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A film review by Jordan Pressler

This may sound like a story we’ve been told several hundred times throughout the course of horror history: a mentally deranged social outcast (typically a young, vulnerable woman) becomes so enamoured with their belief in God that their undying devotion to Him goes over the top and tips the scale into all-out insanity. However, what if the vulnerable young woman in this scenario were to tell you that they weren’t always like that? They were once a more typical, carefree social butterfly whose life got turned upside down following a traumatic experience in the workplace. That is the subtly subversive conception unearthed in Rose Glass’ acutely promising feature debut, Saint Maud. Ohhh boy! Get ready for this one because it is one ride you will want to hop right back onto! 

The film opens with an instantly eye-catching visual hook: we follow a clump of soaking wet, grossly dishevelled hair as the camera tracks downward to reveal droplets of blood creating a puddle on the floor. Maud (Morfydd Clark), a young nurse in her early thirties, sits traumatized in a corner of what is revealed to be a hospital room. Her face is covered in blood, as are her gloved hands, and her eyes wide with a mix of shock and remorse. The woman slumped over the table is (or rather, was) her patient, who has died some gruesome death under Maud’s watch. The only thing that takes Maud’s focus off of the ill-fated lady’s corpse is a cockroach crawling along the ceiling. We will find out just why that is later on, and as soon as we do, it will immediately conjure the memory of that freaky moment toward the climax of Robert Eggers’ The Witch where young Tomasin converses with Satan in the form of the billy goat, Black Phillip.

Sometime later, Maud is getting ready to take on her subsequent assignment. She’s still working in the medical field, but no longer at Saint Aftra’s Hospital, since that’s where the accident took place. Instead, she has downgraded to a palliative carer because, in Maud’s own words, “It takes nothing special to mop up after the decrepit and the dying.” She travels to a mysterious seaside town in order to meet her latest patient, Amanda Kohl (Jennifer Ehle), a former dancer and choreographer from the U.S. who is now suffering fatally from stage 4 lymphoma of the spinal cord. After spending some time with and getting to know the pitiful-yet-strangely-content minor celebrity, Maud comes to believe that she has been tasked with saving her atheist soul – and will stop at nothing to follow through on her mission toward salvation. 

One of the most peculiar aspects of Maud’s personality is that she actually speaks with – and believes wholeheartedly that she’s in the physical presence of – the Almighty. After preparing herself a warm bowl of steaming, bubbly tomato soup (which is filmed in stunning, eerie closeup by cinematographer Ben Fordesman), Maud sits down at the dinner table in her confined little apartment and says her prayers to God. She doesn’t just give the usual “Thank you God for this wonderful meal which I am about to receive” speech; that would be far too pedestrian for our odd duck of a protagonist. She informs Him of her next work assignment and asks Him to watch over her as she “embarks on her latest journey”. Doesn’t even neglect to mention, “I think I’ll have to wake up at about 6 tomorrow.”

As Maud makes the journey to her patient’s home, right away I find myself swept up by the intoxicating scenic beauty of the seaside setting in which Amanda currently resides. There’s an amusement park with a prominent Ferris wheel, a brightly lit casino on the side of the street, and a wonderful beach with the cleanest looking water I’ve seen in years. Very few people are sitting at said beach, making it a perfect spot for someone like the high-strung Maud to just relax, unwind and enjoy herself for a change – but she isn’t having any part of it. She walks right by the casino, right past the Ferris wheel, who could possibly give the slightest thought about that soothing ocean? That is one of the first details that Rose Glass provides to grab my attention: she uses the setting to tell me something about her protagonist. By having her walk by all of these lovely perks of the town, I can see that Maud is someone who either, A) has no interest in wasting any of her valuable time on self-indulgent activities, or B) she simply doesn’t feel that she deserves any of it.

