Saint Maud is unexpected, even by horror movie standards.
Sure, writer-director Rose Glass revisits the same thematic ground broken decades ago by iconic titles, including Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen. But unlike so many of the "religious horror" films that came before it, Saint Maud doesnt have its characters confront the devil or wage war on any unholy spirit.
Now, if somebody says they hear the voice of God in their head, they get treated quite differently, dont they?
Instead, Glass reignites the Catholicism, but make it spooky subgenre with a twisted character study of a lonely nurse. Maud, played by the exquisite Morfydd Clark, isn't plagued by an otherworldly demonic presence. No, her very real devotion to God just goes, as Glass so diplomatically puts it, to some messed up places.
I knew the kind of film I wanted to make was very much set in someone's head, Glass told Mashable in an April 2020 phone interview (back when Saint Maud was supposed to hit U.S. theaters before pandemic-related delays).
We all live in the same world, but we're kind of trapped in these weird fleshy bodies and we all experience reality so subjectively. I was really interested in that divide."
Of course, interiority isnt exactly fresh territory for scary movies either. But if you've finished your first Saint Maud viewing, then you know: Glass combination of recognizable religious horror tropes with the intricately crafted, but still grounded psychology of her main character is uniquely effective. Perhaps it goes without saying, but not every movie can make the "Let's have our main character self-immolate on a crowded beach, and then immediately roll the credits!" ending.
It always fascinated me that thousands of years ago, if somebody said that they heard the voice of God in their heads, then people would think a miracle had happened or that person was some sort of saintly, revered figure," Glass notes of the inspirations behind her film, and its explosive finale.
"Now, if somebody says they hear the voice of God in their head, they get treated quite differently, dont they?
Director Rose Glass on the set of her debut feature-length film 'Saint Maud'
More than God or faith, Saint Maud is about the perils of feeling isolated, and the dangers that can come when an individuals understanding of reality becomes fractured. Not knowing just how far gone Maud is within her own delusion, Glass says, anchors much of the blistering film's intended terror and tension. "She's been this sort of invisible person all her life, always waiting to be seen. She finally gets that at the end, I suppose, but it's far, far too late."
And so, in keeping with Saint Maud's themes of missed moments and the grand tradition of analyzing A24 horror Glass walked us through all of the hidden details in her terrifying debut, including an alternate interpretation of that fiery ending.
The name made a lot more sense once I decided it was one she had actively chosen for herself, Glass says of Katie, the woman we learn Maud was before becoming, well, Maud.
Although the name Maud has Germanic origins, roughly translating to strength in battle, Glass explains the name was actually chosen for the "pure-sounding but somehow still bland appeal it might have to a newly pious woman. As we learn in Saint Maud's final acts, Katie had at least some social connections before assuming the Maud moniker and "getting rid of her old life."
The name made a lot more sense once I decided it was one she had actively chosen for herself.
In early drafts, the characters backstory was quite different, Glass recalls of a character that sounds considerably more like Carrie. She had this very extreme religious upbringing, went to Catholic school, all that stuff. But it just felt like a story Id seen before, and it wasnt one I was particularly interested in retelling.
Although it's not explicitly stated in Saint Maud, Glass says she wrote the final version of Maud as someone who had a "completely secular upbringing" and "no real history with religion." So when Maud does find God, an event brought on only in part by the horrific hospital accident depicted at the film's beginning, it sets off a seismic shift in her worldview.
Things like that dont happen to people overnight. Its a long and slippery slope shes been on, which in a way is what the audience is seeing finally [reveal itself] throughout the film.
Jennifer Ehle as the bewitching (and honestly, pretty relatable) Amanda
Much of that psychological decline is conveyed through Maud's volatile relationship with her patient Amanda, played by the bewitching Jennifer Ehle. But even in private moments, it was essential that audiences understand Maud's visceral connection to the God she'd crafted in her head.
"There needed to be some tangible way God communicates with her that we as an audience can get on board with and understand even if you're not religious."
"I wanted her relationship with God to not just be a theoretical or academic or faith-based, somber thing," Glass recalls. "There needed to be some tangible way God communicates with her that we as an audience can get on board with and understand even if you're not religious."
That's where what Glass calls Maud's "godgasms" came in. These scenes occur throughout the movie, and in some cases involved distorting Maud's face in post-production to take her reaction even further. That Clark also wore different color contacts throughout the film added to chilling effect.
"The idea of having this very physical, orgasmic, ecstatic reaction [was important to me]," Glass says.
