A lot of you are probably going to be turned off by Saint Bernard. But if you’re like me and enjoy mind melting, nonsensical, fucked up cinema in the hands of a practical FX guru, director Gabe Bartalos’ new film is in contention for weirdest of the year…
…And just so we’re clear, I don’t mean weird like Neon Demon or Mother! I mean weird like David Lynch’s Eraserhead if it were out on the town at Lynch’s favorite burlesque joint, Jumbo’s Clown Room, doing blow off of the dancers while getting drunk on Pabst. That kind of weird. Written/directed by Bartalos, who has had a long career in FX including films such as Gremlins 2, Leprechaun, his first directorial feature, Skinned Deep, and so many more, Saint Bernard is a nightmarish journey through Bernard’s (Jason Dugre) mind, slapped onto screen for all of us to digest in horror. We follow Bernard through the many traumas of his life while things get much darker and much, much stranger, as nightmares often do as they go on.
Saint Bernard begins with the absurd image of a headless, plucked chicken, strapped into a parachute and ready to jump out of a plane. Bartalos wants us to immediately know what kind of film we’re about to watch, and nothing says fucking insanity better than that. This film is inspired madness set to the pulse of Bernard’s steadily deteriorating brain. From beginning to end, Saint Bernard plays like a vague memory, in the sense that we often look back at memories as heightened versions of themselves, adding/cutting details to fit the narrative of what we remember. Because of that, some viewers will understandably spend just a few minutes with the film before giving up on trying to comprehend skydiving chickens and stick figures made of hair galloping through alleyways. But for those that stick with the film, there are plenty of unique visuals to behold, some comedic, others utterly horrific.
Bartalos has a wonderful sense of humor, albeit a morbidly bent one, and it shows in the director’s urgency to gift the audience with something that is simply entertaining. Having worked in effects for decades, Bartalos has a flare for visuals, making Saint Bernard a treat for lovers of the absurd. Aside from rich production design and colorful schemes, the viewer is fed a feast of unique imagery, like Bernard waking up wearing a helmet made of ringing alarm clocks, or Bernard standing in the shower, wrapped in tinfoil and wearing a scuba helmet while he casually electrocutes himself. There’s an element of dark humor consistent in Saint Bernard that shows the viewer no matter how disturbing things get, we’re here to have a good time.
Bartalos and cinematographer Roy Kurtluyan do wonderful work with the camera, routinely finding a way to not only show us something ranging from weird to batshit insane, but doing so with such ease that Bernard’s head exploding to reveal a giant worm on the inside seems like another day at the office. The effects (which there are loads of), are served to us in the most visually tasty manner possible. Yes, Saint Bernard is not working with a massive budget despite such an effects heavy script, but with his background, Bartalos understands how to cut the film, so that even the cheapest effects may at times look laughable, but still seem to fit in the space of the scene without looking out of place. And for those curious, these effects can get pretty gruesome, especially as Bernard’s nightmare-scape goes on and delves into body horror of all sorts, resulting in a jaw-dropping creature or two that look as if they belong in a major studio film.
Saint Bernard is so bizarre and completely disregarding of things like plot or logic, that it could best be summed up as what may happen if twenty directors shot a short about the same character and threw them all together. Bernard moves from scene to scene, each one a different take on some sort of trauma in his life. This works great in portraying the disoriented sensation of dreaming, but may lose some viewers, because it also creates a bit of a pacing issue in that, with each scene feeling like its own film, there’s little obvious narrative to keep pulling the viewer along. I literally could not spoil this film if I tried. I could describe the events of any scene, and without context, none of it would make sense. Hell, the film itself hardly makes sense. What works is that the imagery is so beyond captivating, that I’ve learned how many times I can ask “what the fuck is going on” during the course of a film and still be engaged and the answer is every couple damn minutes in the case of Saint Bernard.
And as weird as it all may sound, there IS a logic to the film. Bernard himself, played brilliantly by Dugre, seems to have a history of drug abuse, physical abuse, and, well, essentially any kind of abuse you can think of, and it’s all playing out in his fractured mind. Bartalos is aiming to make you as uncomfortable as Bernard is, with a film that is purely anti-comfort. We’re witnessing a variety of trauma, some of it presented in lighter forms than others. Unfortunately, some of the stiffer performances and oddities take us out of what should be more emotional moments, but others, like a brief appearance by Warwick Davis, provide an air of intelligence that reaffirms something intellectual is going on underneath the surface here, we just may not always be aware of it. Beware dog lovers, because as the title suggests, Bernard happens to be carrying around the cringe-inducing head of a Saint Bernard, the perfect metaphor for childhood trauma, as most of us tend to experience our first major source of pain through the loss of a pet, which Bernard has clearly had a tough time getting over.
By the time Saint Bernard ends, you’ll probably question what the hell you just watched, but one thing is for certain, this will be the strangest film you see all year. Saint Bernard is not for everyone. It isn’t even for most people. But if you can push through a vague at best plotline and loads of absurdity, Saint Bernard rewards the viewer with an experience they aren’t going to get anywhere else. I say give me weird and cheap over average any day.
Saint Bernard is now out on VOD/Blu-ray from Severin Films.
By Matt Konopka