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Saint Maud, A24
Courtesy of A24

Saint Maud: a religious psychological horror capturing the nightmare of now

Director Rose Glass expands on her heady British horror about a deeply religious nurse, how religious devotion parallels our online obsessions, and the ‘voyeuristic and pervy’ practice of cinema-going

It seems like a lifetime ago that Contagion was the talk of the nation. As lockdown measures were enforced one by one, Steven Soderbergh’s viral thriller encapsulated everyone’s frenzied, paranoid mood and put to screen the nightmare we were living through.

Six socially distanced months later, it’s the turn of Saint Maud. The psychological horror, written and directed by Rose Glass, details the mental deterioration of a shy loner, Maud, who’s starved of human contact and becomes susceptible to dangerous, ludicrous beliefs. In Maud’s case, it isn’t QAnon or Joe Rogan’s podcast, but a voice in her head she perceives to be from God – it’s up to Maud, she’s told, to save the world.

By coincidence, Saint Maud will also be doing its best to save UK cinemas (amidst the lack of assistance from a faltering, evil Tory government who deserve all the blame). In the upcoming weeks, Glass’s provocative, sexually charged indie about loneliness will be the biggest film outside of Tenet to be exclusive to theatres without an imminent VOD release. And, in many ways, the British director’s debut feature is a specifically theatrical experience. Its raucous world premiere at TIFF’s Midnight Madness led to bidding wars, won by StudioCanal and A24 in the UK and US, and Glass’s imagination is fucked-up enough to elicit collective screams, guilty laughs, and the kind of weird noises your body hasn’t made since the beheading in Hereditary.

Indeed, when I saw Saint Maud at the London Film Festival last year, one jump scare was so effective that it was all anyone could talk about in the lobby afterwards. Still, when I rewatched Saint Maud in September, having left my house once in two months, the most terrifying moment was actually a line of dialogue. Maud (Morfydd Clark), a carer, is visiting the bedside of a dying patient, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle); all of a sudden, Amanda snarls, “You must be the loneliest girl I’ve ever seen.” It’s a heart-breaking, world-shattering statement made the more crueller for its pitying tone and evident sincerity. Forget elevated horror – this is Jennifer Ehle-vated horror.

“A lot of people have suddenly found themselves mooching around in their pants all day, feeling confused and lost and freaked out. It chimes with lockdown rather well” – Rose Glass

Glass, in fact, nearly cut the line. It’s since been quoted in pretty much every review and featured in every trailer. “It was the idea that everyone’s lonely and isolated but connected to stuff on their phone,” the 30-year-old writer-director says, funnily enough, over the phone from Hackney. As we’re speaking a few days before the film’s release, she acknowledges the unexpected resonances of a movie she shot in 2018. “A lot of people have suddenly found themselves mooching around in their pants all day, feeling confused and lost and freaked out. It chimes with lockdown rather well.”

While Maud appears to be keeping six feet away from everyone, it’s really because she has no friends. A few blood-soaked flashbacks allude to an incident from when she was a nurse in the NHS. The rest of her background remains a mystery. At some point, she converted to Christianity and changed her name to Maud; the timidity of her mannerisms, so brilliantly executed with jittery precision by Clark, suggests the pain still lives in her bones. “She’s suffering from trauma that wasn’t properly dealt with,” Glass notes. “So there’s the theme of taking care of our caregivers, which is more relevant than ever.”

Now a nurse in the private sector, Maud is hired to look after a former ballerina with cancer, Amanda. For Maud, the job is twofold. Amanda throws boozy, drug-fuelled parties and indulges in lesbian romps – to Maud, or at least the voice in her head, Amanda’s soul must be saved. Once Amanda has religion Maud-splained to her, the pair experience God-related seizures on the sofa; judging by how Maud moans with pleasure and rolls her eyes, it’s actually a different kind of ecstasy she’s seeking. Is Maud, then, really just jealous of Amanda?

“Maud has feelings of jealousy mixed with desire,” Glass says, “but she isn’t able to acknowledge them, so it turns into a pious, judgemental ‘I’m better than you, I need to save you from these things’ – which are the exact same things she’s running from in herself! Her own desire; her own mortality; her own need for other people, which produces her shame. Maud wants people. She doesn’t have them. It’s easier to think, ‘I don’t need people. I’ve got God.’”

“Being a lonely, horny, awkward teenager going to an all-girls school and feeling like a loser just means that those things boil and bubble more intensely, and they come out in weird films when you’re older” – Rose Glass

In Glass’s early short films, repressed urges and solitude are also recurring motifs. In Moths, two neighbours get off on spying on each other through a peephole but fear actual conversation; in Room 55, her NFTS graduation project, a woman overhears a BDSM session through the walls and then pretends that bondage isn’t dominating her every single waking thought.

