Today we are taking a look at another fantastic horror movie from the UK. Well, I say horror but, as with our review of Calibre, Saint Maud is more of a drama based thriller with horror elements. The horror genre is so diverse, however, that I believe it fits on a horror movie review site just fine. The ratio of horror to drama in Saint Maud is just enough for it to qualify.
Before I start, it is probably worth me mentioning that I loved Saint Maud. I understand it will not be for everyone. Some people may be bored due to the movie’s slow pacing and lack of action and that’s absolutely fine, I definitely understand that. For everyone else, there is a fantastic movie here that keeps you engrossed. Saint Maud creates a horrifically bleak world that is hard to forget.
We have covered Saint Maud in a Horror Movie Ending Explained article so feel free to go and check that out if you have just watched the movie and are looking for answers. Everyone else should avoid the article as it is impossible to write without filling the article with spoilers. This review is spoiler free so stay here and carry on reading.
One of the reasons I wanted to review Saint Maud was to clear up some of the confusion regarding this movie. Many horror movie review sites seem to review Saint Maud as if it is a traditional horror movie. People read the review and go in expecting something similar to The Exorcist only to be disappointed.
This is a bit of a disservice to the movie itself and to the person watching. Saint Maud is not a traditional horror movie. In fact, it’s barely a horror movie at all. It has horror elements and a few stylistic nods to movies such as the aforementioned Exorcist but it is not similar to these kinds of movies.
Saint Maud is almost a character study and far closer to a drama than it is to even a thriller. If you are expecting a traditional psychological horror movie, you will likely be disappointed. If you are an open minded horror fan that enjoys slower paced, character driven drama with horror elements, there is a lot to love in Saint Maud. Traditional horror movie fans, however, should perhaps look elsewhere as you may be bored to tears.
I point this out every now and then but it always seems a little more relevant with movies like Saint Maud. Here at Knockout Horror we just offer a simple, straight forward, movie review. Apparently films like Saint Maud inspire many reviewers to write a 5000 word dissertation examining the psychological aspects of the film and fawning over the metaphors and deeper meaning intended by the director.
I have no intention, or desire, to do that. Don’t get me wrong, I can get a little wordy and type too much but I want to offer something different: a straight up movie review that lets you know whether the film is worth watching. There is a big difference between a movie analysis and a review but it would appear that some people are confused by that. I’ll leave the deep analysis to the reviewers who enjoy getting lost in the weeds and missing the whole point of a review site.
Saint Maud is a psychological horror that leans far more heavily towards being a drama or thriller. Now, it could be just me but doesn’t it seem like there are a lot of psychological horror movies around lately? I honestly think there is an element of psychological horror that is used to stroke the ego of the audience a little. It’s quite easy to slap in a psychological twist and give the audience a quick nudge or hint. When they recognise it they can feel somewhat accomplished. Part of believing a movie is good is feeling rewarded or satisfied when watching.
I think the main reason, however, for the surge in psychological horror is more simple. People can relate more easily to the protagonist or to the situation itself. Psychological horror can be based firmly in reality. A film need only take small steps outside what would be considered believable to set up the scares. A psychological horror never has to completely give up the realism that makes the situation scary. There is always the lingering question about whether what the character is seeing is real or not. That allows for a lot of flexibility in the plot.
With all of the above in mind, we have Saint Maud. Saint Maud follows the life of Maud (Morfydd Clark), a nurse providing palliative care for a woman called Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) in the extremely depressingly presented seaside resort of Scarborough. Amanda is suffering from terminal cancer but was formerly a world renowned American dancer.
Although we know little about her past, it appears as though Maud once worked at a nursing home but was involved in an incident. Formerly something of a party girl with an affinity for hook ups, she has since converted to Christianity (Catholicism I believe). Maud has become extremely devout in her beliefs, some might say fanatical. She believes God speaks directly to her and is instructing her personally. She sees signs of God in everyday mundane things and all of her actions are based around her religious beliefs.
