SAINT MAUD (2019, United Kingdom)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Rose Glass
Cast: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Frazer
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 93% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A pious nurse becomes dangerously obsessed with saving the soul of her dying patient.

This is a review where the less I say about the plot, the better, so this will be a short one.

What happens when a horror movie that’s 84 minutes long is virtually all build-up to a shocking payoff in the last 10 minutes?  You divide audiences and critics, that’s what happens.  The handy-dandy Rotten Tomatoes website gives Saint Maud a hefty 93% critics score…but manages a substandard 65% from audiences.

I get it.  This film is an exercise in tone and mood.  In a word, it’s unsettling.  Look at it in hindsight and not much happens.  But this is one of those films where the destination isn’t really the point…it’s the journey.

Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a private nurse to a terminal cancer victim, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), who used to be a famous choreographer until she fell ill in her prime.  Maud seems timid and competent, but she is a recent convert to Catholicism and has taken its teachings perhaps a little too much to heart.  For example, when she prays in front of her makeshift altar at home to pray, she sprinkles unpopped popcorn kernels in front of her before she kneels.  This is based on fact: there is an outdated practice called Corporal Mortification where devout Christians would inflict self-harm while praying.  The sight of her knees settling on those kernels made me wince.  And I won’t even mention what she does to the insoles of her shoes.  She also experiences sporadic moments of religious ecstasy (what the filmmakers refer to as “Godgasms”, though that term is never mentioned in the film).  These mini-epiphanies have a disturbing tendency to end just as Maud’s face seems to stretch beyond any human capability.  Creepy.

(A brief prologue also insinuates that something horrific may have happened in Maud’s previous posting, but it’s left mostly in the background.  Mostly.)

Maud is taken with Amanda, perhaps physically, but mostly with the idea that she can help save Amanda’s soul.  Staring death in the face, Amanda has little time for religion, but she humors Maud’s prayers before meals and even seems to experience a tiny bit of religious ecstasy along with Maud.  But beneath everything is this undercurrent of dread or foreboding.  Director Rose Glass is an expert at framing simple scenes in a way that conveys much more than what is visible to the eye.  Lights flicker.  There are subtle focus racks reminiscent of Vertigo.  Occasional voiceovers give a glimpse into Maud’s mind about her faith in God and her doubts.

I could say more about the plot, but I think that would detract from the experience of watching the film.  The tension and suspense leading up to the film’s climactic outburst are expertly sustained.  …and that one single cockroach is creeeepy…

No doubt some viewers will walk away from Saint Maud feeling the same way the Rotten Tomatoes voters felt.  I can’t think of anything that might change your mind if that’s the case.  This movie is a master class in generating a suspenseful atmosphere on a budget.  There are some obvious visual effects, but they are used sparingly and effectively.  There are stretches where we are led to believe, due to years of conditioning from previous films, that something super scary is about to happen…and then it doesn’t.  This happens a lot.  But I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  When done right, suspense in a film is a welcome experience.  To have a film where the entire movie is constructed out of suspense is a minor miracle.

Watch this one with the lights out and the doors unlocked.  I double-dog dare you.

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