311. SANTA CLAUS (1959)

AKA Santa Claus vs. the Devil

“Be off, my reindeer, and fly through the heavens as fast as you can go. May my palace of gold and crystal enjoy peace, and Jesus, the Son of God, join us on Earth so that we can all have joy and goodwill.” – Santa Claus

“This is weird theology.” Crow T. Robot,Mystery Science Theater 3000, Episode 521″

DIRECTED BY: René Cardona,  [as Ken Smith]

FEATURING: José Elias Moreno, José Luis Aguirre ‘Trotsky’, Lupita Quezadas

PLOT: From his outpost on a cloud high above the North Pole, Santa Claus attempts to fend off the demon Pitch’s schemes to poison the minds of the world’s children against him. Santa spends Christmas Eve sidestepping Pitch’s attempts to derail his rounds. With the help of the wizard Merlin, a collection of child laborers from around the world, and a team of nightmare-inducing wind-up papier-mâché reindeer, he fights to win back the soul of a poor little girl who badly wants a doll.

Still from Santa Claus (1959)

BACKGROUND:

  • Winner of the Golden Gate Award for Best International Family Film at the 1959 San Francisco International Film Festival.
  • Cardona’s remarkably prolific career (he helmed more than 100 films) ranged from literary adaptations to genre classics such as Night of the Bloody Apes and Wrestling Women vs. The Aztec Mummy.
  • Produced in Mexico, the film was purchased by American K. Gordon Murray, the so-called “King of the Kiddie Matinee,” who found financial success re-editing and dubbing foreign children’s films into English and releasing them to an American public starved for something to do with their kids.
  • Murray turned a profit through a careful schedule of limited releases, which artificially manipulated the supply and demand, turning screenings into scarce opportunities. The high density of holiday television broadcasts also added to the film’s coffers.
  • Featured in season 5 of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Years later, Rifftrax–featuring Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy from the MST3K installment––took its own shot at the film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: So many to choose from (as you will see in a moment), but the vision I find most difficult to shake is Father Christmas monitoring his acolytes on Earth through the phantasmagoria of eavesdropping devices that make up his Magic Observatory, including an ear attached to an oscillating fan, an eye on an accordion tube, and a pair of very disturbing giant lips.

THREE WEIRD THINGS  Parade of child nations; Santa’s lip machine; cackling clockwork caribou

FIVE MORE WEIRD THINGS (to make 8 for Hanukkah): Interpretive dance from Hell; boxed parents; dream doll ballet; Santa’s rearguard assault; the Cocktail of Remembrance

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Santa Claus seems the results of a cross-border game of telephone: the basics of Santa’s mythology are all there, but the end product is something wholly different and unusual. The attempt to infuse an essentially commercial construct with deeply held moral codes produces a strange sort of alchemy, generating earnest feelings within a deeply unsettling presentation.


English-language trailer for Santa Claus (1959)

COMMENTS: Look, Santa Claus is weird. The guy, I mean. A preternaturally jolly man with a fortress hidden away in the farthest reaches of an Arctic wilderness, studiously monitoring the obedience and malfeasance of children around the globe, and then employing a workforce of stunted laborers to craft playthings as rewards for those youths who have passed muster, after which he summons a team of flying ungulates to whisk him through the night to deliver said prizes. Oh, and despite the mystery surrounding his operations and his motives, every child is familiar with him and acts desperately to curry his favor. Looked at objectively, this is not normal.

That’s probably why the many attempts to put him on the big screen are inescapably odd. When he’s not appearing as a supporting character in someone else’s redemption story (Miracle on 34th Street, Elf, Fred Claus), screenwriters either have to invent an elaborate origin story (as in the 1985 Dudley Moore/John Lithgow vehicle Santa Claus), create an entirely new piece of mythology to reflect the modern age (The Santa Clause), place him in a wildly unexpected context (Santa Claus Conquers the Martians), or make him completely inexplicable (Santa Claus and the Ice Cream Bunny).

