Around this time in 2020, I was eagerly anticipating watching the A24 Horror creeper Saint Maud in a dark, loud movie theater. Instead, it was released an entire year later, free with a week-trial subscription to some obscure, dire streaming platform called Epix (first I’ve ever heard of it). This never-ending pandemic has been an absolute motherfucker. I suspect the full immersive, communal movie theater experience would’ve greatly amplified the small moments & eerie tension that make Saint Maud great. I can only confirm that even at home, watching from my couch, underscored by the hum of traffic outside, the movie is still a recognizably substantial work. I still naively hope to see it projected in a proper movie theater someday.
Saint Maud‘s internal struggle between hedonism & religious zealotry speaks both to my unquenchable thirst for the grotesque as a horror nerd and my unending guilt-horniness-guilt cycle as a lapsed Catholic. The Catholicism angle is somewhat abstracted, though, as the title character (played by Morfydd Clark) subscribes to a unique religious doctrine of her own manic making — one adorned by spirals, beetles, and holy acetone. Maud is an at-home caretaker to a retired, famous dancer (Jennifer Ehle) who is dying of lymphoma. Her internal voiceover track is a direct conversation with God, as she makes it her personal mission to save the lesbian, drunkard artist’s soul before she perishes. Bored, the dancer plays along with this religious conversion to pass the time, cheekily referring to Maud as a living saint and her “Saviour”. She doesn’t realize she’s playing with fire, but the audience is fully aware that the charade can only end disastrously once Maud catches on that she’s being mocked.
If Saint Maud were purely an intergenerational struggle between a godless artist & her religious-nut nurse, it might have been an all-timer. In its best moments, it works like a psychobiddy thriller in reverse, with a deranged younger woman threatening to destroy the vulnerable employer in her care, and it could have generated a lot more throat-hold tension if it dwelled for longer on that relationship. Instead, the film is more of a fucked-up character study of a very specific, very broken mind. The erotic intimacy of the two women’s physical therapy sessions is just a fraction of the complex sexual mania swimming around in Maud’s head, which she often mistakes for religious ecstasy & divine bodily possession. When she kneels on rice or steps on nails as repentance for her “fallen” lapses into hedonism, it reads almost as a solitary act of BDSM as much as it is religious ritual. Her brain is on fire, and the longer it’s allowed to burn the further the movie escalates into spectacular, supernatural horror.
I might’ve liked Saint Maud even more if it weren’t so immersed in its main character’s psyche, since there was so much delicious tension brewing with her potential, captive victim. I also might’ve liked it more if I were further immersed in my own head while watching it, better isolated from the distractions of the world outside. As is, it’s still a solidly effective creep-out, a portrait of a sinister modern saint taking it upon herself to execute God’s will on Earth (often as a means of self-punishment for Impure desires). Despite the circumstances, it was well worth the wait.