▶ Saint Maud is in UK cinemas.
Horror speaks of its times: the threats, the anxieties, the shapeshifting boogeymen recast for every generation’s worst nightmares. Sometimes as blunt as a hammer, other times concealing an allegory as sharp as a knife in the chest, horror on the big screen has given us some of cinema’s most astute takes on life and the way we live it. From confronting the true depth of racism in America, in George A. Romero’s 1968 zombie classic Night of the Living Dead; to gross consumerism, in his 1978 follow-up Dawn of the Dead; domestic abuse, in this year’s The Invisible Man; to invasion and occupation, in Jaromil Jires’s psychedelic 1970 Czech fantasy Valerie and Her Week of Wonders; prejudice against 80s queer culture, in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed (1990); to McCarthyism and communism, in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956); the Vietnam war, in John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972); to grief and suppression, in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2013); STDs, in David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014); to a fear of the foreign, in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) and countless other home-invasion films. The list goes on, etcetera, etcetera, forever and amen.
On the surface, no film says more about these times in which we’re living than Host, Rob Savage’s smart hour-long séance movie that premiered on the new horror streaming channel Shudder earlier this summer. Shot entirely through Zoom, the video conferencing app made famous during the pandemic by work-from-home zombies, it achieved the rare distinction of capturing a moment just as its audience was actually experiencing it, becoming a viral hit. It’s brilliant and deserves every plaudit – Savage has since signed a three-picture deal with Blumhouse Productions – but Host is more Marshall McLuhan than Romero. The medium is the message.
To really tap into the deeper anxieties of modern life, a more inward journey is needed, a more introspective examination of what it means to be human, to be desperate, to be damaged and, in a brutally mundane way, to be lonely. Almost half the population of the UK experience feelings of loneliness a few times a month, according to a 2019 YouGov personality study. In America, a Cigna survey earlier this year described the situation as an “epidemic”, with almost two-thirds of people surveyed by the health services company saying they were lonely. It’s the deep-set, destructive condition of our times.
And this is the life of Maud, the character at the heart of the debut feature by director Rose Glass. Finally released on 9 October via StudioCanal in Europe and A24 in the States after a six-month Covid-enforced delay, Saint Maud follows the story of a burned-out, self-harming young palliative care nurse, played by Morfydd Clark. Maud is looking for purpose, forgiveness and someone to save in a bleak seaside town, loomed over by a large house on the hill in which Amanda, played by Jennifer Ehle, a middle-aged American dancer with great taste in art deco wallpaper, is dying of cancer.
Amanda is exotic and uninhibited and at the same time scared and bored, preparing herself for death. Maud is busy, diligent and deluded, driven by misplaced hope. Their relationship develops within the confines of two limited spaces – Amanda’s grand house and Maud’s imagination. Amanda’s house is a surreal porthole into 1920s glamour, Maud’s bedsit a black hole into her damaged mind and the salvation she’s seeking through what seems like a recent but intense finding of God. This astute characterisation, and the confidence with which the pair are brought together then ripped apart with extreme consequences across a very simple three-act structure, point to why Glass is such a hotly tipped talent.
Saint Maud is a clear evolution from the short film that first piqued Film4’s interest in Glass, her 2014 National Film and Television School graduation film Room 55. In a surreal hotel bubbling with repressed sexual desire that sits somewhere between the inn where the handcuffed fugitives spend the night in The 39 Steps and the red room in Twin Peaks, a 1950s TV chef has a night she’ll never forget. “People going mad in confined spaces seems to be a thing I keep being drawn back to,” Glass tells me, quite aptly, in a tiny meeting room at BFI Southbank in London, pre-pandemic. “Maybe that’s just how it feels when you’re writing something.”
The idea for Saint Maud came while Glass was studying at NFTS. “Initially it was a love story between Maud and God,” she explains. “I started to wonder, ‘Who is this girl?’ and ‘Why doesn’t anyone else know what’s going on?’” Shot with the visual intensity of 1970s psychological thrillers cut through with traces of melodrama and Thatcherite depression, the film wears its obvious influences proudly: Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Bergman’s Persona (1966) and Through a Glass Darkly (1976), all washed out with the unmistakable bleakness of the British seaside.
Glass also draws heavily on William Blake imagery – Maud uses a book on Blake given to her by Amanda almost as an instruction manual on piety – and names her environment appropriately to enhance the symbolism. Maud means “powerful battler”; the hospital where she used to work is named after Saint Afra, whose martyrdom echoes Maud’s fate.
