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

Lycanthropy – Short Film Review

Written & Directed by Alexander Black

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The world isn’t black and white, nor is it a true ‘grey area’. More often than not, in the world of crime and abuse, there’s regularly a slash of crimson added into the mix. People don’t always agree that the punishment fits the crime, especially when it involves minors. Alexander Black’s short-film Lycanthropy deals with the unpleasant reality of child pornography and its impact on those who are duty-bound to confront it.

Detective Chief Inspector Kessler, your typically smarmy and overconfident police offer, begins to take matters into his own hands. He’s disenfranchised by the organisation he works for and, as we discover, is suffering from some separation issues altering his thought process. The disappearance of a young girl infuses him with a bloodthirst which stretches the hunt beyond the professional and into the primal.

Quite literally ‘seeing red’, a distortion of sorts overcomes Kessler as the events twist in his mind, seemingly under extreme pressures from a failed marriage, substance abuse and his failings in finding the girl. This dynamic split, which offers the film’s title, reveals itself both from an editing perspective and performance. It’s one of the more well-done aspects of Black’s production, and while the wolf imagery is a touch on-the-nose, Paul Duncan’s conveyance of his descent into an unhinged mindset (especially through simple lines such as “I didn’t do this”) has enough emphasis in the correct place to reinforce the question of just who is the monster here, and who precisely is in control.

Beyond performance and direction, Lycanthropy’s score plays a large function in the storytelling. Rob Northcott’s musical composition is fitting of a thriller-detective piece, but contains an infusion of sharp notes when emotions are taut. Further, canny use of sound effects in the editing process proffer clues and further insights into the characters’ actions, and for the keen listener an answer to the film’s cliff-hanger. This is perhaps best demonstrated in an otherwise mundane, anticipated scene, where Kessler laments his failed marriage and the time not spent with his daughter, only for the radio to distort the abuses hurled at the inspector, revealing how unstable he is becoming.

It strikes as peculiar that with such delicacy taken in the scoring, Black’s writing can dip, and degrees of subtlety vacate Lycanthropy. There’s a short timescale to get plot points across to the audience, but the golden rule of ‘show don’t tell’ is broken frequently. Does it distract from the overall film? Not necessarily. Is it understandable that a short will cut to exposition? Assuredly. There are just occasions in which a look – or even audio cues – are enough without needed reinforcement.

There’s a solid foundation for the world-building at play here too, as the film’s cinematography is impressive. Kurt Riddell’s photography conjures the tone of a modestly budgeted televised show. Kessler has room to flex his body, to allow a physicality to emerge in tandem with his deteriorating sanity. Lighting often reflects the tension, for the most part bordering on monochromatic, devoid of colour in the sea of browns and greys. This, of course, makes for a stark impact at the splices of wolf footage, the symbolic bestial nature of Kessler’s rage emerging.

Lycanthropy ticks all the boxes for a television pilot, with a sense of checking popular responses and tropes, but there is uniqueness. Black’s short film captures a twofold, malformed monster emerging from the depths of human capability. There are the abhorrent actions of a man exploiting minors, and the defragmenting sanity of someone who places a personal vendetta upon the crime. Lycanthropy frames itself well, and despite procedural moments, is a tightly constructed film which delves into depravity more than the viewer may care to venture. 

Review originally published for The Wee Review: