If nothing else, Saint Maud is notable on this site for being layered and compelling enough that I had the drive to actually get this review submitted in a timely manner. Maybe it’s because I want to strike while the iron is hot, while the final moments of the film have branded themselves onto my brain, or maybe because it’s the sort of experience that makes me feel like a kid again, watching something I probably shouldn’t be, and that rush will put it in the pantheon of horror films I hold close to my heart. One of those films for me is 2010’s The Last Exorcism, a film that I still feel did not get its proper due for being as bizarre and unsettling as it is, and that’s the film I thought about the most while watching Saint Maud.
I hope it’s not because of the thematic similarities, both being heavily religiously-minded slender horror flicks that play with the fine line between the divine and the unholy, because that makes for a piss-poor review to say “this thing like other thing” on such a surface level. So, in an attempt to find the line, I want to discuss the structures of these films.
Coming out at the height of the found-footage boom that happened between the late 2000s and early 2010s, The Last Exorcism, structurally, doesn’t do much to stray from the pack. It builds slowly before exploding into a cavalcade of chaos and terror in its final moments, getting the expected level of flak from audience goers expecting a more consistent thrill-ride. It wasn’t terribly well-marketed, but it was enthralling and horrifying. Saint Maud has a leg up on those films by being distributed by merch store and occasional publisher A24, so audiences generally know to expect something more in line with Hereditary or It Comes at Night. But those comparisons don’t totally work for me. In those films, as wonderful as they are, the question is how strong and how dangerous the threat reveals itself to be, and how incapable our protagonists are at fighting it. Here, like in The Last Exorcism or something along the lines of Kill List, the threat has no shape, it might not even exist. The line of plausible deniability is toed so expertly in these films that the audience gets to move past the tired “is this character just crazy” trope and properly decipher if the characters, the camera, or the film itself have layers of unreliability to their storytelling.
Saint Maud follows Maud (Morfydd Clark), a hospice nurse with a traumatic past who’s recently converted to Roman Catholicism. The new Turbo-Catholic is hired to care for a former dancer succumbing to lymphoma (Jennifer Ehle), and the unlikely friendship between the two begins to blossom as they slowly learn from each other the values of faith and hedonism respectively. It’s like this for about 30 minutes before things get worse, but those 30 minutes are quite nice, and in a different universe, the thoughtful buddy comedy Saint Maud could have been would also be a compelling watch worth recommending, mostly due to the expert performances of Clark and Ehle, who use their moments of awkwardness and strength to great effect both in the more wholesome and more sinister moments of the story.
That wholesomeness is what brought me to The Last Exorcism in terms of comparison. Both films have a bone to pick with religious institutions, marking a clear line in the sand between religion and faith that rivals the best films about belief such as Silence or Calvary. While not as eloquent as those films, Saint Maud and The Last Exorcism take a blunter, more effective approach to that divide, simultaneously finding horror in the folly of man as well as the impossible threat looming in the distance, be it God, the Devil, or something in between. Saint Maud is a deliciously devious meal, a brisk 84 minutes of tension, horror, and some of the most satisfying jump scares I’ve seen in a very long time. To call the film playful would almost seem insincere, but it’s hard not to relish in how much fun Rose Glass’s directorial debut has with scaring and deceiving the viewer. This is a filmmaker who knows how to play with her food, toying with us and providing just enough information in the dense script to allow a number of theories, ideas, and interpretation of the events therein.
Few compliments feel as shallow and backhanded as “this is the best film of the year so far” at the end of January, but it is true, and therefore must be said. Saint Maud is currently the best film of 2021, and it’s better than that meaningless assertion would imply.