Unlike the cramped interior of Maud’s dingy living environment, Amanda lives in something more akin to a castle. Her house is gargantuan and imposing, standing atop a mountain that Maud has to ascend in order to reach the front door. There’s an excess of beautiful green grass and trees. Everything Maud could hope to acquire with her position as a nurse. Shortly after Maud and Amanda become familiarized with each other, the latter discerns that her new hospice nurse has made the recent conversion to hardcore Roman Catholicism. When asked what made her decide to leave her old job working at St. Aftra’s, Maud meekly shrugs her shoulders, looks down at the floor, and responds, “I don’t know… Just needed a change. Think I got spread too thin.”  

Amanda has reached a point in her rich-but-declining existence where she is not openly afraid of or intimidated by the thought of dying. She continues to smoke like a chimney, insists on wheeling herself down the hallway to maintain some sense of independence, and doesn’t bother praying to God because she doesn’t believe she’ll receive a response. Then comes a moment of serious doubt and contemplation: “I keep thinking about that last moment. What it will be like. Will anyone else be there? Then what? Nothing?”, Amanda wonders aloud while Maud is in the room, tears welling in her eyes as she struggles to summon up a smile of self-mockery. Finally, we are treated to a glimpse of the real Amanda. This is a woman who has lived a highly productive life, and is coming to terms with the fact that soon enough, it will all be finished in the blink of an eye. Maud assures her that there is more to life beyond death, and Amanda is so grateful to hear this that she lovingly grabs Maud’s hand and refers to her as her “little savior”. And this is where the downward spiral into Hell presents itself.

Glass stages a uniquely unsettling moment of borderline psychotic ecstasy. As Maud exits Amanda’s bedroom and heads for the stairs, she feels as though something has taken hold of her. Her hands all running up and down her face, a tingling is passing through her spine. One slow step up the stairs. Both arms outstretched to grasp the wall on one side and the handrail on the other. One foot slowly in front of the other. Soon, Maud finds herself so overwhelmed with joy and sexual relish that she collapses on the floor and gives the impression of having a magnificent orgasm. Could this be Him reaching out to her for a second chance at saving a life? Or are we in the presence of a deeply disturbed girl grappling with feelings of self-loathing and guilt that she never learned how to deal with? Perhaps she never had anybody who could’ve helped her to cope. 

It’s to director Glass’ credit as a first-time writer-director that she never spells out the answer to the aforementioned question… until the very final split-second shot. When that arrives, it will make you jump out of your seat and question what the hell you just witnessed! Until then, she gifts horror fans with an aesthetically captivating, quietly explosive, superbly acted glimpse into the mind of a colossally engrossing tragic character. Maud is not a cookie-cutter villain, but she certainly is not an altogether sane or reliable protagonist, either. She’s somewhere in between. Morfydd Clark is incredibly soulful in the titular role here. Glass does not provide her with many lines or much backstory to fill the viewer in on just who exactly this woman is, but Clark plays the part with such a beautifully, at times heartbreakingly, expressive face that I can always tell what Maud is thinking, and I am attached to the character throughout the entirety of the tight 85-minute running time. In one particularly devastating moment of piercing, all-too-relatable human torment, Maud goes to a bar after believing that God has turned His back on her and struggles intensely to make a connection with anybody therein. She turns to a group of patrons having a friendly chat with one another, and begins to force an awkward, contrived chuckle, as if they will notice her and say, “Hey, you have a really nice smile and laugh. Come sit with us, please.” I’m sorry, but that’s just not how the world works most of the time, and Maud learns that the hard way. Thanks to Clark’s brilliantly compelling eyes and twitchy gestures, I can feel the sadness, the gnawing irritation, and suffocating sense of forsakenness that’s eating away at Maud’s desolate soul. She wants to be noticed, she desperately desires companionship, like we all do as a human race. 