But it’s not just dark; it’s funny too. The first description we get of Amanda, from a nurse hurrying out of the house as swiftly as Katie Nanna in Mary Poppins, is that she’s “a bit of a cunt”. Maud responds to Amanda’s probing about her Mary Magdalene scapular with: “I ordered it online.” Amanda’s drunken row with her friend Richard is ended abruptly with: “Darling, don’t be petulant, you’re getting dangerously Norma Desmond.”
“I knew on the surface it sounded like it could be this bleak, intimate, intense psychological story,” Glass explains. “But from the very beginning it was going to be heightened and stylised and fun and exciting. The humour was really important for me to bring that out. Characters that you like but don’t quite trust.”
Key to this is the deft interplay between Jennifer Ehle and Morfydd Clark. Ehle is a veteran of British costume drama and Hollywood, making her name in the 1995 BBC TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and going on to appear in Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech (2010), Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012). For Clark this is her first breakout role, having appeared in last year’s BBC adaptations of Dracula and His Dark Materials, with the new small-screen version of Lord of the Rings next up. Their odd casting, and the Otherness they bring to the location, is the backbone of the film.
“That was a nice thing that came through the casting,” says Glass. “The fact that they’re both from different places, like America and Wales, and they’ve ended up in this random weird little English seaside town. On the surface they’re so different and come from very different walks of life and seem to have quite different attitudes, but they’re both lonely, isolated people trying to escape their reality.”
There’s little doubt that Saint Maud will be a huge turning point in Clark’s career. Her powerful performance brings a sobering clarity to the story, even at its most vivid and disturbing. In the film’s most horrific scene, Maud pushes pins through the insoles of her shoes and steps into them, screaming in pain. It then cuts to her walking along the seafront, the agony boiling beneath her skin as she struggles to keep her composure.
Not for a second do you imagine that those pins aren’t really in her shoes as she hobbles along, and not for a second is your empathy broken. It’s a powerful depiction of self-harm – a fragile, almost child-like woman with a reclusive nature and an inability to connect, who finds a strength from within greater than most of us could muster, only to hurt herself rather than help herself.
“Morfydd is great, she made my job a lot easier,” Glass says. “Both she and Jennifer are phenomenal actors, really effortless; they get stuff so quickly, so we had time to try different things out. She brings so much to it because the character has to go to such weird, extreme places. If you don’t buy into her as a character, the whole film falls apart.
“Maud’s version of faith is obviously a pretty strange one,” she continues. “It’s morphed into a weird, ultimately self-destructive form of self-care, of trying to keep herself together and keep herself feeling in control. Life is confusing and chaotic, and it’s tempting and seductive to be drawn to things that make it seem clear and understandable. But being pushed too far in that direction can lead to quite dangerous things.”
Like Room 55, Saint Maud explores ideas of repression and the search for ecstasy. The seizures that Maud experiences sometimes feel like orgasms, other times like epileptic fits. Says Glass: “The connection between sexuality and faith – that’s why the moments where she feels God moving through her like a sexual undercurrent didn’t come from a particularly theological point of view, it was much more instinctual.
“Her and Amanda, they’re reaching for the same thing, which could be a religious experience, could be a sexual experience. Even if you’re not religious, you can connect to that idea of wanting to feel like a part of something bigger than yourself, transcending your body in some way.”
This culminates in the film’s most visually memorable moment as Maud, in her dingy, sparse room, vomits, fits, then levitates, Regan MacNeil-style, as Adam Janota Bzowski’s stomach-churning score rattles the edges of the scene with its heavy bass.
“To me, that seizure scene is God grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking her up – ‘For God’s sake girl, sort yourself out’ – and then giving her this extra boost of rapture, which sets her back on the holy path,” says Glass. This is the pivot point of the film, as act three begins with Maud in the shower, her voiceover full of hope and relief: “Revelation, and just in time. Oh Lord, your mercy knows no bounds.”
From the connection of the first act to the rejection of the second, Maud now knows her purpose, and we find ourselves in a stalker story, hunter and hunted. As Maud looks up through a seafront telescope towards Amanda’s house on the hill, she reminds herself to “never waste your pain”.
How much of an influence did Glass’s own religious upbringing have on the film? Her grandfather was a vicar, she went to an all-girls Catholic school. Was she challenging some kind of sense of herself?
“It’s weird, you end up psychoanalysing yourself,” she says. “Why was I drawn to this? I don’t know what it says about me being repressed or not. I’m just interested in what makes people tick and the different ways we all find to make sense of what we’re doing here. I guess that comes from all sorts of places, but sometimes the scariest place to get trapped is inside your own mind.”
