Tribeca 2011: SAINT (SINT) Review

[With Dutch Santa-slasher Saint screening at Tribeca today we revisit Ard Vijn's review from the Dutch release.]

Today, Dick Maas' new horror film "Sint" (or "Saint" as its international title is listed to be) gets released wide in The Netherlands and Belgium.

And just in time too, as the real Saint Nicolas (or "Sinterklaas" as we call him over here) is about to arrive this very weekend. Yesterday they even started the daily journals on the television, detailing his travel from Spain to The Netherlands, charting the course of his steamboat full of presents and discussing the logistic problems "The Sint" will face while visiting. These bulletins are tacked to the daily news and treated 100% seriously. Mentioning that the "Goedheiligman" ("Good Holy Man") is an imaginary figure wil be absolutely forbidden, except late at night when child psychologists describe on television what the pros and cons are of parents telling their children such outrageous lies.

Yes, we Dutch take Saint Nicolas seriously. So much so, in fact, that "Pakjesavond" ("Presents Evening") on the 5th of December is still more popular than Christmas Eve in The Netherlands...

So you can imagine that maverick director Dick Maas has been ruffling feathers left and right with his plans for making a horror film featuring Saint Nicholas as an evil slasher. And with the premiere in sight, the very poster by itself already caused an epic stir in our country (as reported before...), with action groups of concerned parents trying to have the onesheets removed, fearing that seeing the silhouette of an evil Sint would be enough to traumatize their children. There is even a website where parents can check if cinemas are SINT-free or not.

With such a successful campaign of raising awareness for the film, does the end product deliver? Well... read on.


The Story:

It's the fifth of December and time for the Saint Nicolas festivities to commence in earnest. High-school student Frank and his friends prepare to go to a party in the evening, dressed up as The Sint and his (in)famous blackamoor helpers.

But according to one policeman this year the festivities will turn into a nightmare. For his research shows that the legend of the Nick we all know and love is based upon a misunderstanding, and that the REAL "Niklas" was a sadistic killer. A rogue-bishop-turned-pirate who lived centuries ago, this Sint terrorized whole villages with his gang of robbers until he was burned to death by Dutch vigilantes. Worse: Niklas and his baked friends on occasion return to the land of the living to wreak bloody revenge upon the country which killed them. This only happens when the fifth of December coincides with a full moon. Which is tonight. Oops...

No one believes this story of course. But then a medieval boat is spotted rushing towards the Amsterdam harbor, and amidst a sudden wave of shocking murders Frank and his friends are about to get closely acquainted with the REAL Sint.


The Movie:

Writer / director Dick Maas made a huge splash in 1983 when he made "The Lift" ("The Elevator"). At that time, nobody in The Netherlands was doing any genre-cinema as it was considered to be an area where the Dutch film industry could not possibly compete with American output. But Maas took the gamble and managed to create something unique: a movie which borrowed heavily from horror classics of the seventies yet retained a special local flavor. "The Lift" hit The Netherlands like a bomb and was a huge financial success, making household names both of Dick Maas and its star Huub Stapels. And it wasn't just the locals who appreciated the film: it went on to win awards at festivals like Avoriaz.

Since then, Dick Maas has returned several times with projects which were very un-Dutch in concept but very Dutch in execution, or the other way round. "Flodder" may have been a typically Dutch screwball comedy on paper, but the amount of stunts and destruction made it very special at the time. "Amsterdamned" brought the American action thriller to our very doorstep, with a spectacular speedboat chase through the famous Amsterdam canals which could easily have featured in any good Bond film.

And now we have "Sint". Seen by itself, this might have been a forgettable slasher of which there are dozens already. The story may be its weakest point, only there to connect the setpieces (and even doing that rather clumsily at times) and lacking a strong ending. But Dick Maas has added a couple of very neat tricks which make "Sint" both special and fun. The very concept of an evil Sint is as perverse as a very dirty joke, far more so than an evil Santa Claus, and much of the film's strengths hinges on this linchpin.

Having Saint Nicolas be the boogeyman turns out to be quite a masterstroke, as the old equestrian makes for a very cinematic villain indeed. Seeing him on his horse silhouetted like Zorro against a snowy night sky is a striking image, eerie and straight out of a fairytale at the same time. His helpers, the famous "Black Petes" which used to be either chimney-sweeps or North-African servants, now are zombie pirates with a crispy outer layer of charcoal.
And of course Dick Maas juxtaposes his evil Sint against the jolly legend for all it's worth, providing an endless array of jokes. I wonder how many of these will travel well beyond Dutch borders, but the film does at times provide an outsider's view on our own quaint customs (before ripping them to shreds), so the non-Dutch need not feel too alienated.

On a technical level the film scores big points. Special Effects and gore look impressive and unexpectedly grand even for Dick Maas, and one of the best setpieces involving a chase between a policecar on ground level and Niklas on the Amsterdam rooftops is stunning in execution, and exciting even though it's not remotely scary. Greenscreens in excess of 150 feet were used to film this sequence, and ... damn! It looks good!
Other scenes, like a flashback to medieval times or Sint attacking the Children's ward of a hospital, have an otherworldly nightmarish quality to them. The latter scene heavily features that fairytale feeling again yet is surprisingly mean-spirited, with the children actually welcoming the evil boogeyman before slowly realizing something is wrong with this Sinterklaas. Amsterdam and zombie pirates make a pleasing image as lensed by cameraman Guido van Gennep, who also did excellent work for "Winter in Wartime".

Looking at "The Lift" it's easy to see Dick Maas being influenced by Dario Argento and Mario Bava, with strong use of colors and mood winning out over logic or what's actually possible. For "Sint" however, Dick Maas seems to be channeling John Carpenter. There are plenty of nods towards "Halloween" of course but the film most heavily homaged here is "The Fog". There's the fog, the glimpses of the boat, ancient guys out for contemporary revenge... I'll even state that "Sint" is a better remake of John Carpenter's "The Fog" than Rupert Wrainwright's 2005 version of that film. At least Dick Maas gets the mood and the sense of fun right. Also, Dick wrote his own soundtrack, same as John Carpenter did. He incorporates several of Saint Nicolas' Carols in the film's central themes and the film is all the more funnier and creepier for it.

Acting, like the story, is not what this film aims for to be remembered of. Having said that, there are a couple of side characters and bit-parts in it which are pretty awesome in their comedic timing. I would like to single out actors Kees Boot and Ben Ramakers here. Kees Boot is very funny as the over-the-top macho cop in the aforementioned chase, while Ben Ramakers with his low grumbling voice is almost as menacing as Sint himself.
And of course there is the stunt-casting of Dick Maas regular leading man Huub Stapel as the evil Niklas. Covered in make-up and without a single spoken word in the entire movie, his presence is the biggest in-joke of "Sint" as the actor is only recognizable in the first five minutes.


Conclusion:

Set aside from its intriguing concept and history, "Sint" might seem no different than a "Friday the 13th" part six, seven or eight. Nevertheless there is enough madcap enthusiasm, satire and artistry put into it to still make it a very fun movie.

It helps that Dick Maas knows how to set up decent scares and decent jokes, and both are well-represented here. A crowd-pleaser without pretentions, "Sint" comes recommended provided you're looking for some light entertainment.
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