Is there such a thing as “A24 horror” now? I had that thought watching Rose Glass’ debut feature Saint Maud. It feels indebted to some of the distributor’s titles, namely First Reformed and The Witch in how it tackles faith, good, and evil. It’s interesting to see a film playing so much into the hand of what’s become trendy as counterprogramming to the overflow of Blumhouse thrill rides and the “Conjuring cinematic universe” (credit where it’s due: A24 hasn’t mastered elevated horror, although they’ve done a good job selling it). On this level, Glass’ film is a rousing success; after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival A24 picked it up for distribution, their only acquisition at the fest.
None of this is a criticism against Glass’ film either, which handles itself capably for a first feature. It follows Maud (Morfydd Clark), a nurse who just left her job at a hospital to provide live-in care for terminally ill patients. She’s tasked with taking care of Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a former dancer dying of cancer in her big, isolated home looking over the sea. Maud is also a true believer in God, to the point where she thinks she can receive direct messages from her savior. When she sees Amanda consumed with depression, anger, and acting out in self-destructive ways, Maud eyes an opportunity to save her soul. Of course, things don’t go as planned, leading Maud down a path to either salvation or tragedy, depending on how you see it.
This set-up provides one of three outcomes: Rose is truly a vessel for God, mentally ill, or being tricked by some sort of demonic force. And while the story of a character’s ambiguity regarding the existence of a higher power is far from new, for the most part Saint Maud wears this old outfit pretty well. Glass’ best decision is to put mood ahead of scares, working with cinematographer Ben Fordesman to bathe images in darkness and play up the murky greys of the seaside location. There’s tension in figuring out which ending Glass will let her film land on, which she utilizes in making each scene feel like it can burst into full-blown horror at any moment. Glass only puts her foot on the gas a handful of times, but when she does it leaves a mark.
There is one major flaw in Glass’ film, which tends to plague any horror film wanting to walk a fine line for as long as possible. Things have to come to a stop at some point and a choice has to be made. And no matter what Glass chooses in the end, it requires her to take her film out of the darkness, to answer unanswered questions, and to dissipate the tension built up for the first two acts. This also coincides with Ehle leaving the film for an extended period of time, whose performance is one of the film’s greatest strengths (Clark is good as well, but she does much better with someone to play off of). It makes for an underwhelming conclusion, along with some questionable choices involving CGI that clashes with the subdued atmosphere that came before it.
Still, uneven ending aside, Saint Maud exercises a level of restraint that’s a welcome sight for the genre. And while it stumbles into the usual pitfalls that come with its story, at least it does it with some grace.
Saint Maud premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be released by A24 in 2020.