As a young female director, Rose Glass gets asked a lot about gender and representation in filmmaking. From her point of view “it’s more interesting to have more diversity in directors, because everyone, anyone, who writes feeds into their own experiences and thoughts.” She’s keen to stress, however, that “I didn’t consciously set out a particular thing I want to say about being a woman, I just write as a woman.
“All these conversations about more diversity in director isn’t just about gender,” she continues, “but there is more interest in enabling female-driven stories, and I guess maybe it’s interesting that a lot of them seem to be tapping into pretty horrifying things. I don’t know what that says about women, but I think that’s interesting. I get surprised sometimes by how I’ve had some interviewers asking: ‘Are you worried that women will be turned off by the violence?’, or ‘How did you handle the gore?’, and it’s like: ‘Have you met women before?’”
While the surface influences on Saint Maud are clear, Glass drew on a deeper pool of tastes and interests to create the world of Amanda and Maud, which extended much further than traditional horror tropes.
In fact she doesn’t consider herself “a massive horror nerd” at all, rather “as a teenager, working at my own taste in films, it was always the stranger, shocking, surprising things that felt immediately quite far removed from my own life that I connected with, discovering filmmakers like Lars von Trier, David Cronenberg and John Waters. Things exploring the slightly more horrific side of what it is to be human.”
Beyond movies, she was influenced by Iain Banks’s 1984 novel The Wasp Factory, as well as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. “Those are the only two books I was thinking about when I was writing it,” she says. “In terms of having these intense interior monologues and protagonists who were antiheroes with a mixture of self-loathing and arrogance, which I find quite sympathetic when you can see the flaws in characters.
“Of course, Notes from the Underground influenced [Robert Bresson’s 1951] Diary of a Country Priest and [Martin Scorsese’s 1976] Taxi Driver, both of which I was thinking about a little in terms of the character of Maud.” And what about the often suggested influences of The Exorcist (1973) or Carrie (1976)? “I don’t think I ever once consciously thought about The Exorcist or Carrie when I was writing it.”
Having premiered in Midnight Madness at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019, Saint Maud screened a month later at the 63rd BFI London Film Festival, where Glass was awarded the IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Bursary Award. Chair of the jury Danny Boyle called the film “a thrilling cinematic journey through madness, faith and death”.
Given the length of the journey to general release, there’s been plenty of time for Glass to get her head around the hype surrounding her. So how does she feel about it now?
“Until it was actually happening, the main question I always had in my mind was: will I ever get to do this thing that I’ve always wanted to do?” she says. “Being on the other side of it, having now actually made a film, I think everything has just caught me completely by surprise and all this stuff that’s happening now is massively exceeding anything I expected.
“I’m trying not to think about it too much. I have this massive impostor syndrome. I’m painfully aware of my good fortune happening to come up and make my first feature at a time that people seem to be so particularly interested in female directors and horror. But I’ve just always tried to be led by wanting to make the kind of films I would want to see.”
Good fortune has nothing to do with it. Saint Maud is a compelling and impactful film, a remarkable debut, and one of the most human and empathetic horrors of recent times. As such, Glass deserves the attention, and the excitement around her as an important future figure in British film is justified. So what comes next?
“I’m still very new to it all. Nick Rowland, whose film Calm with Horses has just come out, was the year below me in NFTS, so maybe there’s a bit of a wave, or just something in the air that people respond to. Or maybe we’re all just alive at the same time.
“I’ve got something in development working with the same producers again, and I’d love to shoot something next year, but I’ve no idea what’ll happen at this point. I’ve got a couple of other ideas I want to start getting on to, one of them is a bit horror, one of them is sort of not.
“I think [the work] will continue to be intense, psychological stuff. Genre films, particularly horror, can get away with pushing things more, and it being a strength of the work, particularly when you start incorporating surreal elements. It lends itself more to slightly allegorical, metaphorical readings, which I like.”
A broken health service, a dereliction of duty of care, a desperation for a connection of any kind, an unseen malevolent force playing tricks with the mind. Maud’s horror is our horror. Her time – and that of her creator Rose Glass – is very much now.
Saint Maud: a heady British horror duet, up close and devoted
Rose Glass’s potent debut puts us into the fervent hands and head of Morfydd Clark’s troubled young care worker as she brings her ministrations to Jennifer Ehle’s disabled ex-dancer.
By Ela Bittencourt