There’s nothing godly about “Saint,” an intensely Dutch variation on the evil-Santa subset of horror and slasher pics. Local mainstream helmer Dick Maas (“The Elevator”) is no stranger to combining U.S-borrowed ideas with Dutch cheese, and here he gradually, and impressively, builds up tension before things devolve into a combo of hasty CGI and disorientingly rapid cuts. Local holiday B.O. last year was impressive, and as a subtitled item, this somewhat unholy mess has remake and cult potential. IFC Midnight nabbed Stateside rights before the pic’s Tribeca preem.
St. Nicholas or “Sinterklaas,” the inspiration for Santa Claus, is celebrated in early December in the Netherlands. Like Santa, he’s a bearer of gifts for kids who have been nice rather than naughty, though in Maas’ retelling, the Saint himself is the wickedest of all.
Following a ransacking of parish dwellings in a 1492-set prologue, medieval bishop St. Nick (a mute Huub Stapel) was burned by angry villagers and has since returned to the Lowlands in a vengeful guise every time the night of Dec. 5 coincides with a full moon. A government cover-up has kept the truth out of the papers, though a weary cop, Goert (Bert Luppes), whose backstory is shown in a second, equally gory prologue, plans to change all that.
Story proper, set in the present and again on Dec. 5, kicks off some 10 minutes in at a Dutch high school. During class, pretty Sophie (Escha Tanihatu) uses a poem written by “Sinterklaas” to unceremoniously dump her b.f., Frank (Egbert-Jan Weeber). Early scene is classic Maas, using juvenile humor (one of the high schoolers gets a sex toy as a Sinterklaas gift) to not only elicit laughs, but also to create a false sense of lightness and security. Along the way, nods to similar foreshadowing strategies from classic American slasher pics show off Maas’ knowledge and influences.
Strong early reels speed along on this calm-before-the-storm vibe, mixing humor and light drama while slowly upping the ante as day turns into night. No-nonsense Lisa has to babysit, while two-timing Frank and some of his pals are earning pocket money by dressing up as Sinterklaas and his helpers for a kids’ party. Things get out of hand when the two former lovebirds run afoul of the real — and evil — deal.
Pic’s supposed highlight is a scene of the police chasing after the resurrected Nick on his steed as he gallops over the roofs of Amsterdam’s canal-lined houses, but the combo of obvious chroma-key work and CGI never quite hits the mark, robbing the sequence of some of its potential thrills and grandeur. The slice-and-dice approach is not only used by St. Nick but also by editor Bert Rijkelijkhuizen, whose rapid-fire cuts during the action sequences seem dictated by the need to hide grade-B effects rather than to suit rhythm or story. Final confrontation is also somewhat anticlimactic, considering what has come before.
Production design and the use of the city’s locations, however, are as strong as in Maas’ “Amsterdamned,” reinforcing the sense that this is truly a Dutch tale, though omnipresent (fake) snow creates some continuity problems.
As the zombie-killer version of the saintly and child-loving bishop, Stapel is clearly enjoying himself here, as are Tanihatu and Weeber. Luppes steals every scene he’s in as the cop whose colleagues thinks he’s either paranoid or cuckoo, until they get all the proof they’d ever want, and then some.
Score (by Maas himself) and sound design are familiar and insistent, in keeping with genre conventions.