The renaissance of horror continues unabated with more and more unique voices jumping into the fray. Directed and written by Rose Glass in her feature debut, Saint Maud fits right in with the tonal frequency of the genre and saturates a seemingly prototypical story of possession with poignant social commentary. However, in contrast to such juggernauts as Get Out or Us, Glass’s film hides its true aspiration a bit deeper.
In fact, one could be easily led to believe that this film is not interested in having anything important to say at all, as it is seemingly too busy setting up a subversion of expectations built into the sub-genre of horror about demonic possession. The viewer is introduced to Maud (Morfydd Clark), a socially-withdrawn young woman who works as a hospice carer in a non-descript English seaside town and leads an ascetic life driven by religious devotion. She is tasked with taking care of a retired stage dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) who suffers from a terminal form of cancer. As events slowly unfold, it becomes apparent that Maud has had a traumatic past and – more importantly – her religious zeal is driven by a conviction she is after all in a direct contact with God. On top of that, she takes it upon herself not only to care for Amanda’s physical well-being, but also to save her soul from damnation.
At least that’s what she thinks she is doing because the filmmaker sets the film to work on a superficially ambiguous level and generate the bulk of its horror and unsettling discomfort by having the viewer wonder if Maud is in touch with God or if she is suffering from demonic possession. To this end, Glass uses very inventive flashes of unnerving imagery, tonal dread and searing jabs of visceral horror, all of which are rooted in the fundamental vocabulary of the genre. A viewer familiar with William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, or The Last Exorcism will be able to immediately connect with certain visual cues and thus will eagerly embark on a quest to connect the dots and figure out whether Maud is a victim of possession or if she is in fact – as the title suggests – touched by a divine presence.
But this is not where the story ends, because what Rose Glass has accomplished using these flashes of violence, skillfully inserted elements of Christian iconography and occasional nods to classics of the genre was to lull the viewer into a false sense of security. She executed a brilliant con of convincing the audience they should tune their expectations towards something they have the basic vocabulary to navigate. After all, there is a finite number of ways a possession horror can be executed and most of the fun is very much akin to a roller-coaster ride. Once you’ve been on one, you know what to expect and although they have their own unique highlights, all roller-coasters are mechanically similar. Glass blindfolded her audience and convinced them they were being strapped into a demonic roller-coaster with a subtle twist that was easy enough to tease out upon first glance. However, once the ride has started and the blindfolds were peeled away by the sheer strength of cutting through air at high speeds, they could realize the contraption was something else entirely – a roller-coaster-like downward spiral accelerating relentlessly and irreversibly towards a bottomless pit of psychological torture.
The con of Saint Maud isn’t remotely related to what kind of entity the titular character is possessed by. In fact, Maud has more in common with Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver than with Regan from The Exorcist! Of course, the elements of the genre template work on their own quite successfully, but they gain a whole new dimension when re-contextualized as a study on mental derangement and social alienation. All of a sudden, the viewer – who is continually tantalized with ambiguous symbolism that can after all be decoded both as an element of the possession template and as a meta-commentary on it – is left with a realization their expectations were completely incompatible with what the filmmaker wanted them to take home from this film. And that’s the film’s greatest asset! Granted, some viewers might revolt at the thought they have been played like a little fiddle, because they don’t go to watch horrors about demons and possessed loners to emerge discombobulated and stirring with emotions they don’t quite know how to grapple with.
But some do and they, including Yours Truly, will cherish the idea of being had by a young whippersnapper of the filmmaking craft who – as it turns out – is such a cunning storyteller that she managed to turn a superficially predictable horror narrative into an ode to Taxi Driver and Bringing Out The Dead without raising too much suspicion. To continue this hyperbolic litany of plaudits, Saint Maud should frankly be remembered as a film that Todd Phillips’s Joker could have been had it not been overwhelmingly tone-deaf and shackled to the lore surrounding its titular character. It is a wonderfully crafted study on how mental health drastically alters one’s perception of the outside world. Moreover, perhaps incidentally it can be seen as a post-modernist take-down of organized religion as well. After all, especially with a view of how the film ends and the lengths to which it goes to drive its central thematic points across, what is organized religion if not a collective detachment from reality encouraged by tacit peer approval? And if an eighty-minute-long genre affair thriving on its own subservience towards perennial classics of cinema can send the viewer home grappling with the validity of their cultural upbringing, it should be viewed as nothing short of singular.