'Saint Maud,' A24's Hair-Raising New Horror Movie, Is a Religious Experience
Director Rose Glass spoke to Thrillist about her delightfully creepy horror debut.
For as long as humans have been worshiping deities, there have been those among us who have claimed to hear them speak. Depending on the place and time they're called shamans, saints, or schizophrenics, and any proof of their abilities is subject to the faith of those around them. In the new film Saint Maud, which is finally out in theaters after suffering a year delay due to the pandemic, a young woman who accepts a job as an elderly lady's home caretaker believes she is hearing and enacting the voice of God, yet the film presents her conviction in such a way that you're always wondering whether or not her belief is true. Writer-director Rose Glass spoke to Thrillist about her feature directorial debut, depicting religious ecstasy onscreen, and sneaking a delightful sense of humor into her darkly creepy tale.
"It's about a combination of faith and maybe her having some kind of spiritual experiences, but obviously coupled with somebody who has always had some sort of minor mental health issues throughout their life," Glass said, describing Maud's character. Maud, played with a vulnerable yet offputting intensity by Morfydd Clark, is what would be referred to, in literary terms, as an unreliable narrator. She's a palliative care nurse assigned to a former dancer Amanda (a prickly, scene-stealing Jennifer Ehle), now suffering from stage four lymphoma, who is more concerned with dolling herself up for fancy evenings with friends than with saving her soul—at least in Maud's eyes.
Haunted by a horrific incident in her past, Maud has converted to Roman Catholicism and believes that she hears the voice of God coursing through her whenever she's done something she feels He's pleased with. These intense and almost orgasmic episodes lead her to believe that saving Amanda's lost soul is her life's mission—at any cost.
"Even if you're not religious, the idea of wanting to achieve that kind of ecstasy and feeling like you're somehow transcending your body and connected to something bigger than yourself. I think that's universal," Glass explained. "I don't have faith, but I want the story to still be engaging to people who don't believe in God, and to them to still kind of understand what she's getting at her relationship with God."
There's a certain attraction to that "sense of certainty in the universe," as Glass puts it, for people like Maud, who, throughout history, have believed that they have heard or seen evidence of the presence of higher spiritual beings. "For me, the thing that was interesting about it was always the psychology of it, not so much the theological religious doctrine stuff," Glass explained, and mentioned that some historians now believe that Joan of Arc, for example, had a particular type of frontal lobe epilepsy. "The person who's having the seizure can sometimes get intense hallucinations and are often flooded with this ecstatic, orgasmic feeling of wellbeing and connection to the universe and stuff." Nowadays, a person who interprets that feeling as being in a divine presence would sooner be checked into a mental hospital than rally an army to their side, but in other historical periods, the lines between psychology and the spiritual were blurred.
Maud is especially intrigued, like the villain of Thomas Harris' Red Dragon, by a book of phantasmagorical William Blake paintings—Blake himself recalled having visions of God and angels, which partially inspired his art. Maud chooses a few of the paintings to cut out and hang in the makeshift altar she's set up in her drab apartment, using crosses and flowers and prayer cards depicting Jesus and the Virgin Mary, decked with flowing robes (a look Maud tries out herself for the film's killer climax).
Saint Maud has moments that recall classic horror films like Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and Suspiria, but also has a surprisingly funny naughty streak, which pops up now and again during Maud's entreaties to her God. "Constantly throughout the development I was having to reassure people, 'I know this sounds bleak and depressing, but it will be fun, and it will be funny,'" Glass said. "It was always important for the character to be someone that we enjoy spending time with as an audience. Some of the comedy comes from, obviously, her seeing the world kind of differently and her sense of self importance. I didn't want her to be the poor shrinking violet victim character—she's got those aspects to her, like everyone does—but to be someone on a bit of a mission and who takes herself seriously in a way that we are allowed to kind of laugh at her but still be on her side."
Saint Maud also delights in combining the realm of the divine with the realm of the gross. Maud self-flagellates for her sins, not with a rope, but with tacks stuck through the insoles of her Chuck Taylors, which make a particularly memorable squelching noise as she walks. During the height of her mania, she hears the voice of God speaking, not through a dove, but a large cockroach that scuttles across her ceiling.
The cockroach (a "consummate professional" who goes by the name of Nancy), like many of Saint Maud's more unforgettable moments, was a last-minute addition as the film organically came together. The cockroach speaks to Maud in Welsh—because, of course, Morfydd is Welsh—which gives the film a clever meta-angle that's not immediately apparent.
"While we were doing the shoots, I'd often hear Morfydd talking on the phone to her mum and sisters in Welsh, and I thought it was a very lovely sounding language," Glass said. "Those lines actually are Morfydd talking. It's actually her delivering the line, and we just pitched her voice down. It's not obvious when you're watching the film, but, technically, it's still her talking to herself."
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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.