The writer/director of Saint Bernard, Gabriel Bartalos, is a legend in the special effects and make-up world. He’s worked with Frank Henenlotter on the Basket Case films, Brain Damage, and Frankenhooker, with Stuart Gordon on From Beyond, with Matthew Barney on the Cremaster Cycle, and he even designed Leprechaun. He’s worked with make-up effects masters Rick Baker and Patrick Tatopoulos, and got his start working with Arnold Garguilo on The Deadly Spawn. The first film he wrote and directed was 2004’s Skinned Deep, which is a film that gets mixed to poor reviews, but is characterized by Troma-style effects and humor, bizarre narrative logic, and idiosyncratic storytelling, all of which make it something that is now on my To Watch List.
Filmed in 2013 and released this week by Severin Films, Saint Bernard is, as its IMDB synopsis suggests, about a “classical music conductor [who] unravels into the abyss of insanity.” However, that really fails to capture the surreal fantasy that this film actually is. The set designs are incredible. The level of detail and obsession involved borders on the level of Terry Gilliam. The make-up effects are bizarre and extremely impressive, leaning heavily into both nightmares and whimsey that echo the work of Jodorowsky. The gore is bloody and extreme, with Troma levels of splatter, but with the realism that Bartalos is best-known for.
Once Bernard (Jason Dugre) begins to lose his mind, each individual set-piece/plot point stands stronger on its own than as a whole, however, with the police station sequence standing out as both the most impressive from a design standpoint and thematically, as if early Peter Jackson and Terry Gilliam teamed up to adapt Kafka. Warwick Davis makes an appearance and literally steals the show. I could have watched his character, Othello, for the entire run time, as he acts as sort of a conduit for Lynchian weirdness.
So, I’ve referenced Gilliam, Jodorowsky, Troma, Peter Jackson, Kafka, and David Lynch so far, and the finale brought the grotesque excess of Yoshihiro Nishimura’s Tokyo Gore Police. I didn’t even mention the out-of-the-blue concert appearance by The Damned. I should FUCKING LOVE this movie and want to have its babies. I mean, watch this trailer:
That’s glorious and literally everything you need to see.
Or here’s one that’s even shorter and maybe even more exciting.
Instead, the film meanders through its 97-minute run time vomiting out nuggets of surrealist guerrilla cinema that end up not adding up to anything more profound than what a first-year film student might think is revelatory. Despite encompassing a laundry list of styles I adore and references that make my heart flutter, the end result is tedious. Lacking the emotional core of more successful surrealist experiments like Eraserhead or Fando y Lis, Saint Bernard might be too personal an expression with which to connect, while at the same time expressing criticisms of culture, art, capitalism, authority, sexuality, and transgression that are too generic to say anything truly original.
Of course, as with any work that is this experimental, your mileage may vary. Personally, I’d rather watch the trailer over and over than sit through the entire film again.