‘Saint Maud’ - Modern Horror at the English Seaside.

Photo by Kamil Szumotalski on Unsplash

Maud, formerly Katie, is a complicated person. Haunted by an accident to a patient under her care while working at a local hospital, she is no longer the girl who used to be out all the time and now spends her time caring for the terminally ill, sleeping in a small, sparse room and praying to her newly-found God. More than anything, she is lonely.

This social isolation shapes director Rose Glass’s debut feature film, which focuses on Maud’s mental unravelling and its sharp ramifications. She lives surrounded by the faded glamour of the English seaside. Her nights are illuminated by the neon glow of the arcades and her days soundtracked by the screech of the gulls, a sound all harshness in my youth but that now rings of home, distilled through clear sea air. The film was shot in Scarborough, the bigger-town-next-door to where I grew up. When I was younger it was a place of orthodontist trips and underage parties, but here in Saint Maud it is used to create a beautiful and decaying non-place; the streets minglings of anonymous faces, the empty bay an amphitheatre for Maud’s transformation. Although filmed in Scarborough, where Maud lives is nowhere specific. It is a coastal town in soft focus, one carved out of a tactile atmosphere rather than geographic particularities, not found on a map but felt in that neon-lit night and the worn-down café seating.

While Glass has spoken of her choosing Scarborough due to its ability to be made ‘un-placeable’, the scene and the themes of the film seem so familiar, woven out of the people that I’ve grown up around and seen grow up around me. There is a particular charm and melancholy to this stretch of coastline, a kind of faded maritime gothic. Robert Macfarlane has written elsewhere on the concept of the ‘eerie’, the idea that the countryside is not all charming country pubs and sunny afternoons but is rather a place of submerged, unsettling violence and quiet horror. The modern British seaside has an eeriness of its own; a kind of grandeur turned stale, a creeping decay taken root in the worn sand and saltwater.

Photo by Neil Fedorowycz on Unsplash

Morfydd Clark is exhilarating as Maud, living her with a stark, pained clarity. In an interview, she spoke about how her acting method has been shaped by a particular Welsh word, hiraeth: “this longing for somewhere you can’t return to because it doesn’t exist any more or never was.” This seems so finely tuned to this stretch of the North Yorkshire coastline I grew up on. This can be a place of lingering ideas, the soil heavy and with deep roots. Things move slowly. Trends come late. People stick here and grow old, the coastline laced with dinosaur fossils.

It is easy to see why Maud’s new patient Amanda, played by a supreme Jennifer Ehle, has chosen to live here. She has followed a well-worn route of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when Scarborough used to be a destination for tired city-slickers to go to bathe themselves in the salt-licked sea air and drink ‘medicinal’ spa water, coming here to heal and calm. Suffering through late-stage lymphoma of the spinal cord, she has left London to manage and witness her decline within eyeshot of the waves’ performance.

A seaside town like this is one where you can hide, a place where you can seek to dissolve yourself between the sea spray and the open fields. It is a space built out of absences. London is far enough removed to be almost abstract, a place of people in suits and decisions you don’t like. With your back to the cliffs, you look out into the North Sea, a blue-y grey undulating mass stretching out to Europe. Behind you, fields roll out a chequer-board green, draped over valleys carved out by glacial erosion. To the North are the moors; a beautiful, blank space scorched each year to satisfy people with straight guns and broken moral compasses. This is managed land and the open sea. Self-willed nature has been pushed out. Seagulls shriek, the occasional deer appears, sheep and cows docilely await their turn, but the skies and fields are not full. It is a very human form of fertile barrenness. The place seems primed for horror. There is a vulnerability in the openness; there in the nakedness of fields, the starkness of cliff faces, the terror of the bog - always the idea that in this wide panorama you are exposed, that out there something could be lurking and watching.

For all this, it is a deeply beautiful space. It can feel boundless. The moors are an undulating network of heathland and valley, of rich heather-purple and sun-kissed green. Rivers wind through veins of woodland, rolling down to this stretching shore that is so regularly drowned in sky-wide sunsets; broad, subsiding brushstrokes of orange and red over the flickering sea-grey. I will always be grateful to my parents for raising me here and for how this place has shaped me. It is sublime in quite a true way. Not a sublimity built out of the awe of mountains, but rather carved from a sprawling expanse that dwarfs you. Standing looking over this space you are witnessing the result of millennia of geological, climatological and evolutionary activity, knowing that these ongoing processes are coiled below the landscape, present in the curve of rock and flow of hill. These immense absences frame Maud’s unravelling, her spiritual journey woven around and amplified by the scale of this sea and shore.