In stark contrast to Maud, Amanda is a free spirit used to living life in the limelight. After touring the world as a dancer, living the high life, she has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She is confined to a wheelchair and feels jaded by her current existence. Amanda struggles to cope with the boredom of her everyday life. She smokes and drinks profusely and spends much of her time with a lady, Carol (Lily Frazer). Amanda pays Carol for sex and company but also spends time with another man. Amanda is wry, quick witted, and sceptical of life as a whole.
Maud is employed to provide care for Amanda. This opens up an interesting relationship between two entirely different types of people. The religious Maud, devout and living without sin. Amanda the hedonistic former world famous dancer devoid of belief in anything.
Amanda, amused by the pious and extremely serious Maud, begins to warm up to her carer. For better or for worse she engages her on her beliefs. Amanda even attempts to share in the feelings experienced by Maud.
Maud experiences God on a level that few others apparently do. She actually feels God and God provides her with an almost sexual form of pleasure. She preaches scripture to Amanda and passes minor judgement over the way she is living her life. Amanda appears to listen but it seems apparent that she is almost amused by the things Maud says and sees her as something of a distraction from the boredom and loneliness of her life. Over time, the two become closer and actually begin to enjoy each other’s company.
Maud notices that Amanda is being visited by Carol frequently. It is apparent to Maud that Amanda is paying Carol for sex. Maud doesn’t approve of this debauchery as it evidently goes against her religious beliefs. Under the guise of protecting Amanda; Maud warns Carol to leave and never contact Amanda again. It’s at this point that things begin to unravel for Maud.
It is very apparent that the religious beliefs of Maud are the engine driving the story. All the actions in the movie revolve around them. The ending of the movie is the culmination of all of these beliefs. There is a prevailing question throughout, however, and that is whether Maud is genuinely experiencing these events or whether she is mentally unwell.
This is a fairly obvious theme when it comes to these types of psychological horror movies. Is Maud actually communicating with God? Maud’s faith is exceptional and she believes God talks directly to her (in Welsh no less). She performs acts of self flagellation and self harm in the name of spiritual discipline and lives a meagre existence. Her greatest pleasure comes from the almost orgasmic feeling she gets when she feels God.
Saint Maud leans heavily into this theme and, indeed, it is the backbone of the movie. From the honest intent to care for another person right through to the horrific events that unfold, Maud is simply following the instruction of God. She, unfortunately, falls down an increasingly deep spiral of events pertaining to her religious beliefs and the innate desire to stray from them. She believes she has a mission directly from God and will follow it through to the end.
The mental health and religion aspect is something that Saint Maud does well. Better than many other movies I have seen in fact. The presentation of religious devotion as being a potential mental illness is so seamless. You never quite know which of the two Maud is experiencing. Of course, I have an idea but I will expand on that in my upcoming Saint Maud Ending Explained article.
Religion is based on an innate belief deep inside humans that either comes from nature or nurture. It’s said, after all, that faith itself is proof enough that there is a God. How does one recognise the difference between mental illness and the word of God? Surely you need unwavering belief to be devoutly religious? What if you were suffering from a psychosis based mental illness and didn’t know. Would you be able to question or doubt the religious events you experience?
Crucially, we see everything through Maud’s perspective. There is no ambiguity with what Maud is seeing; through her eyes, these things are happening to her. These events could, in reality, be genuinely happening. More likely, however, it is a case of psychosis brought on by a severe mental illness. Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder all feature psychosis as a symptom.
Psychosis is the loss of contact with reality. I am a bipolar disorder sufferer and have personal experience with this. Psychosis is the absolute belief in the things you are thinking, or experiencing, being real. Whether it is the delusion that you are invincible, something I have experienced with my own condition, or something more severe such as hallucinations. Perception is reality and the director of Saint Maud, Rose Glass, has a keen understanding of this. With this in mind, who is to say whether the things Maud is experiencing are real or not?
I think people would have a hard time believing that this is Rose Glass’s feature length directorial debut. That’s without mentioning that she is also the writer. What a fantastic debut and a new name to watch out for in the horror world. Everything is beautifully done from the pacing and style right through to the story and everything in between.