While Saint Maud most definitely serves as a showcase for the silently gutting acting capability of Morfydd Clark, it supplies her with a similarly gripping foil in Jennifer Ehle. As Amanda, Ehle brings her decrepit character to thrilling life with a delightfully acidic wit and surprising sensual athleticism. Dying from cancer is more of a tedious inconvenience to her than anything else, and it’s difficult to distinguish whether Amanda is indulging Maud’s religious quirks out of genuine kindness and curiosity, or flat-out criticism and ridicule. The third to last scene of the movie stacks the deck in favor of the latter possibility. One of the most innovative accomplishments featured in Glass’ script is how smartly she juxtaposes Maud’s straitlaced professionalism and insecure demeanour with Amanda’s go-for-broke brashness and uninhibited swashbuckling. In many ways, Amanda represents a reflection of the upbeat, exuberant woman that Maud once was before she devoted her life to Christ. Trauma wields the power to transform people, and it isn’t always for the better. 

Another standout performance is delivered by Lily Fraser, who plays Carol, a sexy, playful companion who visits Amanda periodically and receives payment in exchange for nighttime sessions of intercourse. Why she demands money for her time is a detail that’s left concealed. The way she forces open a door and shoves past a disapproving Maud with such brazen confidence is remarkable, and when Maud pulls Carol aside to implore her to refrain from “visiting” Amanda any longer, Fraser handles herself very well without barely needing to raise her voice. It’s a small role, but Fraser makes the absolute most of it. 

The reason why I’m able to remember so much of this terrifically crafted psychological thriller is only because I must’ve watched it at least 7 nights in a row. It’s an exceedingly entertaining and briskly paced experience, albeit not quite one without its fair share of serious shortcomings. First off, as much as the fast pacing can be an asset for this movie, it is also one of its greatest disappointments. Because Glass zooms through the proceedings at such a quick clip, I honestly felt like I didn’t get to become as intimate with Maud and Amanda as I would’ve preferred. Now, don’t get me wrong, these two women are fierce, sympathetic, memorable characters portrayed with verve and hushed introspection by their respective actresses. It’s just that Maud and Amanda are so interesting, before I know it, they’re both gone. The screen is black, and I don’t feel thoroughly satisfied with what I was given of them. I never find out what Maud’s upbringing entailed, where her parents are and why she doesn’t keep in contact with them. It’s made explicit that she used to go out all the time to nightclubs, so where are all of her former friends? I don’t need to know every last detail about a character’s life in order to become enamored with them, but with Saint Maud, I believe Glass would’ve done herself a tremendous favor by slowing down the pace, extending the length, and further fleshing out her central saint to a much more gratifying degree. 

At one problematically hurried point, Maud bumps into a skeezy guy at a local pub offering to have a beer with her. Before any meaningful interaction can occur, Glass uses a hard cut to skip to them having passionless sex. Right to the point. Shortly after suffering an intense flashback to the night she failed to save her patient’s life, thereby forfeiting her own, Maud finds herself being sodomized despite her audible protest, albeit calmly allows the rape to reach its inevitable conclusion without even flinching. Is Glass trying to say with this scene that when certain people are so isolated and in need of affection, they will be more susceptible to allowing themselves to be violated? If so, I’m not entirely sure if that’s a theory I feel comfortable accepting.

As for Amanda, I would’ve liked to have learned who exactly Richard (Marcus Hutton) is and what role he plays in her life. When we first meet Richard, he’s cleaning up after Amanda’s alcohol-fueled mess and pleading with her to return with him to a more sociable locale, arguing that she should surround herself with people. Amanda retorts with blistering hostility: “Why the fuck do you care so much all of a sudden?!” Were these two a couple who broke up due to some horrible fight? He kisses her on her head and tells her to take care of herself, calling her “darling” and taking her hand. In the subsequent scene, Amanda refers to Richard as a “pompous asshole”. Why is that? And what kind of dancing did she do back in the state? All we’re given to chew on in that regard are posters on the wall and books titled “Anatomy of a Dance” and “Your Body is a Stage”. Early in the patient-carer relationship, Maud gives Amanda a bath, but their dialogue is completely muted out by background music. I wanted to hear what they were talking about. Scenes like that were ripe for extra character developing dialogue, but alas, Rose Glass is not interested. She would rather show her audience how fast she can move the story along rather than develop her complex characters as much as she could (and should) have. Making for the most arbitrary interlude in the narrative, Amanda blurts out to all of her bohemian friends at her birthday party that Maud tried to drive her lover away behind her back. Why she suddenly feels the desire to humiliate Maud, someone I know she cares about and feels reverence for, is never explained. The scene would’ve made more sense if Amanda had been drunk, but she’s visibly sober, rendering this out-of-nowhere personality shift starkly baffling. 

