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A close-up of a woman’s frightened face, hair smeared across her eyes, nose, and mouth Photo: A24

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The horror movie Saint Maud loses its most terrifying scares in its stuffy approach

It’s a strong character study that still feels like a stage exercise

By most reasonable standards, Saint Maud is a good horror movie. It has a strong sense of character and mood. It’s convincingly acted, both by Morfydd Clark as Maud, a private nurse losing herself to religious fanaticism, and Jennifer Ehle, as Maud’s patient Amanda, an atheist grappling with her terminal cancer diagnosis. Its score roils with tension, then recedes into silence when necessary. In spite of these strengths, though, it’s sometimes eerily, unavoidably familiar.

In particular, anyone who has seen a number of other recent indie horror movies — especially those put out by the beloved indie studio A24, which is also distributing Saint Maud — will recognize its mixture of quiet character developments and nasty shocks. Though A24 has taken pains to preserve the film’s theatrical release, repeatedly postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic and now happening on a limited basis for a few weeks before the film streams on Epix on February 12th, it plays just fine at home. At times, the film even resembles a two-person stage piece, albeit one with cinematic attention to the lighting of its actors’ faces.

Writer-director Rose Glass keeps finding Maud’s face in the darkness, creating a simple visual shorthand for the beacon Maud wants to be for Amanda. Maud speaks directly to God, and the movie sometimes transmits her communications through voiceover that makes her sound a bit like a more pious version of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. In her isolation, Maud convinces herself of her own importance, knowing in her heart that God has “something more planned” for her. She comes to understand this “something more” as a mission to save Amanda’s soul, rather than simply assisting her body as it slowly breaks down. God doesn’t respond to many of Maud’s communiques, but she feels his presence, occasionally writhing in terrible ecstasy when it overwhelms her.

A woman floats on her back in mid-air in a dark room, back arched and long hair dangling Photo: A24

Naturally, her movements catch the eye of Amanda, a former dancer and choreographer frustrated by her uncooperative body and unnerved by the nothingness she’s certain is coming. At first, Amanda seems to take some measure of comfort in Maud’s spiritual certainty, mixed with an affectionate amusement at her caretaker’s utter seriousness. (When she gives Maud a book, she inscribes it to “my savior.”) But Amanda can’t stop herself from poking at Maud’s overbearing beliefs, any more than Maud can refrain from meddling in Amanda’s personal life.

Ehle, a theater veteran and longtime character actress, brings a lot of dimension to this dying woman, by turns caustic, fearful, and heedless, so it’s a little disappointing when the movie pulls Amanda and Maud apart for a chunk of the movie’s slender 84-minute running time. (Without credits, it’s under 80.) Glass obviously wants to perform a close study of Maud, parceling out bits of her backstory, and this does lead to some compelling moments on her own. One of the most chilling scenes catches her affecting a friendly laugh at a conversation she half-overhears in a bar, as the seams between her more conventional past and her newfound religious devotion become more visible.

Maud cosplays sainthood in the mirror in Saint Maud, wearing a sheet wrapped around herself to approximate a robe, and rosary beads Photo: A24

Yet as the character study zooms in and Maud’s devotions become both creepier and bloodier, the movie doesn’t really get any scarier. The opposite, in fact: Both its character-based grounding and its violent shocks start to feel more like an exercise. The voiceover intended to function as a window into Maud’s psyche feels increasingly unnecessary, cheaply telegraphing her unreliable-narrator status and possible delusions. For all the attempts at sowing ambiguity over how much of Maud’s connection to God is created by her own guilt and loneliness, there’s little shivery overarching mystery to Saint Maud — just some temporarily withheld details and the looming threat of a big confrontation with Amanda. The movie doesn’t have much to say about organized religion, because Maud is practicing in her own one-woman sect of self-torturing Catholicism.

This doesn’t lessen the movie’s effectiveness in the moment, which is considerable. Glass knows what she’s doing behind the camera, and she’s especially bold in the scenes where Amanda faces the stark fact of her impending death — the idea that our bodies eventually give up on us, even without the threat of ghosts or monsters. But that throughline isn’t quite what the movie has in mind, and Saint Maud diminishes slightly as soon as it ends — around the time the best recent indie horror movies, like The Witch or It Follows, linger uncomfortably in the air. Those movies reached outward, tapping into familiar feelings of discomfort with a strange exhilaration. By comparison, Saint Maud feels like a closed system, more designed than fully felt. Its moments of ecstasy are never as thrilling nor frightening as they should be.

Saint Maud starts a limited theatrical run on January 29th, and streams on Epix on February 12th. See our guide to theatergoing in COVID for local safety regulations and theater status.