Photo by Lili-Ann Eldeiry on Unsplash

“Then I would still have this consolation —
my joy in unrelenting pain —
that I had not denied the words of the Holy One.” Job 6:10.

There is a disconnect between the raw grandeur of this landscape and the current condition of the towns which live on it. Scarborough’s increasingly tattered seafront is watched over by once-stately hotels, a place previously visited for healing waters now traipsed to for casinos and cheap nights out. This worn glamour flows through the film. The neon amusement lights echo Vegas but wash over the lonely and the downtrodden. The stones of the buildings and pier are weathered, worn down by exposure to the sea air. Maud’s patient Amanda is a former dancer, her late-stage cancer leaving her immobile, the body’s strength turned to frailties. On average, the population of Scarborough are more often employed in seasonal, less secure employment and are more likely to lack an advanced education. Job prospects are limited, mainly restricted to tourism-adjacent industries, manufacturing, care and education. The average salary in Scarborough is roughly eight and a half thousand pounds less than elsewhere in England. Of course, the area is not some broken wasteland. There are good, stable lives here and towns and villages flush with the money tourism brings. But there are also hollowed out hospitals, overstretched schools and under-funded transport networks. These are patterns that are repeated around the shores of the UK, products of economic change and generational mismanagement.

Underneath the horror, this film is a tale of a have and a have not: Amanda the older, metropolitan creative, Maud younger and constantly working. One has a house to retire to by the sea with decadent wallpapers and stately doors (actually shot in a house in Highgate), the other a box-like studio flat in a shared building. A lot of people writing about the film have compared Maud’s accommodation to a nun’s cell. There are obvious elements of truth to that (she does have a bit of a shrine). But she has normal things in there as well. More than a monastic cell, it looks more like what it is — a cheap, slightly battered rental. The oven and shower look worn, a man sits reading a newspaper in the hallway, people argue outside the window. It is a room which is depressingly recognisable to a generation accustomed to staying in temporary, frugal spaces. The youth and freshness of the film seem key here. The director Rose Glass is in her early 30’s. This is her debut as a writer and director, as well as being the first feature films of the composer and cinematographer and Clark’s first major lead. It is a film made by people who can recognise the drifting aimlessness of hard work and poor living, the hopelessness of looking for purpose in a lonely studio flat.

The film remembers this daily struggle and precarity, rooting the horror in this real, harsh life. The mundane and horrific are melded together, fused. People drink an indiscriminate lager with a pulsating horror score as a soundtrack. Whirlpools form inside pint glasses, the head-spinning of drinking too much becoming metaphysical fervour. The superb opening shot at first appears to be some bubbling red hellscape, overlaid with the noise of a muted, demonic shouting, but is actually tomato soup coming to a boil soundtracked by people arguing.

Beyond just including the usual trappings of everyday life, Glass grounds the film in the actual labour that drives it. Maud’s work as a carer is highlighted throughout, there in the slow montages of palliative care and the horror-film-green images of hospital interiors. An ex-colleague tells her patients are sleeping in the corridors of the hospital and that surgeries are double booked. It is a film built from the social realities of work and life in these places. The amount of carers in coastal towns (Health and Social work forms 16% of all employment in Scarborough) reflects the amount of older, sicker people in these communities. The other main employers in the area are physical as well: farming, hospitality, construction. A major employer immediately to the north is a potash mine which sprawls out beneath the North Sea - tunnels animated by orange overalls and head-torches in the hot dark. These are physical jobs that tend to the core things in life - resource extraction, hospitality, building, caring. They involve an acceptance of a degree of suffering that I will always admire, a humbly noble willingness to endure this daily grind of body and mind.

Photo by Krystle van der Salm on Unsplash

A similarly principled endurance of pain forms a major part of Maud’s faith. She kneels on un-popped popcorn when praying, burns her hand on hot metal, pulls at the scabbing wound. She repeats the phrase “never waste your pain” — an assertion that there can always be worth in your suffering. The history of Christianity is laced through with this kind of bodily trauma: saints beatified through their agony, the harsh monotony of abstinence, a whole religion built out of the image of a man being tortured. Maud follows firmly in this line, torturing the body in the hope that of saving the soul.