The Mexican feature that producer K. Gordon Murray tracked down absolutely carries on that proud tradition. Santa Claus wants it both ways, presenting our hero as someone with whom we should all be familiar, even as it explains each element in careful and increasingly bizarre detail. Every recognizable part of the legend is served up with some strange funhouse twist: Santa has helpers… including the wizard Merlin, the god of metalworking Hephaestus, and a platoon of children plucked from across the planet. Santa knows if children have been bad or good… by spying on them with terrifying body-part espionage tools. Santa makes his rounds with his trusty flying reindeer… who are appalling plastic automatons. The whole enterprise plays like some sort of loopy Santa fan fiction.

One of the weirdest, and perhaps most significant, adjustments to the canonical Kringle is his protracted battle with the Devil and his prancing henchman, Pitch. The Prince of Darkness’ antipathy for this bastion of kindness and charity is logical enough, but the effort to disrupt Santa’s rounds is a curiously low-key affair; a strategy of mild pranks and harsh thoughts whispered into the ears of a handful of children seems unlikely to sidetrack this worldwide operation.

This subplot does hint at how this mixed-up version of Saint Nick came to be. In 1959, the myth of Santa Claus was not the dominant holiday cultural force in Mexico that we are familiar with in the United States. In pitching their tale to an audience deeply committed to the more traditional celebrations of the birth of Jesus and the far more religiously significant Epiphany, Cardona and co-writer Adolfo Torres Portillo must have felt it necessary to give Saint Nicholas a local spin. There is precedent for this in Mexican culture: the passionate veneration of the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Guadalupe has its origins in an ancient Aztec cult around the mother goddess Tonantzin, and elements of those ancient beliefs survive today in Mary’s Mexican iconography. Santa gets a similar makeover here, invoking the name of Jesus and battling the devil, while also watching children with the latest spycraft and getting down on his pipe organ.

Having defended Santa Claus, let me now assure you that it is indeed utterly insane. The Cuisinart of mythologies, the wackadoodle explanations for Santa’s operations, the depiction of a fey, slapstick devil who is constantly jumping around like a crimson horned Tigger… it’s all certifiably nuts. The fact that producer Murray (who also narrates and seems to provide most of the adult male voices) was able to pocket a tidy sum releasing this movie to unsuspecting audiences on a regular basis over the course of thirty years speaks as much to his Barnum-esque skills as it does to the willingness of the moviegoing public to dump their kids in front of anything that features that right jolly old elf. If Santa Claus didn’t scar every child who saw it, it definitely gave them a movie experience like none they had ever beheld. And isn’t that the greatest gift of all?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…reaches far beyond banal categorizations like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and even ‘weird,’ deep into the almost unfathomable territory of ‘brain damaging’ and ‘utterly terrifying’ and a number of adjectives that have yet to be discovered. ..  Santa Claus is a deeply strange and disturbing work, a visionary work on a minuscule budget and one that says more about the holidays than we may care to think about.” – Jim Knipfel, Den of Geek

“Movies like this are so bizarre they almost defy analysis. There are creepy moments, touching moments, jaw-dropping hilarious moments, and dull stretches, all jumbled together in a way that is unique. And in its own way, it’s pretty irresistible. I can only thank Mexico for making movies like this and K. Gordon Murray for having undertaken to bring them to us. It hardly matters if the movies are good or bad; just the watching of them are experiences to be reckoned with.” – Dave Sindelar, Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings

“…it has to be the weirdest, wildest, most unsettling children’s film in the history of children’s films…I couldn’t help feeling as I watched it that it must have a strong cult following somewhere simply because it’s so…strange.”–John J. Puccio, Movie Metropolis (Blu-ray)

IMDB LINK: Santa Claus (1959)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST

Turner Classic Movies: Santa Claus –  One of the less likely films to get comprehensive treatment on the TCM website; includes five clips and an essay from Richard Harlan Smith

How “Santa Claus Vs. The Devil” Came To America – An NPR story from Chattanooga about a filmmaker developing a documentary about K. Gordon Murray

Made in Mexico: The 1959 movie “Santa Claus” has Santa, Satan, demons, the ‘wizard of wizards’ Merlin the magician and more – Background info, courtesy of Bryan Thomas writing for “Nightflight”

Santa Claus (1959) (Film) – TV Tropes Santa Claus page

Satellite News: 521 – Santa Claus – A synopsis and review from the long-running chronicler of all things MST3K

Rifftrax: Santa Claus – A peek at an alternate riff of the film

DVD INFO: The Collector’s Edition (!) (buy) from VCI Entertainment contains multiple special features, including both the original Spanish-language and the dubbed English versions, a commentary track from Murray chronicler Daniel Griffith, a making-of featurette, extended clips of the musical number in Hell and the international parade of child slaves cut from U.S. prints, and several Christmas shorts (three of which were made by Murray and incorporated footage from Santa Claus). It’s even available on Blu-ray (buy).

