“Cerebral horror” is a label — perhaps unfair, perhaps a backhanded compliment — we use for that rare tale of terror that doesn’t just get in your head. It makes you think.
“Saint Maud” is the latest brooding bit of Gothic horror from the studio that gave us “Hereditary,” “The Lighthouse,” “Midsommar” and “The Witch.” These are typically spare thrillers that flirt with the supernatural but find the worst terrors are of our own making, conceived inside our own skulls. That’s A24’s brand.
The plot couldn’t be simpler. A nurse (Morfydd Clark of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”) leaves a hospital job for to assume “palliative care” duties with a dying dancer and choreographer (Jennifer Ehle). The dancer, an earthy cynic and atheist, lives in an old house on top of a hill overlooking the town (Scarborough, North Yorkshire) and the sea. Maud cares for her, endures her moods and as they say in certain corners of fundamentalism “bears witness” to her patient.
Maud is Catholic. Her voice-over narration is in prayer form, earnest verbal letters to God. Maud frets about “Your plan for me. You must have saved me for something greater than this.”
The cynic, given to mood swings, lets herself seem moved by this overt piety. And facing the end, Amanda wonders about “that last moment. What will I be looking at?”
She doesn’t see the whole Maud, the one we’re privy to in her room. She’s into scourging the flesh, inflicting pain. It might be through sticking her hand on a hot stove or kneeling in front of a crucifix on kernels of popcorn that she’s spread on the floor.
That’s got to smart. — and leave a mark.
Something happened to Maud, something we get a glimpse of in the opening scene — a body on an operating table, our titular heroine crushed, confused, unable to wash off the blood. The deeper we get into writer-director Rose Glass’s tale, the more we worry for Maud’s patient and the more we fret over what Maud might have in mind to mimic sainthood.
Glass, making an auspicious horror debut, tests Maud in all manner of ways. But are the tests coming from on high, or are they all in Maud’s increasingly unmoored mind?
Clark, who shares a Jane Austen past with Ehle –they both appeared in adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice,” one of which had zombies — is chillingly all-in here. Maud is a veritable model of “good Catholic nurse” who gives us plenty of moments to doubt her sanity and wonder at the sort of young woman she was before whatever happened to make her this way.
She is earnest, but never guileless or naive. She isn’t sophisticated enough to smile when she threatens a young dancer (Lily Frazer) Amanda is having one last fling with, and walking away from a former colleague (Lily Knight) is how she copes with her past — ignoring it.
The radiant Ehle gives us hints of a grande dame of the dance — serene even in sickness, mercurial, with a beatific smile here, an acrid dismissal there.
“I’ll go to bed when I damn well like!”
Glass lets her story simmer and her characters brood for almost 80 minutes, Maud’s rapturous passion rising even as she lashes out — in sexual and self-injurious ways — at the deity who isn’t giving her direct answers.
And then the writer-director slaps us right across the face with a finale that feels harrowing and somehow right and true.
Yes, it’s more “cerebral” than it is horrific. But “Saint Maud” is just creepy enough to come off. And you’ll never look at unpopped popcorn kernels the same way again.
MPA Rating: R for disturbing and violent content, sexual content and language
Cast: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Knight, Lily Frazer
Credits: Scripted and directed by Rose Glass. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:24