It is my opinion that the best kind of film experiences are from the kind of movies that require that you only take from what you are willing to put in. The film Saint Bernard by Gabe Bartalos is one of those films. The best plot synopsis you can glean from Saint Bernard is that the film follows a music conductor as he has a psychotic break from reality. What follows is an experimental and abstract nightmare of grotesque imagery that is simultaneously hilarious and horrifying. The film begins with a young Bernard who explains that he has an innate relationship with music. What begins with scenes that appear to belong to a normal flashback begin to take a nightmarish turn. When Bernard is on the stage preparing to conduct, he finds himself lost and unable to perform. This leaves his parents, musicians and people in the audience disappointed with him. After literally twisting into a wobbling specter of himself, Bernard escapes to his car and flees. Bernard does not make it far, however, as he soon finds himself stuck on the highway. He finds the bloody decapitated head of a saint bernard lying on the overpass. Bernard places the bloody head into a sack and decides to carry it with him.
That is about as linear as the film gets, the rest of the film descends into something completely abstract. Bernard wanders from one location to the next as he encounters bizarre people and hellish creatures that either serve to guide him or block his way. This kind of artsploitation comes along from time to time, and truth be told it is going to be a very divisive viewing experience. You are either going to love it for your own reasons, or it will leave you frustrated to the point of loathing. At a certain point I did finally turn to my wife and say “This movie rules.” But it did take me a while to get to that point. Saint Bernard is a bit of an endurance test, and some of my readers would say that is an understatement. That being said, I found myself willing to give in and not worry so much about deconstructing the vile viscera and body fluids that start pelting the screen. I mean I could go on about my speculation of Bernard’s trauma and drug use, but I am no longer in film school and honestly there is a lot of “Midnight Movie” fun here if you let it happen. And that’s the key; this is a film that simply “happens.”
Saint Bernard is directed by Gabe Bartalos who is a special effects wizard. His credits include everything from Brain Damage, From Beyond, Gremlins 2, and Darkman. He also has special effects credits in the experimental and Kenneth Anger-esque Cremaster series. In a way, one could cynically argue that perhaps Saint Bernard is an elaborate demo reel. The special effects range from the silly to the grotesque, but they are all equally dazzling, but I would like to think there is more to the film than that. I suspect the film may be too easy to dismiss as the connective tissue of the movie’s elements aren’t readily decipherable. That would be a fair criticism. I found myself somewhat at home with it. Spiritually, the film lies somewhere between Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain and Damon Packard’s Reflections of Evil, but don’t take that as being a recommendation. The film’s problem is perhaps it is more superficial and skin deep than it thinks. I personally think there is a lot to admire here, but be warned, because your miles most definitely will vary. I can guarantee that some of you reading this won’t make it very far, and that’s fair.