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‘Saint Drogo’ Review: A Psychedelic Tale of Guilt and Gore [Salem Horror Fest 2023]

Perhaps the biggest draw of folk horror is the overwhelming sense of doom that permeates each frame. Many films in the subgenre narrow the scope of their cosmic antagonism so that it leeches from personal tragedies. The monster can take the form of social and spiritual illnesses to the point where our protagonists feel like deluded shells by the end. Suddenly, an audience is made to feel both the discomfort of a movie villain and the gnawing sensation that the terror they’ve witnessed vicariously might resonate a little too deeply. Saint Drogoachieves this balance to devastating effect.

When Caleb (Brandon Perras-Sanchez) begins to experience gruesome nightmares about his ex, Issac (Tradd Sanderson), he and his estranged partner Adrian (Michael J. Ahern) travel to Cape Cod to investigate Issac’s disappearance. There, the couple is accompanied by increasingly suspicious figures who misdirect them on their journey. As tensions boil between the two, and their mysterious guide/lover Eric (Matthew Pidge), Caleb continues the search alone. His descent into the underbelly of the popular vacation spot exposes a secret society corrupted by arcane forces and their human enablers.

Monster Makeup, LLC carved a sizable place for themselves in the current slasher milieu with the satirical Death Drop Gorgeous. In this latest outing, the filmmakers level up their game without losing their edge in terms of social commentary and violence. It is also worth noting that the crew have not cut ties with the familiar East Coast setting that they’ve explored so thoroughly. Just as Romero had Pittsburgh and Waters his Baltimore, Monster Makeup has Providence, RI. It’s refreshing to watch a horror film so indebted to and in love with its hometown, given that a lot of the major productions have to outsource their locale to a facade halfway around the world. It feels authentic and personal to the degree that we are just watching life unfold naturally, rather than as an obligation to the plot.

The theme of belonging and community is as strong here as with their previous film. But, this script delivers a sharper take on gentrification and the othering of marginalized groups as a result. Caleb and Adrian live in a mixed-income household, where the disconnect of their work lives feeds into their relationship struggles and leads right into the film’s climax. Death Drop Gorgeous is an intimate portrait of a dying scene as told by the OGs who saw it flourish. Saint Drogo identifies the money monsters who are quite literally eating what’s left of it alive.

In Saint Drogo, wealth disparity sets the exorbitant price of a piece of lasagna in a gaudy “urbanized” restaurant, but it also renders people themselves as commodities. What the Monster Makeup crew does well is tether this issue directly to living as a working-class queer. The job and housing insecurities that affect queer people everywhere in the States provide a conduit for predatory forces beyond capitalism.

Cape Cod, a place that is written to be a lure for low-income gay men, is the primary source of the horror in the film. And in Caleb’s obsession with finding Issac, we see first-hand what it’s like to be caught in the vortex of a machine that thrives on exploitation. There’s a beautiful monologue halfway through where Caleb recalls his tumultuous relationship and emphasizes the years of grieving for a man who’s practically been marked for an early death since the moment they met.

Apart from the visceral nature of the violence and several unnerving shots that linger in the mind well after the film is over, Saint Drogo’s greatest strength is harnessing this survivor’s guilt to construct its narrative. Guilt is a powerful emotion in horror films about faith and devotion—which this film certainly is—and the Monster Makeup crew mediate this emotion delicately. However, there is also an unmistakably angry undercurrent that strikes that heart of the film’s anti-capitalist themes.

Everything from wealthy cis white gays referring to Adrian’s job insecurity as “funemployment”, to the way Issac’s addiction is jokingly dismissed by Cape Cod locals indicates that misery is what drives the cult of Saint Drogo and their thirst for power. The film notably observes this not just through a queer lens, but devoid of any hetero representation. This detail is key to the storytelling because it posits that, even though we are aware of unbalanced power structures at large, the ones that exist within our own communities get pinkwashed into oblivion. Saint Drogo breaks the illusion that there is an inherent solidarity to queer identity by introducing moments where queer locals flat-out treat our protagonists with disdain. The script pointedly criticizes this hypocrisy and uses it as a means to contextualize its horror.

Whether through warped dream sequences or prolonged eviscerations, Saint Drogo has the bite to back up its bark. Joe Castro and Scott C. Miller’s SFX work is a wicked feast for the eyes, while Gem Club’s dark ambient score is flexible enough to accommodate whatever evil the Monster Makeup crew throws at their audience. Moments where the music takes on a more traditional folk aesthetic are especially pleasing. The visual poetry achieved by Kevin Bowden and co-director Ryan Miller references folk horror of the past, with brooding blood-red moons and hagstone-like structures, while taking full advantage of the dreary off-season.

With all the erroneous discourse about violence and sex in film these days, it feels good when filmmakers understand the need for both as a means of expression. Saint Drogostirs eroticism, self-harm and bleak surrealist imagery inside one big cauldron. And the horror world is better off for it. With a breezy, sub-80 minute runtime, a viewer could potentially sit through the film twice and soak in its bountiful offerings. I don’t so much recommend doing that. I beseech it.

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