I don’t know about you, but my dreams are achingly normal; no super spies with beautiful femme fatales nor thrilling cliff jumping permeate my slumber. One time I dreamt I was cleaning out my garage. I don’t have a garage. Luckily, longtime effects legend Gabriel Bartalos has enough dreams and nightmares for all of us to witness, which he does gleefully with his second directorial feature, Saint Bernard, distributed by Severin Films, the finest purveyors of what the f--k. And this is a hall of famer, which is saying a lot.
“Legend” is a word readily thrown around, but in effects circles, Bartalos is just that; a partial list of credits includes Leprechaun, Dolls, From Beyond, Brain Damage, Frankenhooker, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, among many others. In other words, if one were to make a film that lived almost completely in a surreal world of discarded chronology and bizarre anachronisms, Bartalos would have a good handle on what that may look and feel like. Saint Bernard is that film. It is by turns confounding, horrifying, hilarious, and beautiful—a swirl of loosely connected imagery that never stops to consider logic or rationale. It features top-notch effects work, too. Oh, and parachuting raw chickens, lest you were concerned about the land we were in.
I’ll try and fail to sum up what it’s about: we meet our protagonist, Bernard (Jason Dugre – Skinned Deep), wearing a faded and dirty white tux as he traipses the back streets of an undisclosed city. Carrying a bloodied white bag, he hides out inside a dilapidated warehouse. We flash back to when Bernard was a child; he always wanted to be a musical conductor, walking around his uncle’s house in a pristine white tuxedo moving his arms to every sound he heard, even going so far as to hold impromptu concerts for the neighborhood kids.
So far so coherent, but when we catch back up with grown-up Bernard, all bets are off, as the film delves into the unreal for the duration of the running time, with Bernard as the most unreliable of narrators through rape by a homeless woman, encounters with an ogre of a police chief, the keeper of time (Warwick Davis), a money-grubbing preacher (Bob Zmuda), wood everywhere, those amazing parachuting chickens, and a final confrontation with his uncle.
If there is a story to be parsed here (and it is dream interpretation, so mileage may vary), I think it involves a mentally ill young man who’s trying to deal with the real-life trauma of being sexually abused by his creepy uncle. But that’s the easy stuff, and I think it’s there to give the viewer something to latch onto; a metaphorical rope to pull through the more fantastical elements. Although not necessary, it comes as a bit of a relief to have something where logic can be applied (but that’s just my brain talking).
Saint Bernard gets dreams right. The way Bernard moves from one location to the next, regardless of any sense of continuum, is captured beautifully by Bartalos and his team. The police station entrance, for instance, is found on the side of a building and Bernard must use their shower first before entering. Once inside, he’s led to see the chief through a floor swimming in empty liquor bottles. The thing to take away is that it only has to matter to Bernard, not us. We are merely observers in his never-ending world of strewn-about drug paraphernalia, kamikaze fowl, stick men made of hair, double amputee car drivers who pour literal salt on wounds, and our titular animal’s head in that crusty white sack.
The good thing about running your own effects house (Atlantic West Effects) is your vision can’t be compromised on your own film; Bartalos and his team offer up every trick at their disposal to make Saint Bernard an FX extravaganza, as Bernard stumbles from one adventure to the next—crazy stuff brilliantly realized and executed.
Saint Bernard is a kaleidoscope of fevered imagery and torrential tangents of musings on our place in this world—I guess. All I know is I’ve never seen this movie before in my eyeballs, and I’d like to thank Bartalos for that.
Hats off to Severin Films for releasing this underground festival fave (it’s been bubbling for six years) in any way, shape, or form; the film looks and sounds great, a mix of 16mm and 35mm that suits the material to a T (my dreams are often low-res, too!). Other than a trailer, we’re given a 17-minute “making of” that goes heavy on the effects “how-to,” which is appropriate; are you really going to delve into character motivations for a film where just being seems hard enough to grasp?
Saint Bernard is a film that requires you to drift off in its gaze, and just let it be; it’s a warm bath filled with absinthe that lets you luxuriate in its madness until the tub slowly drains and you finally awaken. Or something like that. Just watch it now.
Movie Score: 4/5, Disc Score: 3/5