I’ve got this problem that I always want some good Christmas horror movies I haven’t seen before, but also I assume any of them coming out this century are gonna be boring, cheap garbage. Yes, KRAMPUS (2015) is semi-recent and has become an annual tradition for me already, but does that mean I should give a shot to the unrelated KRAMPUS: THE CHRISTMAS DEVIL (2014), KRAMPUS: THE RECKONING (2015), KRAMPUS: THE DEVIL RETURNS (2016), KRAMPUS UNLEASHED (2016) or KRAMPUS: ORIGINS (2018)? So far I have assumed no. In this same spirit, I was curious, but didn’t make it a priority, to watch the 2010 Dutch killer Santa type movie SAINT NICK (also released here as SAINT, originally SINT).
And then this year happened! Not the bad stuff, but the stuff where I finally caught on to the Dutch writer/director/composer Dick Maas. I enjoyed his killer elevator movie DE LIFT/THE LIFT (1983), his scuba-action-slasher AMSTERDAMNED (1988), his killer elevator English-language remake DOWN (2001) and his killer lion loose in Amsterdam movie PROOIL/UNCAGED (2016). So, okay buddy, I trust you to make a Christmas horror movie now. I’m ready.
This is very different from the killer Santa Claus movies I’m familiar with (SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT, CHRISTMAS EVIL, SILENT NIGHT, DIAL CODE SANTA CLAUS) in part because instead of being a crazy person dressed as Santa Claus the idea is that the actual Sinterklaas has always been an evil motherfucker, it’s just that his terrifying history has been white-washed into happy holiday bullshit over the years.
It opens with the backstory: one full moon night (specifically December 5, 1492) the “murderous renegade bishop” Niklas (Huub Stapel, the hero of DE LIFT and AMSTERDAMNED) sails up to a village with his small band of pirate assholes and struts down the street on his horse with his fancy outfit and staff and smirks while his boys loot and go wild. I think some of the villagers leave their shoes out for them (?) but they still kick down doors and slide down chimneys (ah ha!) and wreak havoc. But later that night the villagers are like “Fuck this,” get all their pitchforks and shit, sneak up on the gang at their campfire, chop them the fuck up, row out and burn Niklas alive, along with his ship. Going Old Testament on him, you could say.
Then we jump to the same date in 1968 for a scene very similar to the opening of UNCAGED, but instead of a family being eaten by a lion they’re snatched by Christmas ghost. The kids get sucked up the chimney! It seems that, much as in the later case of Fred Krueger of Springwood, Illinois, the vigilante burning of ex-Bishop Niklas has some repercussions. Every time a full moon coincides with December 5th (every 23 years) these fuckers go on a rampage, and there’s a zombie-lookin Sinterklaas on the roof rearing a white horse!
But most of the movie takes place in 2010, when Amsterdam police detective Goert Hoekstra (Bert Luppes, BLACK BOOK) is on edge because, we realize, he was the little boy who survived that ’68 incident, and now it’s a full moon December 5th and he knows what that means. Everybody thinks he’s a wacko, and after he sees a Christmas present on his desk and immediately empties his gun into it (an absolutely great character introduction, in my opinion), his boss makes him take a vacation.
The Dutch Christmas traditions portrayed are very different from what we have here, so I have to sort of decode what the normal version is before understanding the evil version. I guess in addition to the thing we have here where obnoxious people dress up as Santa Claus to go bar-hopping, you also get a bunch of dudes in blackface as the sidekick character “Black Pete.” And then the twist here is that the original guy (or guys) the character is based on are only “black” because they got burned up. But still, when some guys say they were attacked by Black Petes the cops assume it was more guys in costumes.
And I guess it must be a thing that St. Nicholas carries a big hooked staff, which in this version is very sharp and good at impaling or wrapping around necks for some grade-A throat-slashing and beheading.
In classic horror tradition most of the potential victims are a group of young friends who just want to go out, get drunk and have fun for the holiday. I was actually unclear how old they’re supposed to be – they’re seen in a classroom, not a lecture hall, but seem way too old to accept as high school aged. At any rate, they have that blunt sense of humor Maas always gives his young characters – in a gift exchange in class everybody gets each other dildos.
There’s lots of the Maas eccentricities I like. There’s a mom who’s not entirely hate-able even though she doesn’t buy her kid Christmas gifts and tells him, “Saint Nicholas is a commercial invention, an excrescence of our affluent society.” And there are legitimately good horror moments, like when a woman is attacked while on the phone and the friend she’s talking to lives close enough to immediately run to her house. Also the mythology is cool. People keep smelling something burning when the ghosts are nearby, and an apparition of the burning ship plows right through a police boat.
The best set piece is when police chase Sinterklaas on his horse as he leaps from roof to roof. It reminded me of part of KRAMPUS, but I guess this is their holiday mythology – he rides a horse across the roofs, no flying reindeer. I like when one of the cops pulls out a gun and his partner pleads, “It’s St. Nicholas!,” as if it would feel wrong to shoot St. Nicholas even when he’s a mass-murdering zombie. His shots hit the horse, and its corpse falls through a roof, rolls out a window and lands on the police car, crushing it. But then gets up. Maas movies tend to go bigger with the mayhem than your average horror movie, and I really dig that.
Eventually this kid Frank (Egbert Jan Weeber, almost 30) has survived being attacked and the police don’t believe him, but Goert rescues him with a blowtorch and a speedboat (more of that cool Amsterdam canal action). Since Frank knows how to help Goert with an engine problem he’s able to coerce his way into the vigilante mission. We learn that Goert has spent his life obsessing over this ghost, gone into secret archives and uncovered all kinds of clippings about December 5th massacres. One aspect of that trademark Dick Maas deadpan absurdity is that not only is St. Nicholas evil, but for generations the church and the cops have been making up cover stories and hiding the evidence to keep people from knowing about it. There’s this scary bald cop (Ben Ramakers) who seems to be tasked with keeping all this under wraps, no matter what it takes. I don’t remember for sure but I don’t think the SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT series ever got to a massive government conspiracy/coverup.
In the end (SPOILER) we see how the media lies about the number of people killed (300!) and blame it on a living person. It actually feels wrong for a Christmas movie to paint a cynical picture of the world like that, but there’s at least a little twist to make it not end on a total bummer.
Even though SINT was made 26 years after SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT, it sounds like its release in the Netherlands had a similar controversy to what that movie had here. People actually went to court to try to get the poster banned so that kids who believed in Sinterklaas wouldn’t see it and be scared or confused or something. Maas won the case, so I say celebrate his win by watching SINT with your whole family this December 5th.