Saint Maud (Review) – Visceral horror of the highest order

Religious fervour mixes with mental illness in a film that takes you to the very edges of psychological horror. Director Rose Glass’ debut feature providing visceral horror of the highest order. Wrapping its audience in a nerve-shredding world of mental decline. The escape door firmly closed as we follow a deeply troubled young care worker into a dark tunnel of spiritual torment and madness. The resulting film creating not only one of the best debut movies in a generation. But also one of the impactful horror films I have seen this decade. Saint Maud is a breathtaking visual and auditory experience that slowly eats away at the nerves of the viewer.

In the opening scenes, we meet young nurse Maud (Morfydd Clark). The flashes of a terrible accident surrounding her. As her patient lays dead, the room shrouded in a dream-inducing green, the illuminated hospital tiles reflecting the tragedy. This vivid flashback to Maud’s past cleverly sets the deeply uncomfortable tone of the film. Shaking the ground beneath the audiences’ feet from the outset, while Identifying young Maud’s history and the roots of her troubled soul.

We then follow the socially awkward and vulnerable Maud as she starts a new job. Providing palliative home care to ex-professional dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). A woman whose past fame and glory is shrouded by a slowly deteriorating body at the hands of cancer. However, despite her illness, Amanda’s life remains lively and vibrant. Her chain-smoking, drinking, cutting remarks, and curiosity dovetailing with a paid-for sex life with her female lover. Despite misgivings about Amanda’s life choices, Maud’s dedication to her employer is absolute. Her newly identified mission to save Amanda’s soul from perpetual damnation filling her with spiritual joy. Her instructions coming from a high power that courses through her, guiding her destiny and religious calling.

The two women’s relationship veers from tenderness to scorn. The beliefs Maud holds dear, creating an initial bond with Amanda. At the same time, as her employer’s intellectual prowess plays with the young nurse’s vulnerability. The film never allowing its audience to define who the victim of the piece is; with Maud and Amanda holding the viewer’s sympathy in equal measure. However, as their relationship develops and Maud becomes further isolated. Religion meets mental decline, in a journey into the real horrors of the human mind.

Saint Maud 2019 ©️A24 / Film 4 / BFI

Rose Glass slowly unwraps Maud and Amanda’s story, as the glistening lights of the seafront location slowly descend into darkness. The mix between reality and inner mental torment becoming less defined as we follow Maud to the films truly shocking and heart-stopping finale. While the direction of Glass cleverly creates horror, emotion, and empathy in equal measure, just as Brian De Palma’s 1976 Carrie managed to achieve.

Performances are nuanced and beautifully constructed. Morfydd Clark’s ‘Maud’ providing us with a slender, delicate, and vulnerable young woman. While Jennifer Ehle’s Amanda is spiky, assured, and demanding. Yet equally sensitive as she nears her final days. Both our character’s weaknesses sitting in different areas; one mental and one physical.

While Ben Fordesman’s sublime cinematography keeps things sharply focussed on the characters at the heart of the journey. The camera following its leads with a documentary-like precision. As a result, pulling the audience into Maud and Amanda’s world as witnesses to the slowly descending darkness. While the editing of the film, cleverly cuts the reality of daily life with Maud’s inner thoughts. Consequently unbalancing the audience as Maud’s internal thoughts turn into sudden actions. An aesthetic that is only heightened by sound design that mixes moments of serenity with a sudden jarring noise.

Rose Glass’ directorial debut is nothing short of formidable in design and scope. Offering us a film that buries itself in your heart and soul while terrorising your mind. Its horror and sadness engulfing you a tsunami of exquisite performances, direction, and design. Saint Maud is far more than pure horror; it’s a trip into the darkest corners of the human mind, religious extremism, and delusion.

Director: Rose Glass

Cast: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Frazer, Lily Knight, Marcus Hutton

Saint Maud appears in our Essential Horror Films

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Read more from the BFI London Film Festival 2019 here