SAINT BERNARD / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: GABE BARTALOS / STARRING: JASON DUGRE, KATY SULLIVAN, PETER IASILLO JR. BOB ZMUDA, WARWICK DAVIS/ RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW (VOD)
It’s always an intriguing prospect when a long-term cinematic collaborator decides to helm a film of their own. This is even truer for Gabriel Bartalos and his second feature film, Saint Bernard. The veteran effects man has been working in genre cinema since 1986’s Crawlspace and has since stacked up credits on productions like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, From Beyond, Godzilla, and Underworld. Shot in 2013, and shelved for nearly six years, Bartalos surrealist trip offers a vibrant package of arresting concepts, gelled together by one man’s apparent decent into madness.
Bartalos first feature, Skinned Deep, was a Texas Chainsaw-inspired slasher with a focus on practical gore gags: he shows off his effects skills, but it’s pretty one-dimensional. Luckily with his second writer/director credit Bartalos is more ambitious, much more ambitious. Saint Bernard is an odd, alienating film full of abstractions and dreamy variations of real life scenarios. As with many surrealist films, it’s a journey full of visual and audio experiences as opposed to a point-by-point plot. Its central character, Bernard, is a bit of a misnomer, neither charismatic enough to enjoy our affections, or interesting enough to keep our interest. But if you sit down to watch Saint Bernard, you probably won’t worry too much about lack of character.
Bartalos’ real goal here isn’t to craft some Eraserhead style nightmare, or character study. Instead he seems to be more interested in unleashing a sustained volley of bizarre cinematic skits and effects-based set-pieces, on a tight budget. There’s a Mighty Boosh quality to the handmade surrealism, a whiff of Terry Gilliam to the unforgiving and relentless weirdness. But it works in terms of spectacle.
The whole film feels constructed to show off the incredible dreamlike concepts and DIY-style production design. Even if the symbolism isn’t always particularly cohesive, or revealing, the psychical effects are often absolutely fascinating. There’s an unfathomable police station constructed from rickety old wood and cardboard, a burnt-out school bus which houses a bizarre piece of performance art/torture. That’s another thing, Saint Bernard feel like messy sequence of performance art pieces, psychological horror shorts, and surrealist variations on everyday events. Utterly fascinating work.
Easily one of the most consistently bizarre releases of 2019, Gabriel Bartalos’ Saint Bernard is a bamboozling surrealist overture about music and madness which plays out like a surrealist art exhibition curled up into a film.