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Plot: fallen Bishop Niklas, the patron of children, returns as the ravenous undead

Sint is a lot of things. It was the event horror movie of 2010. It generated some controversy (manufactured or otherwise) due to its choice of subject matter and it pulled writer/producer/director Dick Maas firmly into the limelight. Sint is very much a nostalgic trip to the far-flung 1980s. It’s certainly bloody enough and to see a beloved folkloric figure as the Sint reimagined as one of the murderous undead is at least interesting from a cultural perspective for anyone living in Belgium or the Netherlands. Is it Maas’ great new classic? Not exactly. Sint is a tad too lukewarm and underwritten for that and the striking visuals alone cannot redeem so much of where the writing falters. Certainly Maas has an eye for beautiful women and the man who gave the world Tatjana Šimić does not fail on that front. On all other fronts Sint is an enjoyable enough horror romp that could’ve been far more than what it ended up being. At the very least it scores points for originality, though.

Sinterklaas is a figure unknown to much of the English-speaking world. The folkloric figure of Sinterklaas, or simply Sint, is based on the historical figure of Saint Nicholas, the Greek bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), who had a reputation of being a generous benefactor to the poor and the forgotten, of gift-giving to children of all ages and performing the occassional miracle. Sinterklaas is typically depicted as a benevolent elderly, stately man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape, or chasuble, over a white bishop's alb and sometimes red stola, a red mitre and a ruby ring. Traditionally he comes brandishing a gold-coloured crosier and a long ceremonial shepherd's staff with a curled and ornately designed top. Sinterklaas is custodian to a big, red book in which is written whether each child had been well-behaved that year. Sinterklaas comes in the company of several Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes), his trusty black helpers in colourful Moorish dresses with ruff collars and feathered caps. Black Pete carries around a bag full of candy, the contents of which are tossed to children awaiting the Sint's arrival on his steed Amerigo (or Bad Weather Today).

Traditions surrounding Sinterklaas differ in Belgium and the Netherlands. The gifts are given on St. Nicholas' Eve (5 December) in the Netherlands and on the feast of Sinterklaas on 6 December in Belgium, Luxembourg and Northern regions of France (French Flanders, Lorraine and Artois). The model of Saint-Nicholas later evolved into that of Santa Claus when Dutch settlers established New Amsterdam at the southern tip of Manhattan Island in the 17th century and brought their traditions with them. New Amsterdam later was rechristened New York on September 8, 1664 just before the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Understandably Sint is often mistaken for a Christmas-themed horror movie (the international English title Saint Nick doesn’t particularly help) in the Anglo-Saxon world due to cultural differences. Note how Sinterklaas and Santa Claus sound nearly identical phonetically. Suffice to say Santa Claus has spawned its own set of Christmas-themed horror movies with the likes of Black Christmas (1974), Don't Open Till Christmas (1984), Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), and Home Alone (1990).

On the eve of 5 December 1492 fallen bishop Niklas (Huub Stapel) and his cohorts enter a small Dutch peasant hamlet where the villagers instantly flee locking doors and windows. Once Niklas and his minions have taken refuge in their galleon in the harbor a small band of brave villagers brandishing pitchforks and torches incinerate Niklas and his entourage in an awesome inferno by throwing molotov cocktails into the stationary ship. With his dying breath and consumed by the flames the Sint curses the farming hamlet swearing that he’ll have his revenge. On the eve of 5 December 1968 a young farmboy by the name of Goert Hoekstra (Niels van den Berg) is witness to his family being bloodily murdered by an old man on a white horse who suspiciously looks like the patron of children everywhere, the Sint.

Sint then cuts to 5 December 2010 where in an unspecified Amsterdam high school dullard Frank (Egbert Jan Weeber, as Egbert-Jan Weeber) is the butt of a particularly cruel joke on part of his ex-girlfriend Sophie (Escha Tanihatu) during class festivities. As it turns out Frank is far from innocent as he had been seeing Lisa (Caro Lenssen) on the side for a while when he was still dating Sophie. With no immediate and exciting plans for St. Nicholas' Eve he and his friends take up a job of playing Sint for local needy children. Around the same time a now middle-aged Goert Hoekstra (Bert Luppes), a law enforcement officer prone to depression and especially stressed this time of year, is called into the office of the chief (Jaap Spijkers) after having handed in an extensive report on what he believes to be not a regular St. Nicholas' Eve. His chief finds his report, obviously the product of years of extensive research on the myth of the Sint, to be a wee bit extravagant. His chief orders him to take a month’s long vacation until the festivities blow over. Hoekstra, sufficiently pissed after being called a superstitious fool, storms out not much later.

