By Reggie Peralta
As the only art house in Orange County, The Frida Cinema plays a wide variety of programming that caters to the diverse tastes of our community. Yet, horror continues to be a tried-and-true staple of late-night outings and escapist entertainment even beyond Halloween. As much as film enthusiasts love the old slashers and monster-on-the-loose movies of yesteryear, the modern productions of indie powerhouse A24 have also become very popular. The A24 brand of horror is usually described as bringing a sophistication and artistry to the genre that is supposedly lacking from more traditional fare (a quality that has earned it the label “elevated horror”). This attention to both thought and craft is on display in Saint Maud, coming to The Frida on November 19th.
Directed by first-time feature director Rose Glass, the film follows a devout, recently converted Roman Catholic hospice nurse who becomes obsessed with saving the soul of her terminally ill patient. Exploring questions of faith, mental illness, and womanhood, the subject matter of Saint Maud is certainly as sophisticated as the A24 horror label would have one believe.
As the titular Maud, Morfydd Clark delivers a richly layered performance. Relaying many of her thoughts to the audience via voiceover, we get an idea early on of the gulf between the way Maud presents herself and the way Maud really perceives herself and others.
As the titular Maud, Morfydd Clark delivers a richly layered performance. Relaying many of her thoughts to the audience via voiceover, we get an idea early on of the gulf between the way Maud presents herself and the way Maud really perceives herself and others. At first glance, Maud appears to be a kindly, reserved nurse, dutifully attending to her patient Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) and comforting her as she tries to cope with her illness. This humility, however, is shown to be hollow by Maud’s own internal monologues, revealing not only her inflated self-regard but her grandiose delusions of “redeeming” the willfully unbelieving Amanda as well. What makes Clark’s performance so impressive is her ability to convincingly embody both of Maud’s personas: when playing the role of caretaker, Maud uses a gentle voice and passive body language, but when she shares her real thoughts and feelings, she allows herself a more forceful and bitter tone. It’s a delicate balancing act but Clark manages to pull it off, consistently keeping viewers on their toes as the film goes on and the contradiction between Maud’s selfless Samaritan persona and the megalomaniacal would-be messiah, she actually becomes increasingly untenable.
Also contributing to the film’s ominous atmosphere is Adam Janota Bzowski’s electronic score. Leaning heavily on droning synths and filtered textures, the ambiguous melodies and rhythms lend themselves well to the onscreen tension. Instrumentation fades in and out of aural perception with consistent synth chords looping in the background. One comparison comes to mind, David Lynch’s Eraserhead with its darkly ambient soundtrack that often feels more like a sound collage than a proper score. The same could be said of Saint Maud, with its score evoking sound design in the way that it seems to directly accentuate the action we see on-screen rather than simply underscore it. The effect is as engrossing as it is clever, though Bzowski’s experimental compositions are subdued enough to never overwhelm the rest of the film.
In stark contrast to the unsettling story and forbidding soundtrack, the setting of the movie is surprisingly quaint. Living in a seaside English town, Maud sneers that she lives in “a dump” but truth be told, it has its fair share of small-town pleasures. Glitzy boardwalk attractions, old brick homes, and even a Ferris wheel can all be observed in the background as Maud goes about her business, giving us a sense of life and history of the community. With scenic views of the coast and overcast skies during the day and bright lights and busy bars during the night, there’s a whole world for her to discover just outside her door. On the other side of that door, however, is Maud’s cramped one-room apartment, where she spends a good deal of time with little more than her troubled thoughts to keep her company. As drab as it is dim, the centerpiece of the room is an “altar” of religious art and iconography that Maud prays to. A confined, ill-kept space dominated by obsession with the divine?
Being an A24 film, the most relevant comparison might be another film released by that company. Indeed, with its portrayal of religious fanaticism and its focus on a female lead, it’s hard to not be reminded of Robert Eggers’ The Witch. Though Eggers’ film takes place in the demon-haunted world of Puritan-era New England and Saint Maud is set amidst the relative realism of secular, modern England, the two end up using similar imagery and plot devices to similar ends when depicting their respective protagonists’ encounters with the otherworldly. For example, Maud’s room is occasionally visited by a large cockroach who (or so the movie invites us to believe) is the God she so fervently worships, not unlike the way The Witch uses the goat Black Philip as an avatar for the Devil. And just as Black Philip breaks his movie-long silence to offer young Thomasin the chance to “live deliciously”, God—off-screen, but presumably in the person of the roach—breaks his similarly-long silence to tell Maud she will have a chance to prove her faith. By inverting the animal symbolism of The Witch, Saint Maud seems to suggest that there’s only a thin line between heaven and hell, that one woman’s devil is another woman’s god.
Beset by flesh-and-blood predators and psychological specters, Maud is transformed into yet another incarnation of what Barbara Creed calls the monstrous feminine.
Yet even as Maud plots against others, there is the question of whether Maud actually is communicating with God or if it’s just another way for her to cope with her traumatic past. Beset by flesh-and-blood predators and psychological specters, Maud is transformed into yet another incarnation of what scholar Barbara Creed calls the monstrous feminine. A motherly figure on the surface, Maud’s matronly qualities and actions are turned into something sinister by her malevolent mindset, precisely the kind of framing of “feminine” qualities as monstrous in horror films that Creed describes. Additionally, her relationship with God—with Maud “feeling” his presence inside her body and praying to an altar to communicate with him—bears traces of the “possessed monster” and “witch” character archetypes identified by Creed. Where director Glass subverts these tropes, however, is her explicit linking of them with Maud’s Roman Catholic faith and beliefs rather than the Satanism or witchcraft they are often connected with in traditional horror movies.
Rich with thematic contemplations, Saint Maud follows in the footsteps of other outstanding A24 horror offerings like Midsommar and The Lighthouse: even when it treads similar narrative and symbolic ground as other films, it offers its own innovative twists that turn them on their head. Between Morfydd Clark’s career-making performance, the fittingly-foreboding music, and the engrossing location cinematography, it’s also an impressive debut for Glass. Deprived as it was of its original 2020 release date due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Saint Maud is truly a horror movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen, to say nothing of one whose penetrating, thought-provoking ideas lend it to viewing well after the end of Halloween season.<