Another issue I’ve stumbled across is a somewhat underwhelming quantity of carnage. I’ve seen horror movies I love much more than Saint Maud where not a single character (or at least, none of the main characters) falls under the villain’s blade, but this moderately tame movie might’ve benefitted from a little more bloodletting. A cleverly directed scene occurs between Maud and a former work colleague, Joy (Lily Knight), inside the apartment. It’s set up to give the impression that a murder is going to take place, but instead of plunging a knife into her eye like we’re anticipating, Maud wraps both hands around the unsuspecting nurse’s neck, gives her a benevolent kiss on her cheek, and declares, “May God bless and keep you, Joy!” I appreciate a horror film that has more on its mind than racking up an impressive body count, but by the time the credits rolled, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it all might’ve stuck with me more had Maud claimed a few more victims than she ultimately does. It isn’t as though she wasn’t presented with enough opportunity – the disrespectful, snarky lover competing for Amanda’s affection, the new hospice nurse in charge of caring for Amanda, the detestable pig who rapes and then taunts Maud over her hedonistic past.

Glass’ sense of atmosphere is more disquieting than terrifying. The story is rather thin, featuring Maud lingering around her patient’s mansion, trying on her perfume, spilling her wine bottles down the sink, gawking at her stashed-away dance posters in the corner. There is a consistent feeling that nothing is quite right. Fordesman’s camera seldom neglects to capture a closeup of Maud’s stricken face, watching her uneasily glance through a book filled with disturbing religious iconography or stand all alone and forgotten in the shadows – a potent visual metaphor for her everyday state of mind. Glass even manages to take mundane visuals such as rolling cloud formations, fireworks, overflowing sink water, and bathtub water swirling down the drain, and make them appear much more sinister. Although, that low-key psychological tension never fully blossoms into full-bore, hair-raising terror. To put it simply, this is not a terribly scary movie, but it is anchored by Clark’s mesmerizing starring turn as an achingly identifiable, troublingly lost soul in search of greater meaning.  

Once Maud is relieved of her nursing responsibility after a sudden act of physical violence, the body horror element pokes its nasty head in. To make amends with her lord and do penance for failing to save Amanda’s soul, Maud, operating under the belief that self-flagellation is the ticket to forgiveness, impales the soles of her feet with nails and peels a scab off her hand that she earned earlier via placing her wrist atop a burning stove. It’s gruesome, squirm-inducing imagery that has burned its way into my brain and will probably reside there till the end of time. 

Make no mistake, this is a singular, riveting, powerfully effective horror movie (again, I’ve probably gone up to 7 viewings with it by now), and for those who prefer a short runtime and brisk pace, it’s the kind of movie you can watch again and again, one night after the next. It moves too fast to grow monotonous. On the other hand, if you’re salivating for more of a “scary” movie full of spine-tingling thrills and an abundance of gory blood spills, you may want to look elsewhere. For better and worse, Glass plays the proceedings extremely low-key, and it’s that very approach that makes for one of the film’s finest strengths as well as its most frustrating missed opportunity.

Jordan gave this film 3 1/2 stars bumped up to 4 by Horror Oasis for our rating system.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Contributor

Jordan Pressler is horror movie fanatic and screenplay writer who’s work can be found on Fanon Fandom. Follow Jordan on Twitter.
Daddy Still Loves Us is a screenplay by Jordan Pressler. Click here to read it for FREE!

Daddy Still Loves Us is a 2019 American supernatural psychological horror film that revolves around an adolescent boy named Marcus, who finds himself falling victim to an inner malevolence after the death of his father.

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