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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.

Self-professed Mesopotamian black metal combo Melechesh - originally based in the metal unfriendly environs of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Israel who later relocated to the more secular Amsterdam, the Netherlands and recently France and Germany - has always been one of the more interesting of the original second wave bands. Together with Orphaned Land they were among the earliest to combine underground death/black metal with Middle Eastern instrumentation and Arabic folk music. Their legend and repute grew considerably in the second half of the nineties as they fled Israel under mouting pressure from strict religious authorities resulting from the release of their controversial domestically bred debut “As Jerusalem Burns... Al'Intisar”. Since their 1996 debut Melechesh has released three albums on French imprint Osmose Productions and two on the considerably bigger Nuclear Blast Records. Suffice to say Melechesh has an interesting history and oeuvre to say the least. This is where “Ghouls of Nineveh” double-disc comes in…

Thanks to the wonders of international licensing and distribution rights as well as the fine people at Napalm Records and their partners Nippon Phonogram there’s now a compilation for the casual fan who wants to whet his/her appetite as to what Ashmedi and his rotating cast of musicians have been up in the past almost quarter of a century. “Ghouls of Nineveh” is a Japanese-exclusive double-disc career retrospective spanning all of the Melechesh discography, bar “As Jerusalem Burns... Al'Intisar” and the prior demo. Interestingly there’s but a single track from 2001’s “Dijnn”, four tracks from “Sphynx” (2003) and almost the entirety of “Emissaries” (2006). The remainder of content for both discs is culled from “The Epigenesis” (2010) and “Enki” (2015) or the more widely known, far better produced recent releases on German conglomerate Nuclear Blast Records. The lack of inclusion of tracks from the band’s 1996 debut “As Jerusalem Burns... Al'Intisar” and the accompanying demo “As Jerusalem Burns...” from a year earlier is insulting to say the least. That there’s but a single track from “Djinn” but almost the entirety of “Emissaries” is another puzzling decision. Space that could’ve been put to better use by evening out selections from each album instead of what was done here. It is understandable, at least from a sonoric point of view, but as a historic document (what compilations should strive to be) it is a major point of contention. To dispense with the obvious, “Ghouls of Nineveh” covers most of the ground you’d want of a compilation and as such it is more than representative for Melechesh as a whole.

To their everlasting credit Melechesh always was more of an Ancient Rites than a Nile. Melechesh is more concerned with conveying a Middle Eastern atmosphere than with playing at an inhumanly fast pace and/or being technical just for its own sake. The band evolved from Ashmedi's earlier, short-lived death metal solo project Crushed Cenotaph. Upon release of the  “As Jerusalem Burns...” demo and their debut a year later Melechesh were charged with “dark cultish” activity by religious law enforcement officials of the Holy Cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, all of which were later dropped. While considered Israeli the members are in fact of mixed descent, most prominently Armenian-Assyrian, Assyrian, and Arabian-Syrian. Central to the band’s lyrics are Mesopotamian and Sumerian history, antiquity and mythology and “The Epigenesis” is an exception in that regard as it concerns the titular concept derived from Greek philosophers Aristotle (in his Historia Animalium) and Plato. Melechesh has overcome many hurdles and countered every prejudice/bias that any band in their part of the world might face.

Where Nile has downsized its Egyptian component considerably over the last decade, Melechesh has done the opposite and worked diligently to integrate as much ethnic instrumentation and Arabian folk music as its genre of choice would allow. Along with Orphaned Land, Melechesh has been one of the pillars of Middle Eastern metal and their output has consistently been one of quality over volume. Where Melechesh has made the most obvious strides forward is in fusing ethnic instrumentation and Middle Eastern folk melodies with their patented stomping melodic black/thrash metal. What Melechesh unlike, say, Nile benefits tremendously from is their more deliberate choice of tempo. Not that Melechesh ever had any shortage of able skinsmen. Whether it’s Saro Orfali, Proscriptor McGovern, Yuri Rinkel, or Samuel Santiago behind the kit.

Melechesh always allowed its songs to breathe and neither of their drummers had the proclivity to fill every second of every song with needlessly elaborate fills or double-bass blasts. Something of which George Kollias, Derek Roddy and several others are prone to, often to the detriment of the songs. It’s puzzling why “Ghouls Of Nineveh” capitalizes so heavily on the band’s Nuclear Blast Records repertoire when their releases on Osmose Productions and Breath Of Night Records are considerably harder to come by, and even moreso in Asia. Why then that this double-disc compromises for the most part of cuts from “Emissaries”, “The Epigenesis” and “Enki” is anybody’s guess. As a historical document “Ghouls Of Nineveh” blunders by not evenly distributing its track selection among the albums.

Of course the question of legitimacy looms toweringly over this double-disc. “Ghouls Of Nineveh” was released by Austria's Napalm Records in cooperation with Nippon Phonogram. Perhaps it has something to do with international licensing laws since all of the band’s major releases were issued through France’s black metal specialist imprint Osmose Productions and Germany’s Nuclear Blast Records. Had this compilation been curated in cooperation with Ashmedi and his bandmates surely the song selection would have been more even-handed. For the most part “Ghouls Of Nineveh” is a missed opportunity. It’s representative enough for most of the Melechesh discography, but the focus on the band’s recent output isn’t necessarily to its advantage. Obviously there are far worse compilations out there – and Melechesh is the last band to be accused of milking its fanbase for money.

How exactly this compilation came into existence, or what motivation was behind it besides good old-fashioned greed, is anyone’s guess. There are no indications that Melechesh has terminated its long-standing contract with Nuclear Blast Records, nor does the artwork chosen for this compilation reflect any of the band’s usual aesthetics and imagery, other than pillaging promo material publicly available from the albums it selects material from. Melechesh is in no hurry to acknowledge the existence of “Ghouls Of Nineveh” – and neither do the usual music databases. There’s definitely an audience for a band-approved Melechesh compilation. The purveyors of true Assyrian black metal deserve better than this. This might be interesting for the casual fan, but that's all positive that can be said about it.