The decision to use Scarborough as the backdrop for this movie was perfect. Coming from North Wales, I am all too aware of the damage done to seaside resorts in the past 30 years. Scarborough is no different. This once incredible town is somewhat down on its luck. It is seeing many of the same problems as the other seaside resorts in the UK. Filming during, what I assume to be, the dreary winter months was an inspired move. The town provides an incredibly bleak and depressing backdrop to the events of the movie.
Cinematography is exceptional. It does a fantastic job of framing the morbid atmosphere created by the story and location. There’s a significant use of handheld cameras. It almost feels like you are watching over the shoulders of the characters. This lends a very personal feeling to many of the scenes. You are drawn right into the room with Maud in her most vulnerable moments.
Lighting is gloomy and extremely moody but perfect for the theme. There are lots of ambient views of the Scarborough coast. There are, also, plenty of drawn out, lingering shots. All of this really pulls you in. There is a very deliberate depressive grimness to everything. A haze covers many of the shots. The greyness of the environment underscores the mood of the movie perfectly. There’s also extensive use of religious iconography hidden throughout the film. It is a wonderfully immersive audio and visual experience throughout, as miserable as it is.
Saint Maud features some fantastic acting performances from the two leads. Morfydd Clark, as Maud, is incredible. She has a hell of a task basically carrying the entire movie shot by shot. Maud is the absolute focus of the story and Morfydd is entirely up to the task. She is very fitting as a meek, pious woman of faith. You can also entirely believe the darker elements of her character. Subtle facial expressions reflect deep emotions. On top of this, she carries with her a sense of vulnerability that belies some of the events in the film.
Some of the scenes Morfydd Clark is in must have been difficult to film. The range of emotions she has to portray are vast but she does a fantastic job. As a Welsh dude, it’s nice to see a Welsh actor doing really well. It’s also very nice to see the use of the Welsh language injected into the movie. It did make me laugh to see someone refer to it as “some demonic tongue” in a user review. Nope, it is Welsh.
Jennifer Ehle is also fantastic as Amanda. She adds an incredibly fitting sarcastic tone to the character. Jennifer perfectly represents the globe trotting, high profile, dancer she portrays. She also does a great job of evoking sympathy from the viewer given her condition. We are supposed to see her as bitter and spiteful. Jennifer Ehle forces us to see what the cancer has stolen from her and draws sympathy. She is likeable but with a hint of pretention. There is always the suggestion that she could be make your life very difficult if you got on the wrong side of her.
Due to its 84 minute runtime, Saint Maud never really out stays its welcome despite its slow pace. If you are not engaged in the plot this will probably feel like three hours. The deep religious themes and mental health elements might not be enough to keep some viewers engaged. The movie is not a traditional horror and is not exactly action packed. Additionally, there are times when the plot can bounce around a little with no real explanation. To see the highly religious Maud suddenly drinking too much in a bar can be a bit confusing. This is all very deliberate and makes sense given the context of the story. If you enjoy movies like Lovely Molly, you will likely be fine with Saint Maud.
It is worth noting that there are heavy religious themes, mental health themes, scenes of self harm, masturbation, both consensual and non-consensual sex, and rear nudity. If that type of thing is not for you you might want to avoid Saint Maud. It is never particularly indulgent with regards to its more graphic scenes. The sex scenes feature only rear nudity and are important to the plot. There is also a shower scene featuring rear nudity that does a fantastic job of illustrating how vulnerable and damaged Maud is. This is a good example of nudity being used in a movie effectively. The violence, however, can be graphic but it seems most people would rather see a beheading than a nipple.
Saint Maud is a fantastic Psychological horror movie that leans a lot more towards drama and thriller than traditional horror elements. It may not be for everyone due to this. The pacing is deliberate and slow with little in the way of action or scares but beneath this is a fantastic movie that burrows into your head and stays there long after the movie has finished.
Expertly balancing themes of religion, mental health, mortality and purpose, Saint Maud is a disturbing movie that demonstrates the fine line between fanaticism and insanity. Featuring fantastic acting from Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle as well as some truly disturbing scenes, Saint Maud can't be recommended to everyone. Traditional horror fans may find little to enjoy but fans of psychological horror, thrillers, that are happy to take a deep character dive will absolutely love this movie.