That night something does happen. Frank and his buddies, experiencing trouble with their vehicle’s GPS, soon find themselves in the middle of nowhere. Frank is barely able to escape the clutches of the murderous undead when the Sint and his zombified Black Petes claim his friends as their victims. As the bodies start to pile up and emergency calls flood the station the chief calls in Van Dijk (Ben Ramakers) and orders him to track down Hoekstra and to deploy whatever force necessary to counter the sudden influx of violent crime and the apparent homicidal epidemic that has consumed much of the city. Hoekstra and Frank eventually do make their acquaintance and the elderly police officer, now having sustained mortal wounds in a skirmish with the undead, tells the youth how to defeat the Sint. With nowhere to go and no one turn to cowardly Frank is left alone to face off against the unholy Sint and his demonic Black Petes. In a vain effort to control the situation the police and the mayor (René van Asten) agree to martyr Hoekstra for the good cause by attributing the murders to him and his tenuous grasp on his sanity. In the hospital Frank, believing the nightmare to be finally over, is greeted by Lisa who has read all about his St. Nicholas' Eve heroics in the morning newspaper.

The man behind Sint is the prolific Dick Maas, a veritable institution in the Dutch cinematic landscape and a pillar in the Nederhorror scene. As a writer, producer and director Maas was responsible for Dutch horror sub-classics Amsterdamned (1988) and The Lift (1983) as well as the rowdy Flodder comedy franchise (1986-1995) (as well as the series derived from it) and the well-intended drama My Blue Heaven (1994). Maas helmed the concert video Live From the Twilight Zone (1984) from the Golden Earring, one of the country’s longest running classic rock bands. The Dutch horror scene spawned a few classics next to Maas’ The Lift (1983) and Amsterdamned (1988) with the slasher Intensive Care (1991) and the highly atmospheric The Johnsons (1995). The neighbouring Belgium, whose tradition in horror is even smaller, contributed Daughters Of Darkness (1971), The Devil’s Nightmare (1971) and Rabid Grannies (1988). Is Sint Maas’ best work? That’s debatable. It’s a bit too underwritten for that – and for an 80s nostalgia trip it’s surprisingly prude. At least it uses practical effects more than the reviled CGI.

No Dutch production is complete without the usual Belgian talent and Sint has Barbara Sarafian and Lien Van de Kelder on lend from across the border. Since this is a Dick Maas production and he’s as much a philistine as Jing Wong or a certain Spanish director which shall not be named Sint has no shortage of beautiful women. In this case Caro Lenssen, Escha Tanihatu, and Madelief Blanken with Belgian belle Lien Van de Kelder in a cameo part. As much as Sint positions itself as a callback to 80s horror it’s completely free of any skin. Neither Caro Lenssen, Escha Tanihatu, Madelief Blanken, or Lien Van de Kelder will be taking their tops (or any other article of clothing) off – and that’s a waste of talent if there ever was one. Tanihatu is killed off prematurely despite her babysitting chores gave her ample opportunity to show skin. Blanken pretty much disappears after the introductory school segment, supposedly never to be seen again. Weeber, Lenssen, Tanihatu, and Blanken are the oldest high school students too. It’s something you’d expect of a Gloria Guida commedia sexy all’Italiana – but not here of all places.

Lien Van de Kelder, famous for her ample curvature and a well-regarded regular in Dutch police procedurals, has a miniscule cameo as nurse Merel but she’s offed mere moments after her character is introduced. At least her character was given the dignity of a name. Would it have hurt to at least have Lien changing clothes or stepping into a shower for a scene? In fact the entire hospital segment, brief as it is, proves that Intensive Care (1991) could’ve actually been good had it been produced, written and/or directed by Dick Maas. To say that Van de Kelder is underutilized is putting it very mildly. Lenssen does eventually take her top off but does so respectably with her back to the camera in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene at the very end. Dutch horror enthusiast Jan Doense cameos as a reporter. What’s the purpose of casting four beautiful women and not having them take their clothes off at least once? Lesser directors wouldn’t have hesitated for a second. Blood splatters, extremities are severed and one-liners are abound, but there isn’t a naked breast or derrière to be seen anywhere. For shame, mister Maas, for shame.

The writing could, and perhaps should, have been better. Sint is littered with one-note characters that seldom venture beyond their designated archetypes. There isn’t a single likeable character within sight. Frank is a dense, clumsy doofus but that doesn’t make him any less of an asshole. All three girls come across as superficial, egocentric ditzes with not the least bit interest in the world around them. The romance between Lisa and Frank is not only improbable but frequently unfathomable. By the time Goert Hoekstra is reintroduced as a middle-aged man he’s reduced to a babbling madman. His chief, Johan, doesn’t fare much better. Here’s a chief that has known about about the threat of St. Nicholas' Eve for about 4 decades, but chooses to sit on his hands. Hoekstra is brushed off as a superstitious fool and it isn’t until early in the third act that the chief comes around and actually takes Hoekstra’s report seriously, but by then the situation has escalated and it’s too late (mostly for reasons having to do with third act dramatic tension). Together with the mayor he decided to sweep the rampage under rug by blaming Goert Hoekstra, the one who warned him well enough in advance, for the carnage. It’s the kind of writing you’d expect of a novice, not of an experienced veteran as Maas.

