One of my most anticipated films of 2021 was also one of my most anticipated films of 2020.
Just under a year ago, I was making preparations to cover the New England premiere of Saint Maud, the latest moody horror offering from A24, at the 22nd annual Boston Underground Film Festival. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what happened next: the festival, along with a goodly amount of the 2021 film slate, was delayed indefinitely to a time when sitting in a small room full of strangers from all over the country is something less than a death sentence. In the months since, many independent films have found inventive means of digital release, and BUFF joined forces with a handful of like-minded festivals to create the brand new, online-only Nightstream Film Festival (where would-be BUFF opening night selection Dinner in America won the audience award, as well as my heart). However, unlike fellow indie powerhouses like Neon and Oscilloscope Laboratories, A24 has played things close to the chest. Apart from a couple of AppleTV+ exclusives (Boys State and On the Rocks), 2020 was a pretty quiet year for the normally flamboyant studio, with such buzzed titles as David Lowery’s The Green Knight shuffled into cinematic limbo alongside the latest James Bond and Marvel films. But now, with the vaccine finally getting into people’s arms and hope on the moviegoing horizon, A24 is lurching back to life, first with an award-qualifying virtual run for Minari, and now, at long last, the domestic debut of Saint Maud.
Saint Maud opens as many horror films have before it: with a wide-eyed young woman knocking on the door of a dark, spooky house. Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a private care nurse tasked with looking after Amanda Kohl, a famous dancer and choreographer on the losing end of a battle with cancer. Amanda is a commanding presence, and her flamboyant ego is ill-suited to convalescence (her departing nurse has some choice words for her as she gives Maud her terse instructions). Maud, meanwhile, is intensely religious, constantly praying (and claiming to receive answers!) and furtively flagellating, inflicting pain on herself to the point of seeming rapture. Despite their differences, Maud and Amanda develop something of a sweet rapport (in an attempt to meet her halfway, Amanda gifts Maud with a book of William Blake prints, with the inscription “To my saviour”). But Amanda’s libertine lifestyle and still-defiantly-active social life was always going to be a rough fit with Maud’s uptight devotion. Following an intense blowout, Maud spirals; her godly self-mutilation becomes more intense, and we quickly get the sense that her zealous faith masks something decidedly darker.
Saint Maud is a slippery little film, devilishly refusing to go down many of the seemingly obvious narrative roads which present themselves. One can imagine, for example, a version of the film in which Amanda is the villain of the piece, or at least the central character; with her magnanimous eccentricity and cavernous homestead, her relationship with the straight-laced Maud at first recalls such memorable screen characters as Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond or Performance’s Turner. Likewise, the film’s A24 will understandably lead some to expect a supernatural blow-out in the vein of Hereditary or The Witch. Throughout the film, Glass nimbly sidesteps expectations in a way which may frustrate some, but which I found enthralling.
What Saint Maud is, first and foremost, is a character study about a very odd, very broken young woman. We see the film almost entirely through her eyes, but we quickly learn that her eyes are not to be trusted. Her prayers provide the most unreliable of narration, and much of the film is spent trying to get a bead on what, exactly, her deal is. Through dribs and drabs we slowly collect a fractured image of the backstory that led her to this very strange time in her life, with each revelation more surprising and troubling than the last. But it remains an open question whether she does, indeed, receive answers to her prayers– and if so, who is answering them.
Even by the slow-burn standards of A24-horror house style, Saint Maud remains steadfastly deadpan. Shockingly assured for a first-timer, Glass shoots the proceedings with matter-of-fact bluntness, whether Maud is making herself a cup of tea or fitting her Converse low-tops with thumbtack-studded Virgin Mary insoles, like a religious fanatic Jeanne Dielman. Glass is matched in this approach by Clark, who delivers a performance not quite like much else I’ve seen. With her wide eyes, pursed lips, and carefully chosen words, she appears to be guarding herself from the outside world, as if the devil could flood in the moment she loses her composure. Her interior monologue, meanwhile, recalls Malcolm McDowell’s in A Clockwork Orange, calmly and pleasantly describing her daily life, even as that life becomes more and more alarming. It’s not often not clear whether Maud is insane or divinely enlightened; it’s also not clear which possibility is scarier.
It feels like every time a horror movie is released to critical acclaim, we have to go through the same dance of “Is this a horror movie?” I generally find these conversations unbearably dull, but Saint Maud warrants it more than most. For much of its running time, there is nominally very little “horror” actually going on; with its themes of religious guilt and mental illness, in many ways it feels more of a piece with First Reformed (which, perhaps not coincidentally, was also sold with a decidedly horror-ish trailer). But Glass shoots the proceedings through with such palpable dread that the genre is never really in doubt, from the spooky atmospherics of Amanda’s decaying Victorian to Maud’s reveries of eye-rolling glossolalia. It’s clear from the outset that none of this is going to end well; the suspense comes from wondering just how bad it’s going to get. In fitting with the rest of the film, once the horror does arrive, it manages to be simultaneously grandiose, mundane, and strangely beautiful. For reasons I obviously can’t go into here, the parallels between Saint Maud’s ending and that of Ari Aster’s Midsommar* could probably sustain an essay on their own. Suffice to say, the final shot will stick with me for a very, very long time.
In a way, it’s a shame that Saint Maud’s release has been colored by the expectations of its pandemically induced delays, as it truly deserves to be approached on its own terms. This is a quiet, intense little chiller that stands apart from its stablemates in the “elevated horror” cycle. As a director, Glass has a unique and ineffable approach, and I can’t wait to see where she goes next. Like the dark forces which Maud believes herself to be warding off, Saint Maud has an insidious charm, and will work its way into your brain before you’re even entirely aware of it. It’s early yet, but Saint Maud may well be one of the best films of the year– or last year, for that matter.
* – I very nearly wrote “last year’s Midsommar.” 2020 was not a “year” in the conventional sense.
dir. Rose Glass
Streaming Friday, 2/12 on Epix
Right now Boston’s most beloved theaters need your help to survive. If you have the means, the Hassle strongly recommends making a donation, purchasing a gift card, or becoming a member at the Brattle Theatre, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and/or the Somerville Theatre. Keep film alive, y’all.