“Being a lonely, horny, awkward teenager going to an all-girls school and feeling like a loser just means that those things boil and bubble more intensely, and they come out in weird films when you’re older,” Glass says. “I don’t think it’s that weird.”

While Saint Maud isn’t a short film, it is a short film. At 84 minutes, the story is punchy, efficient, and less punishing if you’re wearing a mask. During principal photography, the script assistant estimated the running time would be under 80 minutes. “A couple of scenes we wrote during the shoot. In the script, you didn’t hear God – it was only in these physical episodes where she has these orgasmic seizures. But it felt stripped back too much. So we did a scene where God presents himself to Maud and is less ambiguous.”

When God communicates, his voice is booming, demonic, and accompanied with subtitles. That’s right, God is fluent in Welsh. “Throughout the shoot, I eavesdropped on Morfydd speaking in Welsh on the phone to her sister,” Glass recalls of the last-minute idea. “It was this language that people wouldn’t recognise, and it sounded mysterious and beautiful. At school, Morfydd sometimes said prayers in Welsh; if God does speak to her, it’d be in a voice that came from within her. It’s actually Morfydd’s voice pitched down!”

Clark disappears into Maud so effectively, it’ll be hard to see her as Galadriel in Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings series – partly because I have no plans to ever watch it, but her performance really is that intense. Assisted by Glass’s direction, Clark imbues Maud’s mental health struggles with empathy, not punched-down gags. In private, Maud’s torment is in her eyes and body language; in public, she blends into the background like a grain of sand on a beach. Maybe it’s exaggerated for horror-genre purposes, but there are Mauds everywhere among us, if not within us. Not just the loneliness but the existential dread. In a recent interview, Clark described the film as a metaphor for the pressures faced by twentysomethings today to be productive.

“To me, the relationship Maud has with God has a flavour of how I see people’s relationship with their online presence,” says Glass. “You constantly feel like you’re being watched, and your life is a performance that other people or a higher power will assess, judge, and criticise. You can be lonely in the physical world but have a big connection – in Maud’s case, to God, or to however many abstract fans you have on social media.”

As the viewer is so wrapped up in Maud’s POV, ordinary rooms and landscapes emulate her hallucinations: wallpaper patterns momentarily blur and lightbulbs fizzle disconcertingly. “I had Repulsion in my head,” Glass explains. “To me, that film is an amazing example of how you can do so much with so little. The concept is pretty much one character in a flat the entire film. The storytelling finds a juxtaposition between seemingly mundane, intimate moments and the grandiose, mythical, apocalyptic version of it. Depending on the context and your state of mind, some small, innocuous gesture could mean the world or be devastating. Film and literature is uniquely placed to get that across.”

“To me, the relationship Maud has with God has a flavour of how I see people’s relationship with their online presence“ – Rose Glass

So if Jason Blum offers her a blank cheque to remake a horror film of her choice, would she name Repulsion? “I’d take the money and say, ‘No, thank you!’ Rosemary’s Baby is one of my favourite films but the idea of remaking it – why would you do that? I liked the new Suspiria and that did something different. Maybe I don’t have the balls for it. I don’t want to sound like a snob but filmmakers should be telling new stories. The last time I went to the cinema, all the trailers were for remakes or existing IP. It’s depressing.”

Glass has, it turns out, been offered horror remakes, but declines to name them, even when I say it’d be good for the article. For the moment, her attention – aside from releasing Saint Maud during a global pandemic and the possible collapse of the film industry and civilisation as we know it – is on a film she’s hoping to shoot in America next year. “I’m using this time to get on with writing the script,” she teases. “It’s a romance, but not a very nice one.”

While A24 has indefinitely postponed the US date, the UK release is firmly going ahead; for 84 minutes, you can sit in a dark room and escape your Maud-like thoughts and live in someone else’s. Glass specifically mentions how thrilled she is to walk past posters with her name on it outside Hackney Picturehouse. A day after our conversation, it’s announced that all Cineworlds and Picturehouses will shut a day before the film comes out. There may be no Bond movie hogging the schedule, but who knows how long cinemas will last?

“We’re definitely the new Tenet,” Glass jokes. “I’m delighted it’s getting seen in cinemas. If you ask any director what they prefer, of course they’ll say it’s better in a cinema. I know a lot of films have gone onto VOD, and maybe that’s just naturally the way things go. For some smaller titles, maybe people are more likely to take a risk on something if they don’t have to leave their sofa for it. But there is definitely something about the collective cinema-watching experience.

“Maybe I’m being nostalgic or romanticising, but that thing of sitting together in the dark with strangers, watching something – there’s something a bit, I don’t know, voyeuristic and pervy about it, but in a good way. We shouldn’t lose those things.”

Saint Maud is out in UK cinemas on October 9