There’s always several movies released each year that aren’t “bad” in the conventional sense but because they’ve been so overrated by critics, they feel all the more disappointing when you finally watch them. Ever since its film festival run, Saint Maud has been lauded as “chilling”, “disturbing”, and “unsettling”, going on to receive a wimple-whopping 93% on Rotten Tomatoes (correct at the time of writing this review). For all intents and purposes, this means Saint Maud is 7-percent shy of being a flawless movie, but that simply isn’t true. This film is nowhere near perfection, in fact there’s numerous issues including narrative and direction, but you’ll never hear mainstream critics admitting it.
Saint Maud is a “psychological” horror film about a palliative care nurse named Maud (played by Morfydd Clark). Maud has converted to Roman Catholicism and she’s become obsessed with saving the soul of Amanda Köhl (played by Jennifer Ehle) who is under her care. Amanda is an ex-dancer, ex-choreographer, a minor celebrity, and “a bit of a cunt” (as described by her former nurse) but she’s not portrayed as in need of saving or in need of sympathy – she’s just there – neither the villain or the hero. Maud is neither the protagonist or antagonist either. We discover that her last job in the healthcare profession ended in tragedy, that she’s hiding her true identity and that her real name is Katie (or Katy or whichever spelling variant). The crux of the plot which is about caring for a terminally ill patient is relatively depressing, but the way in which this film is shot and presented (constantly moving the camera which is routinely out of focus) the downcast atmosphere is raised to levels of pretentiousness not seen in the genre since Trey Edward Shults’ similarly overrated, boring, and not-scary-at-all It Comes at Night.
As soon as critics sense even a whiff of Catholicism in the horror genre, they instantly begin to compare said works to The Exorcist. The comparisons between Saint Maud and that film end with the fact that the first act of both movies is as dull as holy dish water. But whereas William Friedkin’s horror classic makes up for the yawn-inducing opener with a strong final act, Saint Maud never really gets anywhere.
I’ve read online that the ending was seen as “shocking” by some reviewers but I disagree. A potentially artistic and touching inclusion of angel wings (which could have been poignant during the fire scene) are shown to the audience too early which makes the final pre-credit image a little anti-climactic and a tad forgettable. What bothered me the most however, is the idea of pain and its relation to the narrative. If a character is going to revel in their suffering (Maud says “never waste your pain”) and therefore follow the example of Jesus, maybe don’t at the same time give handjobs in toilet cubicles and bang random strangers you meet whilst inebriated. That’s not particularly Christ-like. And how pray tell, do you save someone’s soul by screaming and repeatedly stabbing them with a pair of ornate scissors? A sure-fire way of getting to heaven I’m sure. 🧐👼
Now before I go any further, I’ll point out that I’m not Catholic; I’m not well-versed in the teachings of Cathol (shout-out to the younger Eddie Izzard) but everything I and most of the public know about this religion doesn’t seem to fit into this picture. For example; isn’t a saint supposed to be responsible for or be able to perform a miracle? Isn’t fornication outside of marriage sinful? Isn’t suicide a sin? Isn’t murder a sin? If you’re a Catholic and the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, then Saint Maud falls short of being a genuine Catholic horror movie unlike the aforementioned Exorcist which apparently depicted an exorcism accurately (minus the rotating head and levitating – obviously).
For me, Saint Maud has more in common with The Vigil, at least in terms of set-up and tone (death amidst religion). It also shares it’s slow-pace with A Dark Song which similarly went through the monotony and tedium of a job, albeit casting spells and communication with the afterlife or other-worldly creatures, but the finale in that movie made-up for the rather slow start. Saint Maud unlike these two films, doesn’t ever feel emotional or satisfying at any point. And in terms of scares, there are none. This is not a modern-day The Exorcist, not by a long shot.
Of course, Saint Maud may have nothing to do with Catholicism. The film might actually be about mental illness and how religious belief is akin to being crazy (levitating is all in the mind). This explains the inclusion of William Blake’s art (made famous in Hollywood by Manhunter and Red Dragon) because he was someone who was against organised religion. That’s all well and good but whether anti or pro-religion, this movie never shocks your beliefs or makes you reassess your opinions. It’s just a plodding, bleak, wannabe-horror film that for some unknown reason, mainstream critics have taken to, like an over-educated duck to tasteless water. This is the kind of film that come this Friday, Mark Kermode will be jizzing all over, but most of the public will be turned off by.
Written and directed by Rose Glass, this is an average feature debut. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – directors ranging from John McTiernan to Ridley Scott have made unimpressive debuts but gone on to make a classic or two – I wish critics would stop blowing smoke cartridges up all new filmmakers’ arses. The cinematography by Ben Fordesman and music by Adam Janota Bzowski isn’t much better than the direction; it’s all created with the intention of being brooding and eerie but it falls short every time it matters. All of the shocks amount to digitally-elongated faces which didn’t look impressive back in the late-’90s in The Devil’s Advocate and they certainly aren’t awe-inspiring (or hair-raising) in the early-’20s. I will say that Morfydd Clark plays the central character of Maud rather well, although she’s not given that much in the way of plot to show a slow descent into madness. Jennifer Ehle on the other hand, isn’t that memorable as Amanda, unless you listen closely to her unconvincing accent. Regardless of the acting talent involved, the film at 83 minutes takes too long to get going and the scares are too short to compensate.
So is this movie a comment about life (as Amanda says: “nothing you do matters”)? Is it about how humans become either existential or find faith in times of pain and grief? Is it a comment on end of life care, lapsed Catholics, demonic possession, madness, escaping one’s past, or salvation? It might be all of these things, it might be none of these things but who can tell in such a lacklustre flick? The finished film makes any and all of these topics redundant. Saint Maud is simply: a bit crap.
With movie studios constantly moving the release dates of their blockbusters, cinemas around the globe are losing money with certain chains temporarily (and possibly permanently) closing their doors. This is an unfortunate situation not least because going to the movies is one of the better aspects of entertainment (and life). You’d think that the studios would offer smaller-budget movies to the multiplexes to plug-up the gap. Films like Saint Maud and Possessor could easily find a bigger audience given the right sort of marketing. But alas, the industry would rather see their filmic middleman die a terrible death whilst promoting a handful of shite streaming services. But I digress.
Saint Maud was originally scheduled to be released in May this year, and it was then moved to the 9th of October but venues screening this film will now be hard to find, especially after the recent news of Cineworld cinemas and Regal theater closures as well as Odeon’s new weekend-only model. That being said, no matter how good Saint Maud is to hipster film students and mainstream critics, this is a small, non-mainstream horror-drama, and even though we’re amidst the Halloween season with audiences craving cinematic scares, Maud will not be cinema’s saviour.