Saint Maud – Edinburgh Filmhouse

Directed & Written by Rose Glass

UK / 2019 / 84mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In a sold-out event for Edinburgh’s Filmhouse, horror seems to be the genre encouraging people back into the world of cinema. Rose Glass’ psychological thriller (a debut piece nonetheless) Saint Maud plummets the audience into the morose and obsessive mindscape of a young, seemingly good-natured nurse as she comes to care for a dying patient. With a redemptive mindset, Maud seeks not only to ease the woman’s suffering body but to care for her ailing spirit.

Full of ritualised obsession, Morfydd Clark’s performance of Maud is unsettling, yet it conjures grounded insecurities, and dare we say, even recognition. Embodying the horror staple of a lurking darkness beneath the unexpected or even mundane, Glass frames Maud as a doormat, complacent and bland.

There’s a rarity with Clark’s performance in so far as how remarkably unhabitual she dimensions herself as Maud. It’s a display of integration, rather than performance, carrying a desperate struggle as an otherwise kind young woman, grappling with severe mental issues. They say that Hell is paved with good intentions – well, Clark makes it so that the audience falls in line behind her choices at first.

Lampooning her career, life and religious intentions, much of the cast find Maud an oddity, but harmless. Perhaps most gravely, so too does her patient Amanda, a once sensational dancer succumbing to the end of her days. Jennifer Ehle’s booze-hounding party girl is a woman ensuring her final hours won’t be spent on medication and stagnation, but filled with frivolity, time with her female partner (Lily Frazer) and the luxury of sin.

And as much as Amanda toys with Maud’s lifestyle choices, the pair form a genuine sense of connection between them, as much as the spider has with its fly. Saint Maud demonstrates its deep-seated physicality and erotic ties with religious obsession and the intimacy of palliative care and nursing. The levels of complexity and warped beauty in Glass’ filmmaking demonstrate an unequivocal understanding of the brilliance in psychological horror.

A masterclass in horror cinema, Ben Fordesman’s framing of the film is uncomfortable and intense. He seems determined to cause distress in the audience, pushing them into unfamiliar situations and angles. While you may suspect this aids in grounding Maud’s reality from her psychosis, the cinematography deftly blurs the line even more.

This blurring of reality is where grazing slip-ups happen, where the psychological nature of the film worries filmmakers that the audience will knot themselves in deciphering. A tiny let-down is that a vast portion of Saint Maud concerns Maud’s past, never divulging the truth and wishing the audience to put together a jigsaw which is sadistically missing a few components. Occasionally, the imagery stretches beyond the scope of the film, as the delusions Maud suffers eke themselves from the realms of believability and into a more schlocky horror aspect in reinforcing how unhinged from reality her obsessions are.

This said, the meticulously well-crafted palette lends itself so intensely into shadow manipulation that when the scenes set up tension, they delivers in subtle ways. It isn’t solely the eyes which are forced into uneasiness; Saint Maud’s soundtrack is a composition of hellscapes, written by angels. A slice of the film blends an end-of-days party album with distortions of divine opulence, scratching disc-jockeys and warped air-raid sirens. Disconcerting, Glass does all they can to leave the audience writhing as they watch the movie unfold.

A reformation of contemporary horror, Saint Maud is the unlikely saviour of the genre in testing times. Glass’ unwillingness to sully the film with cheap novelty, instead ingraining its twisting gnarled roots in a religious sub-text, make for a visually exquisite embrace of eroticised religion and a near-ideal eighty-minute horror classic. 

Screening at the Edinburgh Filmhouse from Fri 9 Oct 2020

Review published for The Wee Review

Get Duked! – Amazon Prime

Written & Directed by Ninian Doff 

UK / 2019 / 87 mins

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Not much happens in the Highlands, right? An endless majesty of woodland, glens and hills, the Scottish Highlands are home to scatterings of locals, farmers, wildlife, and a few unfortunate kids who have been roped into The Duke of Edinburgh Award. What, though, if while traversing the rolling fogs of this landscape, this envy of the world, something was watching you? Something archaic, powerful, and known to prey upon the ‘plebs’ – The Aristocracy.

Get Duked! finds three lads from Glasgow – Declan, Dean and DJ Beetroot – sent on a ‘character building’ mission to earn their The Duke of Edinburgh Awards, a series of orienteering, hiking and teamwork exercises, where they are joined by Ian (Samuel Bottomley) – a boy keen to improve his university CV. Overcoming thirst, the cold and the munchies, this gang grow closer as they endeavour to finish the hike, claim their laminated certificates and escape this hellhole of hunters, bread-thieves and no phone signal.

Rather cleverly, and despite presumptions, the boys aren’t callous towards Ian – even if he is a bit of a nerd. Ninian Doff writes the group as just a bunch of attitude-driven teens and a bit thick – but never stereotyped as bullies or thugs. Much of this is down to engaging performances across the board, with Rian Gordon and Lewis Gribben bringing a particular energy and genuine enjoyment to the film that makes their characters relatable and entertaining.

