“Forgive me my impatience, but I hope you’ll reveal your plan for me soon,” says a young woman, walking down a narrow alleyway in a seaside English town. Her name is Maud, the “saint” in the title of writer-director Rose Glass’s unsettling, undeniably awe-inducing debut, and she is talking to God: “I can’t shake the feeling that you must have saved me for something greater than this.” As played by the Welsh actor Morfydd Clark, Maud is mousy, wallflower-y, the kind of person you wouldn’t necessarily notice if you strolled by her on the street. But she is indeed destined for something beside the sorrow and the piety of ordinary, quiet devotion. And like Maud and her deity, this extraordinary new addition to that old time religio-horror canon is going to take its time revealing exactly what its plan is — all the better to seriously fuck with your central nervous system, my dear.
Good things come to those who wait, however, and the fact that Glass — who, like Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) and Julia Ducournau (Raw) before her, displays a fully-formed-from-the-get-go sensibility that plays beautifully within a genre where things go bump in the psyche — operates at a slow-burn level is a feature, and not a bug. Speaking of bugs: That’s what Maud is staring at when we first meet her, some fat creepy-crawly scurrying across the ceiling as she cowers in the corner of a hospital room. An incident has transpired. We have no idea what it is, but it’s clearly bad. And whatever occurred has sparked a zealotry in this former nurse, hence the omnipresence of crosses in her flat and the constant chatting with a higher power.
She wants a mission, this newly converted child of Christ, and for her sins, she gets one. Taking on a palliative care gig, Maud is tasked with looking after Amanda Kohl (Jennifer Ehle, once again proving that she’s the most reliable supporting player working today), a renowned choreographer — sample work: The Body Is a Stage — who’s been diagnosed with Stage 4 lymphoma. (Maud to God: “I dare say you’ll be seeing her soon.”) This does not stop her from flirting with her new caregiver, or from holding on to the last of her boho-libertine ways. A caddish former male suitor pays visits, before telling Kohl she’s getting “dangerously Norma Desmond” and storming out of the picture. So does a young dancer (Lily Frazer), who settles in for some last-gasp intimacy and whose presence upsets Maud more.
Still, she and Amanda seem to share a bond, the sort that, judging from the “shivers” they jointly feel via a real or imagined metaphysical presence, is somewhere between deeply spiritual and slightly carnal. “My little savior,” Amanda coos. “It’s nothing to mop up after the dead and dying,” Maud confesses to the Lord. “But to save a soul? That’s quite something.”
Take note of that phrase “real or imagined” — whether Maud’s extreme version of faith has indeed given her direct access to divinity or if she’s simply suffering from a delusion-filled breakdown is key to what Glass is up to here. (You should also pay attention to that insect from the opening shot; it will make an encore.) Once things sour between these two women, followed by a public humiliation, a slap and a dismissal, the real work of unraveling begins. Some old-testament notions of self-flagellation get a modern update, and evidence of previous self-harm casually makes itself known. A finely tuned gothic eeriness — so many spine-tingling shots of ascending darkened staircases and passing through shadowy hallways! — shifts into surreality, paranoia and unexplained vortexes in pint glasses. There are other questions to be asked: Why did an old friend of Maud’s call her “Katie”? What happened in that hospital room? But when the film finally does jump feet-first into horror conventions, complete with a 1970s-style drone-dread score, the only thing that’s on your mind is: Is this all in her mind?
Because Glass knows exactly how to employ these well-worn images, these true-blue supernatural-scare moments, like a seasoned pro, it’s easy to simply, pleasurably take in Saint Maud as a possession potboiler. (Those chats she’s been having? Let’s just say the voice on the other end of that otherworldly line might not be God’s.) You can thrill to the sight of Clark being lifted off the floor, bent back in a perfect upside-U of a bridge, and the sound of some ancient dead language, being spoken in the most sepulchral of tones. There are Exorcist-ish moments in store — like we said, good things come to those that wait. You’ll be rewarded with a singularly beautiful late-act image likely to make you quietly utter “whoa,” and a clever, climactic two-shot toggle from ecstasy to agony that could make you loudly shriek.
But this is a film that practically demands you meet it on its level, and consider some deeper and far more disturbing elements regarding Maud’s mindset. Whether it’s a malevolent force or madness almost becomes superfluous — this young woman is losing herself to something bigger regardless. And here is where Clark comes in. She gives such an intensely physical performance, especially when Maud’s rage flares and some set pieces require her to become a virtual thrown-around rag doll. Yet it’s the inner landscape she’s letting you peek into, how Maud’s desperation for connection, her sense of isolation, the way that loneliness — and the trauma of whatever happened before she met Amanda — has warped her perspective that knocks you into submission. Glass films her heroine in increasingly narrow, claustrophobic frames as the movie goes on. Clark ups the ante by both emphasizing the way this holy roller keeps retreating into the crutch du jour of religion, and then further back into her own shaky head.
You could place Clark’s turn next to a number of other recent female performances in horror movies — a quick roll call would include Toni Collette in Hereditary, Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch, Aisling Franciosi in The Nightingale, Florence Pugh in Midsommar, Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man and Garance Marillier in Raw — in which a cocktail of anger, empowerment, confusion, and mental/emotional implosion results in something close to a psychological depth charge within a jump-scare-friendly narrative. And still, the Welsh actor’s work in this cracked character study stands out. The same could be said of Glass, who immediately establishes herself as a prime pusher of pressure points, and a filmmaker who can turn the screws without sacrificing empathy. After a yearlong delay because of you-know-what, A24 finally gave this British horror gem a theatrical release (remember those?) in late January. It premieres on Epix on February 12th; God and/or the devil willing, it should hopefully show up on other streaming platforms very soon. See it any way you can. It’s a genuine revelation, and the sort of holy terror that restores your faith in a genre.