Katie (Morfydd Clark), a nurse, is involved in a horrific, bloody, unspecified incident that prompts her to leave a hospital job and become a live-in carer for the terminally ill. The event is so shaking that she completely overhauls her lifestyle, forsaking casual promiscuity for religious fervour, and changes her name to Maud, while seeking (perhaps finding) the miraculous. She settles into the shadowed home of dying ex-dancer Amanda Köhl (Jennifer Ehle) – replacing another carer who cheerfully confides that the patient can be ‘a cunt’. The women enter into an odd, fractured relationship which changes them both. Maud mutely disapproves of but is fascinated by Amanda’s end-of-life regimen, which includes drink, drugs, hook-ups with a female escort, and messy parties … while Amanda is drawn enough to Maud’s faith that she gives her a book of William Blake’s visionary paintings, though she draws back from fully converting and seems crucially to miss how recent Maud’s own embrace of her values has been.
Writer-director Rose Glass essays a gothic female relationship drama – with occasional touches of things like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? or Secret Ceremony – that segues perhaps unexpectedly into a rigorous horror movie about faith and doubt, with eruptions of the angelic and demonic that yield genuine frissons and authentic jump scares. A simpler film might have played simply as a psycho-drama, but this stretches its reality to include miracles – though perhaps not always divine miracles. There are flashes of horror here as strong as in any straight-ahead Insidious-type picture, but always with a lasting aftereffect … some traditional symptoms (including levitation and facial distortion) of possessions, one shattering turn-on-a-dime line meaningless out of context (‘that was so easy’) and a glimpse of literal holocaust at the climax.
Shot in Scarborough, showcasing a seedily nightmarish ragged beachfront, and built around outstanding work from the female leads – Clark has some of the interior derangement of Samantha Morton in Morvern Caller or Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, which are both precedents for this sort of contemporary spin on the ‘crazy lady’ sub-genre, but brings her own whispery, ambiguous edge to the role. Suspense is generated as the film see-saws as to whether Maud or Amanda is the biggest threat – or potential saviour – to the other. A very impressive debut from Glass.