Merry Christmas, everybody! Merry Christmas! Ohhhhhh, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, jingle all the way! Oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open…
What? Yeah, I know it’s not Christmas. But if you’re like me, you love to dig out Christmas paraphernalia in the middle of summer. (Then again, if you’re like me you would think “King Kong vs. Godzilla” deserved the 1962 Best Picture Oscar instead of “Lawrence of Arabia.”)
Which leads me to this week’s offering: “Santa Claus”! Ho Ho Ho? Well, there are plenty of laughs to be found here and none of them are intentional. If you thought “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” was a yuletide yukfest, take this baby for a drive!
“Santa Claus” is a 1959 Mexican offering helmed by Rene Cardona, the filmmaker who gave us such epics as “The Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy” and “Night of the Bloody Apes.” There are no wrestling women or bloody apes in “Santa Claus,” which is surprising considering what got into the film. This is the only Christmas movie I can recall featuring Satan, Merlin the Magician, black children dressed like cartoon cannibals, evil dolls in a musical dream sequence and a computer with ruby red lips.
“Santa Claus” eviscerates the traditions of Kris Kringle from its opening sequence. Rather than working from a North Pole factory, this Santa Claus lives in a ghastly arabesque castle on a cloud floating in outer space. And don’t look for any elves here. This Santa clearly got inspired by Mexico’s tradition of child labor abuses by rounding up a global collection of kiddies to make his toys. We know the kids come from different countries because everyone wears different national costumes and perform what may be traditional folk music: American kids wear cowboy outfits and sing country tunes, Russian kids dress like Cossacks and perform a modified rendition of “Volga Boatman,” Japanese kids wear kimonos and sing what sounds like the theme to “Mothra,” and “African” kids wear leopard skin loincloths and bones in their hair while jumping about to a bongo drum beat.
While everyone loves Santa (or so the narrator insists), there is at least one entity who despises the man in the red suit: another man in a red suit, Lucifer. Yes, down in Hell there is tumult as Lucifer (presented as a disembodied voice booming over a torch) yells out his disgust at Santa Claus. Lucifer is so angry that he disrupts a hokey-pokey dance of demons. The demons are men in red jumpsuits with oversized horns and phony pointy ears hanging off their heads. If it sounds weird just reading about it, you can’t imagine what it looks like on a screen!
Lucifer, determined to disrupt Santa’s annual toy distribution shtick, calls for assistance from his chief demon Pinch. (As an aside, Pinch is also the nickname of Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of the New York Times, but whether he got the nickname from this movie is not certain.) Pinch agrees to go up to Earth to bring evil to the world’s kiddies, thus upsetting Santa’s Christmas Eve visit.
Strangely, Pinch’s plotting of global juvenile delinquency is limited to a small section of Mexico City. He is successful in getting a trio of naughty boys to break windows and tell lies, but he has a bigger problem in getting a little girl named Lupita over to the dark side. Lupita’s family is very poor and the poor kid doesn’t even have a doll. Pinch tries to get Lupita to steal a doll, and he even invades her sleep by choreographing a dream where a dozen human-sized dolls sing off-key and dance clumsily around Lupita and goad her to commit larceny.
None of this is lost on Santa, who keeps track on the Earth via some weird technology: a satellite dish with a giant ear attached to it, a telescope with a big eye in lieu of a lens, and a mainframe computer with giant lips. One could easily assume Santa buys his computer equipment from H.R. Pufnstuf.
But despite Pinch’s pinching, Santa has secret weapons to ensure a successful Christmas delivery: a magic key which can open any door where Santa-ready chimneys don’t exist and a flower that dispenses sleeping potion to hyperactive toddlers. These items were created by members of Santa’s staff: the key was designed by a shirtless blacksmith and the flower was grown by Merlin the Magician. Yes, Merlin – how he found his way from Camelot to Santa’s workshop is never explained. And forget the eight tiny reindeer plus Rudolph. This Santa flies with four oversized mechanical reindeers which are wound up with a clockwork spring.
The kindest thing one can say about “Santa Claus” is that it is thoroughly idiotic, and the insults not only go to the audience but also to the title character. Santa himself is completely abused throughout the movie. At various times he has a rock thrown at his head, he is knocked over by a flood of letters falling out of a mail chute, he gets chased by a dog up a tree, he gets his hand burned on a doorknob heated by Pinch, and he is insulted when a child accidentally believes he and Satan are contemporaries (Santa insists that Satan is “centuries older” than he is, but that his lack of physical youth is due to his “not feeling well lately”).
As Santa, Jose Elias Moreno is one of the least jolly St. Nicks in screen history. He goes through the film with wildly rolling eyes, flapping arms and a jaw that constantly goes slack at the slightest indignation. It is difficult to determine whether the actor is having a cardiac arrest or if he is performing under the influence of a Dos Equis six-pack. You know something is very wrong when Pinch the demon is more cuddly and lovable than Santa Claus!
While it would seem to contemporary sensibilities that “Santa Claus” should never have crossed the Rio Grande, back in 1960 it was seen as celluloid gold by one K. Gordon Murray, a Florida entrepreneur who acquired the American rights and dubbed the film (terribly) into English. Murray four-walled neighborhood theaters across the US and played “Santa Claus” as a kiddie weekend matinee offering during the 1960 holiday season. Since the film was literally the only Christmas treat in theaters, it did phenomenal business. Murray re-released the film throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, and he then followed this success by importing a wealth of equally demented Mexican fantasy films for the kiddie matinee crowds.
“Santa Claus” was last seen in theaters in 1974, and it would’ve been completely forgotten had its copyright not lapsed into the public domain. Cheap dupes of the movie have been circulating in bargain bins for years (the color on the bootleg I have is so badly faded that it barely qualifies as being a color movie). It even turned up in a memorable holiday episode on “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” where the film’s many failings proved easy targets for the program’s snarky running commentary.
While Christmas is somewhere down the road, here’s a great idea to mull over the next several months: if you want to give a Christmas gift to someone who loves bad movies, get a bootleg video of “Santa Claus.” This one is really Ho-Ho-Horrible!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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