'Saint Maud' Is A Perfect Fit For The Misunderstood A24 Horror Cannon [Fantastic Fest 2019]

The slow, burning, ever-mounting dread. A scenario that always seems slightly off, as if the world itself has somehow become askew. And a climax that cranks the terror up to 11. These are the familiar trappings of the A24 horror movie – The WitchIt Comes At NightEnemy, HereditaryMidsommar, even the upcoming The Lighthouse. Now the indie distributor has added another slow-burn terror to their cannon: Saint MaudRose Glass' sensational creeper that puts the viewer entirely within the mind of its religion-obsessed protagonist. From the very first shot it becomes clear that horrible events are lurking in the shadows of Saint Maud, and by the time the shocking final frame arrives, we're left with nothing but unrelenting nightmares.

The A24-distributed horror film is a polarizing thing, as can be an A24 film in general. For some, seeing the familiar, low-fi A24 logo come crashing onto the black screen at the start of a film is a seal of quality. A comforting announcement letting us know we're in good hands. For others, it's something to roll their eyes at. "Oh, them again?" A24 has built itself a legacy in a remarkably short amount of time – a legacy bolstered by both quality films, and shrewd, often brilliant marketing. The company gave us MoonlightLady BirdFirst Reformed, and more. These are acclaimed, award-winning films.

And then there is the curious case of the A24 horror picture. When The Witch (or The VVitch, if you want to be a nerd about it) premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, it was met with ecstatic reviews, with many heralding how scary the movie was. History repeated itself when Ari Aster's Hereditary dropped at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. One could even argue the horror-hype was even bigger surrounding Aster's flick. But when both of these movies rode their respective waves of hype to the general public months later, many moviegoers were left puzzled. Even angered. CinemaScore, which polls moviegoers exiting films their opening weekend, gave The Witch a C– on an A+ to F scale. Hereditary ended up with a D+. It Comes at Night, Trey Edward Shults' creeping mediation on death set against a post-apocalyptic wasteland, couldn't get above a D. The trend continues, on and on. And yet, at the same time, horror fans – like myself – embrace and even love these movies.

In sharp contrast, more-popular, mainstream horror films like The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 both landed A- CinemaScores. That's nothing to mock – both of those films are good! But are they as good as The Witch? As Hereditary? Then there's the absolutely awful Conjuring spin-off Annabelle. That film's CinemaScore? It was a solid B. Annabelle Comes Home, a sequel that exceeds its predecessor, has a B-.

A pattern begins to emerge. Casual moviegoers – the type that tends to get polled by CinemaScore – have a very specific idea of what a horror movie is. They expect jump scares. They expect loud, creepy music. They expect cliche piled on top of cliche. In other words – they want something familiar. More often than not, the A24 horror movie eschews any and all of this. They are horror movies obsessed with the slow burn; the creeping dread. The unshakable sense that nothing will ever be okay again. They are the type of movies that inhabit cold universes where a god may exist, but he (or it) could care less about us foolish mortals.

Saint Maud had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and also just played at Fantastic Fest. After the TIFF screening, and just ahead of the Fantastic Fest showing, A24 snapped-up the distribution rights to the film. Anyone who saw the movie before this turn of events could've seen his coming. Running at an extremely tight, low-key 83 minutes, Saint Maud burns down like a melted candle almost out of wick. It flickers, it flames, it goes out with a puff of smoke against the darkness. It's also terrifying.

But it's not terrifying in the traditional sense. The scares here are not the type that inspire A+ CinemaScores. Instead, with her remarkably assured feature debut, writer-director Rose Glass has crafted a story where darkness is closing in – inescapable darkness disguised as light. Morfydd Clark, turning in a mannered, hypnotic performance, is Maud. She works as a private nurse, and through conversations and quick, unexplained flashbacks it becomes clear that something terrible happened in Maud's past.

Now she's been hired to care for Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a former dancer slowly being eaten away by cancer. Maud takes her job very seriously, and she doesn't want to just care for Amanda with medicinal needs – she also wants to use the healing power of prayer. Maud is a zealot about her religion – she converses with God regularly, and even believes that sometimes, God talks back. In Maud's mind, she's been sent not to care for Amanda, but to save her very soul.

Amanda humors her at first, but quickly grows weary of Maud's religious mania. Whenever Maud finds herself rejected, she punishes herself. She kneels on popcorn kernels. She steps on thumbtacks. She inflicts pain as a way of becoming closer to her God. These are disturbing images, but are they horror? I won't be surprised if the general public responds with a firm "No!" But to me, these moments – these quiet, disturbing, unremarked upon moments – are the very essence of horror. As Maud's mental state further deteriorates, we're drawn deeper and deeper into her broken mind, and her broken heart. Clark's performance makes us both care for Maud, and also fear her. As the film's internal clock ticks down, the dread wraps itself around us like a weighted blanket. And that blanket eventually moves its way up and starts wrapping itself around our throats. No amount of prayer can save us from the doom to come.

Casual audiences will likely continue to reject A24 horror. The hype surrounding The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers' follow-up to The Witch, is already at a fever-pitch. But people have no idea how weird and impenetrable the movie is – and I think they're going to be caught off-guard when they finally get to see it. And the same will happen with Saint Maud. "Where were the jump scares?" some will ask as they leave the theater. "Where was...the horror?"

It was there, in front of your face. Up on the screen, larger than life. It's waiting for you in the cold, godless darkness of the movie theater. And you won't be able to escape it, no matter how hard you try.