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December 23, 2011

Movies You Missed 19: Saint Nick

Saint-nickThis week in movies you missed: Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. And he's going to kill you (in this horror flick from the Netherlands, that is).

What You Missed

This week in Vermont news, we learned that public school teachers can get in trouble for telling fifth graders that Santa is fictional, like Harry Potter. Apparently it's culturally insensitive to cast doubt on a "symbol of the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ," said school superintendent Christopher Kibbe.

So I guess we can see why Saint Nick was never released theatrically in the U.S. In this slasher film, dastardly Dutch writer-director Dick Maas dares to imagine that Saint Nicholas is not just real, but evil.

In a prologue, we learn that, back in the 15th century, St. Nick (Huub Stapel) was a renegade bishop who ransacked villages and sailed a pirate ship. (That story about a benign, gift-giving bishop? All a coverup.) Irate villagers eventually put an end to his reign of terror, but Nick and his henchmen return as ghosts every December 5 when the moon is full (that's every few decades). They slide down chimneys, slaughter parents with swords and pickaxes, fill their sooty bags with struggling children and vanish again.

One child witnessed Santa's murder of his entire family, escaped and grew up to join the Amsterdam police force. Now Goert (Bert Luppes) is obsessed with preventing carnage on the next full-moon St. Nicholas Day. His colleagues roll their eyes at his warnings.

Meanwhile, out on the city streets, St. Nick's Day has been thoroughly commercialized. Young people are exchanging gifts in class — many of them dildos. (Hey, it's Amsterdam.) One of those fine youths, Frank (Egbert Jan Weeber), has dressed up as St. Nick for the evening, with his friends in black-face as Santa's traditional henchmen, the Black Peters. (To American eyes, that's more shocking than an evil Santa.)

But a strange, charred, centuries-old-looking ship is pulling into the harbor... with a dude in red robes and a bishop's hat aboard.

Why You Missed It

Like most horror flicks from abroad, especially those that trample on our beloved icons, Saint Nick went straight to video on demand in the U.S.

Should You Keep Missing It?

Once you get past its excellent concept, Saint Nick is an OK horror movie. In style and structure, it owes much to John Carpenter's The Fog, another film in which a vengeful, mutilated ghost arrives by sea and wreaks havoc on a defenseless town. (Maybe all such stories derive from the Flying Dutchman legend.)

Both movies ask you to swallow the notion that, under the right circumstances, ghosts can wield physical weapons and chop people to bits. Yes, there's lots of beheading and blood spurting for the gore hounds.

But far more disturbing are the scenes where the Black Peters stuff their sacks with kids. What happens to them? We don't find out. (In Dutch folk tradition, St. Nick takes bad children "to Spain.") Child death is one thing that's still taboo in the horror genre, so these scenes, while bloodless, are boundary pushing.

The director pulls off one clever, nasty scene that's like bizarro Spielberg, where a little boy thinks he spots Santa Claus on the neighboring roof and gets his wish in the worst way. Mostly, though, the film isn't particularly scary, especially if you haven't believed in Santa since kindergarten. (I couldn't get past the demonstrable fact that badly behaved children never got lumps of coal.)

The most interesting thing about the movie is its window into contemporary Dutch culture, where December 5, not December 25, is still the big gift-giving occasion. (Read about it and see a Black Peter here.) Clearly the Dutch/Belgian St. Nick's Day is a thing unto itself, much like the American Halloween. No one over there seems to yoke St. Nick together with Jesus, even though our "Santa Claus" comes from the Dutch "Sinterklass," as does his red garb.

So, in the Netherlands, an evil Santa probably doesn't come off as sacrilegious. It's worth noting that not all Anglo-American Protestants have made the connection between Christ and Santa, either — some viewed the latter as downright pagan or secular. Much like our friend Harry Potter.

Verdict: Not a horror movie for the ages, but worth watching for the novelty. Especially if, like certain folks I know, you have a tradition of watching scary flicks on Christmas eve.

Other New DVD Releases You May Have Missed

(Note: This week in the paper, we had no room to print the list of new DVD releases. So I'm sticking the whole thing here, though some of them played for a while in Vermont.)

  • Blackthorn (Sam Shepard plays Butch Cassidy in his later years.)
  • Burke and Hare (Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis play grave robbers in 19th-century Edinburgh. It's a black comedy.)
  • Colombiana (Zoe Saldana! Action!)
  • Dolphin Tale (Little boy and cute wounded dolphin. 'Nuff said.)
  • Glee: The Concert Movie (for Gleeks who didn't want to pay 3-D prices)
  • Margin Call
  • Midnight in Paris
  • Straw Dogs (Peckinpah's film remade with Kate Bosworth and Alexander Skarsgard, to mostly negative reviews)
  • Warrior (A little-seen, well-reviewed movie about two underdog brothers in the MMA ring. Basically, it's this year's The Fighter, but not a cheap knockoff. Full of clichés that actually work, thanks to the acting from Nick Nolte, Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton. My personal recommendation.)

Each week I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)

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