This very Christian fetishisation of pain seems to feed so easily into the contemporary British mentality; that things have to be like this, that you have to wade through the suffering in the hope that maybe something will be better along the way — the masochistic psyche of a nation weaned on myths of the blitz. Maud tells a homeless man not to ‘waste his pain’ after giving him some change, but just think what a waste his pain is, what a waste the economic suffering of people around the North and our coasts is. What purpose is there to the economic decline, to the lack of investment, the slashing of council services and funding? How unrewarded is this constant erosion of hard work upon good people, this struggle of carving out a life for yourself within a system that works against you? Daily graft short-changed by further generations of political disdain and economic mismanagement — the self-flagellation of a northern, post-industrial coastal area repeatedly voting for its own blue-tied decay. Be mindful of what you suffer for, of what is worth suffering for. So much of our struggle is designed, so much of our pain redundant.

“Total existence needs meaning and myth / Many misjudged the way and got lost in the mist / Your loneliness is the symptom, not the sickness” — Kate Tempest, ‘Holy Elixir’.

More than anything, Saint Maud is a horror driven by social alienation, shaped by a very contemporary purposelessness. The UK population is increasingly lonely. Individual isolation does not seem some quirk of the system, but rather a product of how we now live our lives. Amanda tells Maud that she ‘must be the loneliest girl I’ve ever seen’. She walks among the holidaymakers and the laughing crowds, between the arcades and the drinkers, but is emphatically alone. The camera keeps our focus resolutely on Maud (she’s in nearly every shot). This is part of how the cinematography of the film becomes increasingly unstable as Maud does. Alleyways are shot upside down, walls turning horizontal, the town coming loose with her. At the height of her possession, fireworks fill the background and the music reaches its peak, the film visually and aurally convulsing with her. This is cinema of the individual, its sound and shapes carved from the collapse and crescendo of her internal journey.

The film’s loneliness extends beyond its main character. Amanda, this former dancer stowing herself away at the seaside, spends most of her time in the company of people who are paid to be there or watching old footage of herself. The first night that her and Maud seem to connect she keeps her carer there with a softly spoken “Stay with me. I don’t want to be alone.” We are born with a need to be seen and heard, to feel held amid the aimlessness of it all. This is part of the draw of faith, how it can soothe the edges of the absences we feel in our lives. It is key that Maud’s religion is recently adopted. There is a desperation in its fervour, the mind reaching out for the comfort and solace of the idea that there is someone there watching over you, that there is a meaning to all of this. The God that she feels and hears is the only meaningful contact Maud experiences, her only sense of companionship in the drowning scale of the world.

But Maud’s God extends beyond companionship. What they truly provide to her is a sense of importance, a sense of purpose. This is what Maud clings to. Swallowed by the trauma of the death of a patient, seemingly alone in the world, baffled by the idea that all of the misery could be for nothing, she has reached out for solace. We ascribe meaning in our lives, whittle out a sense of purpose from the flotsam that we swim among. When you are behind in life, poor, traumatised, deprived of any meaningful future opportunities, it seems rational to reach for something which re-asserts your own importance, re-establishes your own vitality.

It is through this that Maud seems so local to where I grew up, and to coastal towns around the UK. These are areas that are increasingly adrift; out of sight and out of mind, with aging populations, a lack of long-term, secure careers and a growing impression that things are neither what they once were or what they should be. It is easy to see why these are the kind of areas that voted so emphatically for Brexit in the EU referendum, with 62% of Scarborough voting to leave the European Union. The directionless anger that fuelled the Leave vote fed on this feeling of being left behind, this communal aimlessness in the face of a rapidly changing, increasingly globalised world. Maud feels purpose through an alliance with God and a view of other people as sinful, or ‘lost’. These left-behind coastal towns voted to tie themselves to a similarly fictional notion of England and rejected those who do not fit within it. Both are driven by a need to feel your own importance, to believe that you have a stake in something more than yourself.

This is Maud’s joy at the end of the film. Soundtracked by fading waves and with an overcast northern sky above her, people watch and worship: a scene of distilled mundanity and madness. Finally, she is seen and acknowledged, held and cherished in the eyes of these faceless strangers.

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Cameron Hill

Cameron Hill

Post-grad writer living in London, occasionally tweeting over @Cam__Hill.