The role of the female within horror cinema has always been a complex and hotly debated topic. Some argue that the frequent depiction of the monstrous female – most commonly realised through the figure of the witch in films like Suspiria, Drag Me to Hell, The Witch, and Inferno – taps into a fear of woman as “the other”; her feminine nature poses a threat to manhood in what the professor Barbara Creed describes as “phallocentric” philosophy.

As the genre has diversified however, with directors like Jennifer Kent, Karyn Kusama, and Coralie Fargeat working at the forefront of the scene, this male gaze that has dominated cinema for so long has been increasingly challenged. The upcoming release of Saint Maud is another key step in revitalising the genre, not just in its intensely English setting and macabre sense of humour, but also with the film’s use of body horror aesthetics to present an enthralling portrait of a tormented figure desperately seeking salvation with destructive results.

Right from the off, Saint Maud is a defiantly female centered story. Featuring a majority female cast and directed by Rose Glass in her debut feature, this depiction of a troubled woman who turns to God in the aftermath of a horrific, mysteriously unexplained, incident, is a clear break from the genre’s traditional gender norms. When not depicting them as witches, many horror films of the past presented women as helpless figures overpowered by an external force, the most memorable being Regan from William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. 12 years old and chained to a bed, Linda Blair’s character doesn’t exactly scream empowered, while her increasingly hideous and often sexual actions are magnified through the use of gory prosthetics and close ups on her possessed body (particularly in the infamous crucifix scene). All of which seems to epitomise the phallocentric gaze.

162525 Horror The Exorcist Screenshot 1050x591 (1)

Courtesy of: Warner Bros

Maud, on the other hand, is a far more complex and internally conflicted character. Played with incredible conviction by Morfydd Clark, her increasing obsession with God coupled with her traumatic past pushes her into committing shocking acts of self-harm, which she believes will elevate her to a spiritual existence. In several sequences we see her suddenly transported into a transfixed, almost euphoric state, claiming that God’s “presence graces the air, and soon, everyone will see,” and causing her to tear at her skin and eyes. It could be argued that this gradual surrendering of her body to a higher power is merely a continuation of The Exorcist, but where Glass’ film differs is that Maud holds a disturbing authority over her destructive actions, and the use of body horror visuals holds a far more ambiguous power here.

Maud is an intimidating and driven character who carries out every destructive act with a hauntingly grim determination. The abusive acts she carries out on her own body have the effect of transforming her into a terrifyingly destructive force but also making her a profoundly sympathetic character. She’s not an empowering character on a Ripley or Sarah Connor level, but Clark delivers a far more nuanced and conflicted portrait of a woman who has suffered great pain and is desperate to find peace.

Her inner turmoil is brought to vividly brought to life through moments of bodily penetration and desecration, snapshots of tearing skin and caving chests highlighting Maud’s increasing urge to punish her own body. At times, Clark’s character is almost reminiscent of Florence Pugh’s Dani in Midsommar, both films emphasising their central character’s disconcerting perseverance and self-destructive tendencies through shocking explosions of bodily harm.

Saint Maud (1)

Courtesy of: StudioCanal

When we look back to the classic body horror films of Cronenberg, Carpenter and Lynch, they all revolve around a common fear of the body being infected by an external force and man losing control of his own actions and free will. Professor Xavier Aldana Reyes sees in these films a “fear of being subsumed by an overwhelming powerful system such as commoditization, techno-science”. Considering that the body horror genre reached its peak in the 70s and 80s, the age of the personal computer and technological warfare, this is hardly a surprise.

Films like Videodrome and The Fly tapped into the hysteria surrounding, respectively, the rise of technology and AIDS, using graphically gory imagery and pioneering special effects to capture the anxieties of the period to full effect. This form of extremist social commentary is also present in Saint Maud, but this time the brutal body horror can be seen as a commentary on the potentially destructive power of religious devotion.

Many horror films use religious imagery and explore biblical themes, but Glass (who grew up in a strongly religious family and attended an all-girls Catholic convent school) boldly differentiates her film by gradually revealing the corrupting influence of Maud’s new spiritual devotion, peeling away her hard exterior to reveal a deeply vulnerable figure preyed on by abusive belief systems. In one particularly horrific scene, we see Maud placing a bed of nails in the soles of her shoes and walking slowly through town with a disturbingly blank expression. It’s a shocking and hideously cringe-worthy sequence that highlights the brutal act of mortification, a practice that was encouraged in the early days of Catholicism.

Saint Maud 2019 001 Young Woman Out Of Focus Behind Nail Paper (1)

Courtesy of: StudioCanal

This idea of bodily penance was practiced in the belief that it allowed people to lead a more spiritual, focused lifestyle, and though it has largely disappeared today, there are some groups like the mysterious Opus Dei who still believe in its cleansing powers. The alarming passion for self-hatred that this practice appears to stem from is grimly realised within Maud. The gory outbursts of body horror emphasise the destructive effect that masochistic belief systems can have on vulnerable people, sequences like the bed of nails and frequent tearings at her own skin a disturbingly extreme evocation of Jesus’s command in Luke 9:23 to “let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me.”

There are several other moments within the film that are integral to its commentary on gender and religion. In a pivotal early scene, Maud tells Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), the woman she is caring for, that her patron saint is Mary Magdalene, a follower of Jesus who was the first witness to both his crucifixion and resurrection. But Magdalene was long maligned as a prostitute after a speech made by Pope Gregory I in 591 where he called her a “sinful woman,” a slandering that would damage her reputation until the Catholic Church officially withdrew the statement in 1969.

Viewed in this context, Maud’s religious passion becomes all the more muddied and intriguing, while a brief shot soon after of deep scratches surrounding her lower stomach leaving us to ponder about whether Glass’ brutally incisive critique of the Church extends to their stance on abortion. As the film unfolds, it soon becomes clear that Glass is not afraid to take on any number of important topics relating to the Church and female power, making for a smart, consistently surprising and gripping new horror experience.

Graphic, explosive moments of body horror are integral to the almost guttural disturbing power of Saint Maud, and play a major role in driving home the unique power of Rose Glass’ feature debut. The conflict that exists within Maud, torn between being in control of her actions and surrendering her body to a higher power, creates a refreshingly complex female central character that is a significant step forward from The Exorcist. Maud’s destruction of her own body is hammered home by shocking sequences that amplify the struggle between her own autonomy and her gradual surrendering to God, bringing to the forefront a fascinating exploration of the damaging effects of religious beliefs and the potentially destructive effects of extreme devotion. Saint Maud proves that body horror can be far more than gore for the sake of gore, delivering a refreshingly diverse and consistently riveting take on one of cinema’s most boundary-pushing genres.