Tribeca Review: Saint's White Subtitles Don't Mesh Well With A White Christmas

Saint has two things working against it; it’s subtitled and foreign. No, there’s nothing wrong with requiring an audience to read some text or with a film coming from another country; the problem is the subtitles are often illegible and a number of the jokes are geared towards a Dutch audience. What the rest of us end up with is a confusing and unfunny, albeit visually stimulating, horror comedy.

On December 5th, 1492 a murderous saint went on a killing spree in an Amsterdam village. While many lives were lost, the townsfolk got their revenge, burning Saint Nick to death by setting fire to his boat. However, their immediate victory turned into a long-term nightmare with Saint Nick vowing to return on the anniversary of his death when the moon is full on Christmas.

Fast forward to present time when the tale of Saint Nick is a mere urban legend. When the innocent myth turns into a gruesome reality for a group of teens, they’re left helpless, nobody believing that the curse is true and Saint Nick indeed returns to town every 32 years to claim the lives of as many people as possible with the help of his evil Black Peters.

So we’ve got Saint Nick, but who are Saint’s other main players? Well, that’s the problem. Saint is an interesting telling of the general concept of the urban legend, but when it comes to humanizing the story, there are no characters to connect with. Of the bunch Goert (Bert Luppes) is the most impactful for he’s the only one who’s experienced the wrath of Saint Nick before. In one of the film’s most successful moments, Goert is a mere boy when he witnesses his family’s savage murder at the hand of the “Sinterklaas.” The problem is, after that sequence, we lose Goert for quite a while. By the time we meet him again in modern time, it’s a wonder we make the connection between the old cop and the young boy.

During that gaping hole in Goert’s story, we’re meeting the teen members of the cast: Frank, Sophie and Lisa (Egbert Jan Weeber, Escha Tanihatu and Caro Lenssen). While their introduction is amusing, using a deviant Christmas present swap to explain their relationship, from that point on they’re all rather uninteresting. Maas has a tough time working with multiple protagonists. By the end we do get a clear main character, but leading up to that point, our attention is being pulled in too many directions. At the start, we’re led to believe that Sophie will take us through the film, but then the attention shifts to Lisa. Similar to Goert, after establishing Lisa as the film’s #1, we lose her entirely and solely focus on Frank. It’s impossible to establish a connection with any of these characters when your focal point shifts constantly.

On the other hand, visually, Saint is quite impressive. The shot composition is endlessly intriguing, cinematographer Guido van Gennep creating mesmerizing frames and then using movement ever so slightly to enhance them. A simple shot of a character lounging on a couch becomes something wholly compelling as a result of interesting angles and bold colors topped off with a subtle move in, beautifully hinting at the danger to come. Van Gennep continues to impress showing the film’s unique set design and costumes in all their glory. From the opening scene during which we see Saint Nick torment that first village to the moments set in modern Amsterdam, there’s always something believable and exciting to look at.

While Saint has its ups and downs, what ultimately ruins it is illegible subtitles and the culture gap. While the jokes of a GPS leading you in circles is universally amusing, other points won’t hit home for an American audience. There are references to magazines, people and places none of which will register for a non-Dutch moviegoer. Even worse are the subtitles. Either the dialogue didn’t translate properly in certain scenes or there were some major typos because some lines just didn’t make sense. And that’s if you’re able to read them. The film takes place in snowy Amsterdam, which clearly means a number of the shots will be quite white. Snow and white text do not mix. With fast-paced dialogue it’s difficult enough to keep up with the type; when you’re having a tough time reading it period, it’s impossible. Not only does this result in missing certain parts of the story, but it takes a significant amount of attention away from the on screen action.

Then again, perhaps Saint is better off only earning a fraction of your awareness. The film is meant to be a horror comedy, but it’s generally quite unfunny causing the piece’s campy undertone to backfire entirely turning Saint into a wannabe B movie and nothing more.

Staff Writer for CinemaBlend.