Rosy red cheeks. Sack full of toys. Spreading joy to children. All of it apparently bull. Talk about having your cherished childhood memories wrecked to pieces. The American version of Santa Claus, he of the big white beard and Coca Cola bottle, has received a serious dressing-down on the international front lately.
Last year, Finland gave us Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, featuring a fearsome Kris Kringle based off Lapland folklore. That Santa was more claws than Claus and even had an army of vile elves who helped him put children IN the sack instead of taking toys out. Now, not to be outdone in the Naughty St. Nick sweepstakes, the Netherlands presents Saint, Dick Maas’ own twisted take on the Dutch legend of the Sinterklaas, a murderous spirit that puts a devilish horror-movie spin on the classic Santa iconography.
I’m not that personally familiar with the Dutch traditions, but Maas’ film paints the Sinterklaas as a pretty nasty customer. Stripped of his reindeer, his sleigh and even his December 25th association, this Santa was once a 15th Century marauder with his own pillaging gang of brigand Moors called ‘Black Peters’. Terrorizing small hamlets and towns during the feast of St. Nikolas on December 5th, the Sinterklaas and his minions finally met their match when a group of harried villagers rose up against them. Killing the Black Peters and burning Santa to death on his own ship, the townspeople inadvertently brought down a curse on their heads. Every 32 years on the anniversary of the murders, the ghosts of the villainous Santa and his cohorts rise to take vengeance.
Saint opens with a grim and evocative depiction of that long ago crime, visually referencing the bleak medievalism of many a Hammer period thriller. Maas sets the tone with a storybook world filled with antiquated religious imagery splashed with a dash of menace. The Sinterklaas himself is not the traditional lard-laden jolly elf, but a gaunt and regal Bishop, carrying an ornamental staff (it’s also an ax) and mounted on a fearsome steed. His presence in the prologue is reminiscent of a mad member of clergy. When he comes riding into the modern world, he brings that latent fear of religious zealotry with him. The Black Peters are even stranger and more disconcerting visually. They are clearly counterparts to the traditional elves, but their black-face pantomime and creepy scuttling nature make them extremely odd, particularly to American sensibilities.
Getting all of these folkloric elements down visually is important because as a film, Saint isn’t very concerned about things like tradition, heritage, or mythology. Mostly, it’s just a highly camp holiday iteration of a monster movie. Unlike Rare Exports, which was ostensibly a dark, family-oriented horror story, Saint is firmly grounded in the more gory tradition of the slasher flick. It’s not a sniff on Helander’s film, but each is trying to do different things in different ways. Consistency isn’t Maas’ strong suit, but he’s willing to push us further into morbidity, which makes Saint a perfect balm for those who harbor a grudge for the holiday.
If Exports drew from the icy dread and setting of John Carpenter’s The Thing then Saint is channeling the Carpenter of The Fog, with a mist-shrouded modern town, clueless teens, an in-the-know cop, and a supernatural menace killing its way through the populace. What makes Saint fun is the way it incorporates the holiday associations into the death sequences; people are yanked up chimneys, kids stolen away in sacks, and Santa glides along nighttime rooftops with the help of his animal familiar. To continue the decidedly anachronistic theme of ‘what you don’t believe in will likely kill you’, Maas introduces a nervous detective who has real faith in the supernatural because his family was dispatched by the Sinterklaas in youth. As the police procedural elements progress, the older veteran who fears the dark will share the knowing dread of the true believer with his subordinates.
To be honest, I had a great time with Saint despite its shortcomings and rather generic through-line as a by-the-numbers slasher. The pacing is frustratingly manic in the way it switches between great, goofy set pieces worthy of Raimi or early Peter Jackson and run-of-the-mill, tired horror conventions. When we aren’t caught up in something actually involving the undead Father Christmas, Maas has trouble keeping the film fresh and steady. The cops look around nervously and wave flashlights, the kids wander off into the dark winter night, there are shower scenes, decapitations by sword, and in a scene that Helander avoided, we learn that not even children are safe from the wrath of Sinterklaas.
At the end of the day Saint passes the time with a few good chills and a couple of worthy thrills. There’s a surprisingly action-heavy second half that frequently delights with outrageous kills and off-kilter chase sequences. My favorite is a sustained scene where the police are pursuing Sinterklaas and he is dashing from rooftop to rooftop on his undead steed. The image itself could have been ripped from E.C. Horror comics and Maas knows how to shoot it so that tension exists alongside the pitch-black humor. The set-piece would put to shame a movie made on twice Saint’s budget, but the film as a whole can’t sustain this cracked wizardry. Still, as warped Christmas dramas about wicked Santas go, Saint proves a worthy and wild addition to the genre. I’m looking forward to pairing it with Rare Exports, Santa’s Slay, and Christmas Evil when the season rolls around again.