"We can all connect with that idea of wanting to transcend our body in some way and connect with something and feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. To me, what's happening in those scenes in her head is that, yes, there's religious ecstasy but it's also tapping into that same bit of brain that gets activated by sexual ecstasy."
Many of Saint Maud's most overtly horrific scenes hinge on this concept. So it makes sense that one of the film's more memorable moments, that brutal nails in the feet scene that comes after Maud is fired from her job and has a one-night stand, was inspired in part by BDSM.
"Since Maud's such an imaginative person, I figured she'd come up with a more individual way of doing it."
"I knew she needed to have a scene where she punished herself for deviating from the holy path," Glass explains. "The pins in the feet thing was something I'd actually seen a few years before on self-bondage website. There was this forum of people uploading tips and little things you could to make your experience a bit more painful. And somebody had drawn a diagram of basically that, but they'd used gaffer tape instead of a postcard [as Maud does.] So that stuck in my head."
At one point, Glass had a version of the scene where Maud self-flagellated, the controversial practice of spiritual self-harm that goes back centuries. "But since Maud's such an imaginative person, I figured she'd come up with a more individual way of doing it."
As Saint Maud viewers learn all too well, Maud's imagination takes her to some truly scary places in the movie's final scenes. Shortly after the nails in her feet debacle but slightly before heading out to murder Amanda and set herself on fire Maud speaks directly to God. It's a brief exchange that hides a phenomenal easter egg Glass says almost didn't make the movie.
"It is actually still her talking to herself in her head."
"That scene actually wasn't in the initial script, or initial shoot; it was something I wrote during the edit and then luckily was able to shoot later on," Glass recalls. "We needed this final moment of doubt, and then for God to give [Maud] quite clear, seemingly unambiguous sign, which would allow the audience to go along with all the stuff that happens next. So I was like, 'OK, God needs to talk. What should God sound like?'"
The language spoken in this final scene is Welsh, delivered by none other than Welsh star Morfydd Clark.
"I'd been working with Morfydd this whole time, and gotten to know her really well. I'd heard her talk on the phone to her family in Welsh a lot, and it's a lovely, mysterious, old-sounding language so that seemed fitting. But also the lines you hear, Maud is delivering them and then we just pitched her voice down. So it is actually still her talking to herself in her head."
"This thing that started off as faith has mutated into a quite dangerous delusion."
Describing herself as "still new to interviews," Glass says she's not sure how much she should say about audiences' interpretations of her feature-length debut. But the varying takes on Saint Maud, particularly when it came to the movie's ending, did surprise her.
"Personally, I always thought it seemed quite unambiguous," Glass says of Maud's beach-side death by suicide, which depicts an angelic vision of Maud (presumably one she images of herself) before abruptly cutting to a far more realistic image of Maud screaming and on fire.
"In my head, it was a sudden snapback to a very harsh reality. You see things on the news about people blowing themselves up or setting themselves on fire in the name of God, and it just always seemed so kind of alien to me. So I wanted to make up a story that traced that moment back to a relatable genesis [and, in turn, carried it forward to a realistic conclusion.]"
"That's sort of staring us in the face the entire film."
Some viewers, however, say they interpreted Maud's death differently, instead believing that Maud was, at least on some level, right about her faith in God and that because she killed Amanda the fire indicated Maud is now doomed to spend eternity in hell.
Glass agrees it's an interesting angle to approach the ending from, but it wasn't her intent.
"If you did interpret this as Maud misinterpreting God throughout the whole film, then she's just murdered somebody and it makes sense that she'd go to hell," Glass says. "Whatever is going on between her and God, yes, maybe there is something spiritual there. But I think by that point something that maybe started off as faith has now mutated into quite a dangerous sort of delusion."
"By the end, I wanted people to sort of realize, like, 'Oh, fuck. This is actually a very vulnerable young woman who got to a very dangerous and who very badly needed some help."
Glass cautions that her take isn't intended to disregard the importance of Maud's perception of God "What's going on is still incredibly real to Maud," she stresses but may be worth keeping in mind if you're still mulling over that ending.
"By the end, I wanted people to sort of realize, like, 'Oh, fuck. This is actually a very vulnerable young woman who got to a very dangerous and who very badly needed some help quite a long time before this and didn't get it. That's sort of staring us in the face the entire film."
Saint Maud is in select theaters and drive-ins now, and will begin streaming Feb. 12 on Epix.
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Reviewed and Recommended by Erik Baquero