Katie, a caretaker in her 20s who rebranded as a pious extremist named Maud, has started talking to God. Sometimes he talks back, maybe. Every now and then, Maud might ascend a staircase in the home of the lymphoma-stricken dancer she is paid to look after when suddenly she feels possessed. She’ll flop down and writhe around, emboldened by her holy devotion. If Maud sins, she assigns her own ruthless penance, like strolling through her gray English town wearing shoes lined with nails.
“That Maud,” you may say. “Always up to something.”
You’d be right. Maud, the protagonist of the immaculate new horror movie “Saint Maud” (premiering Friday on Epix before hitting video-on-demand platforms later this year), is always up to something. That “something” is alternately fascinating, baffling and terrifying.
She soon decides she needs to save her patient’s bedeviled soul, and her ensuing actions border on the light sadomasochism that can accompany religious frenzy. (Maud’s writhing looks and sounds a lot like an orgasm.) When we learn that her new reality is a response to a medical tragedy that occurred during her time as a hospital nurse, it becomes clear that Maud doesn’t understand her own well-being.
“The contrast between how we all present ourselves to the rest of the world and what’s really going on inside our heads is probably vast for most people, but obviously this character tries to push it to a real extreme,” writer and director Rose Glass said during a recent phone conversation. “I’ve always seen cinema as something that’s quite voyeuristic. And I quite like that side of it, feeling like you’re slipping into someone else’s life for a little bit and it feeling like you’re watching something you shouldn’t be. I was interested in having a character whose subjective reality is dramatically different from everyone around her.”
“Saint Maud” is the 31-year-old Glass’ debut feature. Starring the enchanting Welsh actor Morfydd Clark, who also appeared in “Love & Friendship” and will portray Galadriel in Hulu’s forthcoming “Lord of the Rings” series, the movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019. Afterward, lauded indie studio A24 acquired it for American distribution. “Maud” was supposed to open in theaters last April, and I suspect it would have been a hit among horror diehards had COVID-19 not delayed its release multiple times.
Maud herself could be considered a cross between Carrie White, the bullied teenager played by Sissy Spacek, and Carrie’s mother, a zealous nut convinced her daughter is a witch. But Glass first thought of a different Stephen King analog: Annie Wilkes, the deranged nurse in “Misery.” Taking that idea a step further, she channeled Joan of Arc, who is thought to have suffered a type of epilepsy that produced hallucinations and euphoria.
Glass’ goal was to frame the events from Maud’s perspective, hinting at the build-up that led to her potential delusions. Having found prayer as an adult rebounding from trauma, Maud’s new personality is a major overcorrection. “I think she’s invented some weird version of Christianity and is picking and choosing the bits that fit for her, which is quite fun to write,” Glass said.
Clark turned to her mother, a doctor, for advice about Maud’s hospital backstory. “She started talking about burnout,” Clark explained. “If you’re not burnt out, you can handle those awful things. But if you’re burnt out, you no longer can. She said that if you’re not feeling that you can do everything that you can for a patient — and nurses deal with this so much more — you become complicit in their humiliation, and the guilt of that is unbearable. I spoke to other members of my family who are nurses and doctors, and they all felt guilty about something,” she said. “That kind of guilt opened up the whole aspect of Maud’s relationship with God and how aggressive she is with herself.”
“Saint Maud” unfolds with creaking floors and dim ceilings, buried secrets and bloody outbursts. It has a biting wit, too; watch it a second time and you’ll pick up on scattered jokes, especially from Jennifer Ehle, who portrays the free-spirited dancer in Maud’s care. Everything leads to a 10-minute finale — and a twisty final shot — so electrifying you’ll want to scream. This is the work of a director with a bright future.
“I personally find it helpful to remember that none of us know what we’re capable of, given the right or wrong circumstances,” Glass said. “And obviously, so much of that’s down to fate and chance.”
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