“Your parents told you he doesn’t exist,” and boy were they wrong. “Saint” opens with a pretty strong sense of doom. Following this comically foreboding quote is an almost completely wordless sequence set in an abysmally bleak Amsterdam in the year 1492. St. Nicholas, at this point a bloodthirsty bishop, leads his men through the town murdering and pillaging, mostly because he’s is in a bad (or good?) mood. The harsh landscape is appropriately dim and grim, pervaded by the classic misty gloom of medieval movies. When the villagers rise up against this wicked marauder, they have no idea what they’re getting themselves into: centuries of violence and terror on every December 5th coinciding with a full moon (so, every 30-odd years). Scary stuff.
The film, recently picked up by IFC Midnight, is quite the thriller. It’s a fast-paced slasher flick with a distinctly Northern European penchant for the ridiculous, and it disappoints in neither its romping absurdity nor well-timed suspense. And while the cultural distance between our understanding of Santa Claus and the distinctly Dutch and Flemish Sinterklaas creates the occasional block from getting 100% out of the movie’s wit, there’s something terribly universal about a 500-year-old zombie on horseback with a mission to kill.
About that December 5th thing; in The Netherlands (and other Dutch-speaking communities), presents are given to children not on Christmas itself but rather the reputed birthday of St. Nicholas. And this “Sinterklaas” is accompanied not by elves but by Black Peter, whose customary blackface has caused some culture shock to American tourists in Amsterdam over the years. Of course, traditionally the jolly old man is just as benevolent to the kids of Holland as he is to everyone else, but this film would have you believe otherwise. Here the horrifically violent madman returns every few decades with a zombie-like vengeance and an army of vicious Black Peters, generally slaughtering hundreds. Not exactly the kind of guy to be happy with milk and cookies.
Right away “Saint” jumps into its witty play on the Dutch St. Nick story. People are swept up through chimneys by the demonic saint and his men, as the marauders trample over unsuspecting Amsterdam on rooftops. There’s an almost breathtaking sequence of the gloomy bishop galloping swiftly on horseback across the Dutch capital, much to the frustration of his pursuers below. He’s particularly interested in children, clearly having decided that they’re all naughty and deserve to be tossed into burlap sacks bound for Spain (part of the Sinterklaas lore), or worse. Overall it’s a clever twist of as many aspects of the legend as possible, and I’m sure I would get many more references were I Dutch myself.
As for the elements of standard horror involved, there’s an equal degree of fun to be had. Now, this could be my “Scream” marathon of last week talking, but I have a hunch writer/director Dick Maas put a bit more thought into using so many slasher tropes in “Saint” than a simple co-opting of the genre for a ready-made screenplay would require. There are the obligatory teenage protagonists (played by attractive 20-somethings, also a must), high school kids with a distinctly European sensibility regarding booze and sex. The terribly pretty Egbert Jan Weeber leads the way as Frank, the poor guy who finds himself caught up in this whole mess but has the familiar robust self-confidence and adaptability of a slasher hero. The score is also clearly influenced by other horror films, and the general incompetence of the police force couldn’t be more boldly stated.
In this kind of movie it is pretty standard that law enforcement is more of an obstacle than an aid to solving a mystery, but “Saint” takes it to the next level. Our policeman hero, Goert (Bert Luppes), is the lone survivor in his family of the 1968 attack and since then he has completely dedicated himself to defeating St. Nick. Unfortunately, the authorities refuse to believe a thing he says and spend much of the movie chasing after innocent teenagers suspected of committing the rapidly increasing murders. It just gets progressively worse for the cops, as their incompetence mixes with downright stubbornness to respond to the growing crisis. It lends even more dark humor to an already mirthfully bleak film, the sort of thing we are desperately missing in many of today’s torture porn flicks.