint Maud is available on VOD platforms in the UK with a planned US release from A24 sometime this year.

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