Figured in the distance, high above his prey, ‘The Duke’ already stations himself in a superior status to the ‘vermin’ he hunts. A perfectly cast Eddie Izzard channels his notorious chatty, charismatic and distinctive English brand of humour directly into the character. His commitment to the role is complete with pompous posturing that creates a threat to our four lads – it’s just a bloody shame that Izzard isn’t used to his full potential after his introduction.

Somewhat disjointed, the film suffers from an issue with the direction and tone, with half of the cast performing a comedic film with a scary premise, while the others inhabit a horror film with humorous elements. Even in the principal cast, there seem to be moments where Doff’s direction leans heavily on the humour button at the cost of tension. An over-excess of ‘shock’ wording and gags slowly chips away at the feeling our characters are fleshed-out, and instead serve as mere walking punchlines. Most notably, Scottish treasure Georgie Glen flatters to deceive as The Duke’s wife; after an introduction which halts the film with a brief paralyzing fear, she quickly loses any aura of danger shortly after.

Patrick Miller’s distinct flair for wide shots place the threats these boys face far enough away to be acknowledged but close enough to register discomfort. Gradually, as The Duke and his wife grow closer to (and more frequently, move in front of) the camera, their impact lessens.

Doff’s directorial debut is, regardless of anything, an impressive outing. Get Duked! is a complete piece, wherein issues arise not from poor filmmaking, but directorial decisions and tone. For fans of crass humour, who dip their toes into the horror aesthetic, Doff’s work will undoubtedly bring laughs, cheap scares and a few banging tracks. For any hoping for a Highland Attack the Block or CountrycideGet Duked!‘s pulled punches and boasts of trashing elitist nature can’t cut the mustard – but it’s worth the watch just for legendary Scots actor James Cosmo getting high off rabbit droppings.

Available to watch now on Amazon Prime Video

Review published for The Wee Review

The Mortuary Collection – Fantasia Film Festival

Written & Directed by Ryan Spindell

USA/ 2020/ 110mins

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Hedging bets on spectacle, poetic language and loving references, Ryan Spindell’s The Mortuary Collection seeks to emulate the masters of horror (without their budgets of course). Where money is tight, ingenuity follows, and where love for a subject matter blossoms – so too does an exceptionally well-constructed anthology of short films become something special. Montgomery Dark, the keeper of stories, and humanities definitive gift has been doing his job for many a year – but now it seems, someone else needs to take up the mantle, and allow this old hand a well-deserved rest in peace.

In anthology films, the narrative tying the stories together is often nothing but an afterthought, a filler piece a thin veil in which to wrap their tales. Well, writer/ director Spindell had little intention for this, as The Mortuary Collection’s grim, grinning, arcing tale has merits as a standalone venture. This is principally down to the legendary Clancy Brown as Dark, especially the chemistry he shares with mysterious visitor Sam, as his demeanour brushes up against Caitlin Custer‘s troublesome nature and energetic performance.

Individually, the four shorts are just as impressive as each other, each serving a narrative or traditional ‘moral’ purpose. Spindell’s intention is less to teach, and more to illustrate that these stories needn’t be accurate or valid for the messages to be timeless.

Each hits its mark individually, whether it’s the introductory story, a simple tale of an unlucky thief who can’t help by pry open the locked door behind which a hideous creature waits, or a body-horror which would make Ridley Scott himself envious for its laceration of patriarchal fears of pregnancy and stubborn male pride. The third piece is a remarkably touching story which sees a loving husband driven to madness after his wife enters an unresponsive catatonic state. In a film rife with gothic comedy, over-the-top stunts, and gruesome effects, Barak Hardley‘s heartbreakingly accurate depiction of a genuine moral quandary – which ends with a rightfully grizzly end and some haunting creature design – is an exceptional stand-out performance.

Thankfully, these grotesque beasts refrain from computer effects (by and large), opting for tangible prosthetics and wizardry from Amalgamated Dynamics. From grand outdoor visages to minuscule details which stitch clues into the background, Karleigh Engelbrecht‘s set design sells the film’s atmosphere in a clash of opulent grown-up Goosebumps and Lovecraftian awe. These references to a ‘bygone’ era of horror litter the text, from the simple visuals to the subtle nods; in particular, the score and musical composition from the Mondo Boys, where hints of John Carpenter’s work are of apparent inspiration.

A textbook example of burying leads, the overarching story of the passing of a young girl and Dark’s arrangement of the wake are peppered with small details which, when tied together, culminate in a fitting finale for a contemporary anthology that drips with nostalgia. The stories to cherish are the ones even the storyteller hasn’t heard yet, and a delightfully twisted spin on the urban legend of the babysitter murders closes out the collection. This then feeds into the climax of the relationship between Sam and Dark, featuring a comeuppance worthy of any horror baddie – and a few nightmares to boot.

Unashamedly beaming with love for shlock horror anthologies, particularly the infamous masterpieces of the 70s and 80s, The Mortuary Collection is the sort of quality film which has been missing of late. Gradually it escalates the stakes, tempts the audience in with the promise of nostalgia, gore and monsters, but steadily forges a separate path.

Available on-demand as part of Fantasia Festival from August 20th

Review originally published for The Wee Review