Intriguingly, a making-of is also included in the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” Vol. XVI set (buy); only the riffed version is featured here, edited down from its full length, but supplemented with many, many jokes. (The other experiments in the set are The Corpse Vanishes with ; the post-apocalyptic Warriors of the Lost World; and ‘s Night of the Blood Beast).

Santa Claus was also mocked by Rifftrax (buy), and they even released a separate DVD (buy) riffing on the three Murray shorts included on Santa Claus (under the title Santa’s Village of Madness).

And if you’re really cheap, this film is apparently in the public domain and an unrestored copy can be viewed for free at the Internet Archive.

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who noted that, “however terribly crafted it was, and somewhat confusing, it was packed with moments of unintentional creepiness,” and ultimately described it as “bad cinema at its most unintentionally weird and terrible.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

4 thoughts on “311. SANTA CLAUS (1959)”

  1. When I first watched this film, I honestly didn’t think it was that weird. At first, I assumed that some of the more fanciful elements, like Santa living in the Heavens, stemmed from Mexican culture that would make more sense had I experienced the type of celebration (similar to Rich Evans’ assumptions on Best of the Worst). It also didn’t help that I fell asleep during Santa’s preparations to deliver presents to Earth.

    Watching again this year (and researching to see if anything in the film was close to accurate to Mexico’s Navidad), I relented at how utterly bonkers each of its individual elements were and how far-fetched the creator’s interpretation of Santa Claus was. Besides the wind-up reindeer that are more likely to terrify small children rather than fill them with joy, many of the film’s moments felt too surreal or strange to take at face-value as something Santa Claus would utilize (the pictured giant lips and child labor rather than elves being two examples), or something that Mexican children could even identify and recognize (if Merlin from King Arthur is more popular in Mexico than I realize, I’ll still question the justification for his inclusion in the Santa Claus mythos, asides from him being a public domain character).

    Santa Claus and his home and help in Space seem like the type of stories that children in Venus would trade around and joke with each other, if their brains were sun-dried from the living conditions and Venus wasn’t a gas planet but closer in structure to Earth (Fitting then, since apparently Santa not only gives away presents to children on Earth, but also on Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, astronomy be damned (wonder if he visits Droppo on Mars to check on things?)). Call it revelation, call it madness, but the world created by Rene Cardona deserves to be seen by all, preferably in a group of friends to mock and enjoy the strangeness of the experience.

  2. One scene from Santa’s living-room stand-off with the *other* guy in a red suit is a viral little image that’s been kicking around message boards for years, as seen here:

    https://wutcana.wordpress.com/2010/12/08/how-santa-claus-vs-the-devil-came-to-america/

    And that image got incorporated into a gag MTG custom card:

    https://i.pinimg.com/originals/a2/0c/3a/a20c3a23c5e7ce129f6bd1744b0d1270.jpg

    …which has been my totem card around the holidays when it’s time to part company with some of our more quarrelsome relatives…

    But now I find out there’s an MST3K episode? And here I was wondering what to watch for Christmas…

  3. The theological game of telephone has been going on for centuries, and this is just one of the more recent rounds. The legend of Santa Claus was originally based on Saint Nikolaos of Myra, a 4th century Babylonian bishop. The stories about the saint don’t mention anything about him delivering gifts on Christmas (I’m not sure if “Christmas” was even a thing back then), and since he lived on the Mediterranean coast, it’s safe to assume that he never saw a sleigh or a reindeer in his entire life. Teaming him up with Merlin and Hephaestos? Why the hell not. He’s already wandered pretty damn far from his origins.

    1. Whoa whoa, wait a minute, if we’re going to bring up Santa’s checkered roots, what about the Thor theory? Which also explains why Santa’s two lead reindeer (when Rudolph has the night off) are “Donder” and “Blitzen,” German for “thunder” and “lightning”?

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