Sint is a lot of things. It’s far bloodier than you’d reasonably expect it to be. It’s comedic in parts and completely straight in others. It has witty quips and one-liners but can get surprisingly oppressive when it sets its mind to it. It transforms a beloved figure of folklore into a ravening member of the undead. It’s partly a slasher and partly a zombie movie. It has four of the most beautiful Dutch and Belgian women and has them keeping their clothes on. Sint wants to be the horror movie for people who don’t know or like horror. There’s a strange duality to Sint that both helps and hinders it depending on the part. It has no ambitions beyond being a good popcorn flick and it delivers in spades. While there was an open ending in case it was successful enough, it thankfully never spawned a sequel.

Always one of the unsung heroes of the USDM scene Baltimore, Maryland self-proclaimed dungeon metal stalwarts Pessimist return after a mammoth 16 year hiatus. In that time bandleader Kelly McLauchlin has released an album each with Tampa, Florida second-tiers Unholy Ghost and Diabolic. Suffice to say ‘Keys to the Underworld’ is vastly superior to anything released by both in their brightest of days. This new promo track might not be a return to the glorious days of “Cult Of the Initiated” and “Blood For the Gods” but it showcases what “Slaughtering the Faithful” could have been had it not been marred quite so catastrophically by an unflattering demo-like production and uneven drumming. As a precursor to a proposed album of the same name ‘Keys to the Underworld’ is testament to the imperviousness of the vintage USDM sound. Pessimist will always be Pessimist, irrespective of who is in its ranks or where they are based out of.

These days Pessimist is no longer operating out of Baltimore, Maryland. Since around 2003 McLauchlin moved to the Florida region for his work with Unholy Ghost and Diabolic. Around 2013 Pessimist has relocated to Temecula, California where a new line-up was assembled. ‘Keys to the Underworld’ is a cut dating back to 2014 when original drummer Chris Pernia was still in the band, but he has since been replaced by former Solstice and Malevolent Creation skinsman Alex Marquez. Sitting in for the recordings of this 1-track promo was prolific session drummer Kevin Talley. Rounding out of the revamped line-up are frontman Ivan Alison (who is somewhat reminiscent of original singer Rob Kline, but less serpentine) and former Death and Monstrosity bass guitarist Kelly Conlon. As McLauchlin is the main creative force behind Pessimist it doesn’t matter who is in the ranks, although it’s apparently impossible for the classic Kline-Pernia-McLauchlin trifecta to remain intact long enough to produce a new album. As unfortunate as that may be that Pessimist is still around in 2018 speaks volumes of McLauchlin’s perseverance and his unwillingness to compromise his vision.

Those longing for the days of “Cult Of the Initiated” and “Blood For the Gods” might end up a tad disappointed with ‘Keys to the Underworld’. The track sounds recognizably Pessimist, complete with McLauchlin’s tortured and chaotic soloing, but the track tends to take more after 2002’s “Slaughtering the Faithful”. That in itself isn’t necessarily bad although there’s a point to be made that Pessimist built its fame on the back of its first two albums, sub-classics of American death metal in their own right. Given his set of influences and songwriting approach it’s unbelievable that McLauchlin never ended up in higher profile institutions as Morbid Angel or Vital Remains. “Slaughtering the Faithful” took a lot after Hate Eternal circa “King Of All Kings” and Internecine’s “The Book Of Lambs” whereas “Cult Of the Initiated” and “Blood For the Gods” derived more from Morbid Angel circa “Blessed Are the Sick” and “Covenant”. This solitary new track might not sway fans of the earlier dungeon metal days, but in isolation ‘Keys to the Underworld’ proves that McLauchlin was surrounded by performers of mediocre talent and dubious merit in his association with Unholy Ghost and Diabolic. Evil Kell McLauchlin was never the weak link in any of these constellations. That Diabolic hasn’t released anything substantial since 2010’s alliterative aberration “Excisions Of Exorcisms” shows how irrelevant they have become since the early 2000s.

As these things tend to go Pessimist has restyled their iconic logo for their return. The supposedly improved rendition by Mike Billingsley is far from terrible and the worst thing you could say about it is that it was unnecessary. Why was a revamping of the classic Pessimist logo deemed necessary in the first place? Krisiun never changed their logo (and their output has been sketchy the last decade and a half, or so). Malevolent Creation never changed their logo. Morbid Angel never changed their logo (and they have a history of patchy and indefensible records behind them). At least Billingsley's restyled logo (redundancy notwithtstanding) is leagues better than the average Steve Crow or Mike Majewski creation, which truly are interchangeable. On the plus side, the digital artwork by Mark Cooper for Mindrape Art (who worked earlier with Pennsylvania traditional metal revivalists Lady Beast and more recently Baton Rouge, Louisiana death metal horde Voracious Scourge) is positively the best artwork Pessimist has had since the halcyon days of “Cult Of the Initiated” and “Blood For the Gods”. Is ‘Keys to the Underworld’ the grand return for the once-mighty Pessimist? That is contingent on how this track fits into the accompanying album. What is certain is that it heralds the return of a long-dormant and overlooked USDM force. Pessimist might no longer commandeer to same kind of clout as they once did, especially not with Dying Fetus and Aurora Borealis having long since eclipsed them in prominence, but if ‘Keys to the Underworld’ allows them to reclaim even a fraction of their standing then it served its purpose.