Santa Claus (1959)

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 good will!
--English-dubbed Mexican Santa Claus

When Santa laughs, the whole world shakes its head.
--Crow T. Robot

Quick quiz - what's the worst Christmas movie you've ever seen?

How many of you thought of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians just now?

Maybe The Star Wars Holiday Special...which technically isn't a movie?

Dudley Moore's Santa Claus: The Movie, perhaps?

What about Disney's all-zombie Christmas Carol last year?

Yeah, those are all suitable candidates. But how many of you even considered THIS one?

This lesser-known and badly dubbed import from Mexico has something of a special place in my Christmas psyche. I know it shouldn't, but it just does. It has been featured in one of two holiday episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 along with the more infamous Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and between the two of them I cannot help to like the episode this one was in a little more. I'm not even sure I can call this the worst Christmas movie I've seen--everything in it is just so bizarre that it actually makes it kinda fun.

And who do we have to thank for this warm cup of spiked eggnog? None other than K. Gordon Murray, a Florida-based film producer who spent much of his career importing low-budget fairy tale, horror and exploitation films from other countries, dubbing them into English and releasing them in American theaters. Santa Claus was the first fantasy film he released in America, and surprisingly it was a major hit with family audiences when his English adaptation came out in 1960. It was so successful that he started putting out more family films in the years to follow, earning him the title "King of the Kiddie Matinee" by the time the business was beginning to peter out in the 1970s. Santa Claus in particular flourished, and theaters continued to show it again and again every few years for a staggering THREE DECADES, nearly ten years after Murray's death by heart attack in 1979.

The movie starts off by shattering every idea you've ever had about Santa Claus. For example, according to the screenwriter, he does NOT have a workshop at the North Pole which he staffs with pointy-eared elves three apples tall. Instead, he lives, according to a narrator, "away up in the heavens, far out in space in a beautiful gold and crystal palace right above the North Pole", which is staffed by a multitude of children from all over the world. Or rather, the same children dressed up in different ethnic costumes, as shown in a "parade of nations" segment at the start of the film where kids (often the same kids) sing ethnic songs horrendously off-key while Santa (Joseph Elias Moreno) accompanies on the organ, squirming strangely in his seat all the while.


A devil-shaped firecracker provides a segue to a rather strange location for a movie about Santa Claus: the ninth level of Hell.

Satan himself, represented by a disembodied voice and a shot of flames, assigns Pitch, chief of all demons (José Luis Aguirre) to travel up to Earth and attempt to thwart Santa Claus' efforts and make all the children of the world do evil, threatening to feed him chocolate ice cream, which Pitch claims is bad for his delicate digestion, if he fails.

Meanwhile, it wouldn't be a Santa Claus movie without some children in it, and this film focuses on five in particular. One is a rich little boy whose parents are never around. Then we have a cute, thick-accented little girl named Lupita whose family is poor; her only goal in life is to have a dolly to play with. Finally, there are three bad, evil, nasty little brothers whom Pitch immediately latches onto.

Through the so-called wondrous instruments in Santa's magic observatory, which include a telescope with a snake-eye attachment, a pinball machine with big red lips, and a Pop-o-matic bubble which lets you look in on what children are dreaming about, we learn a little more about these kids. Peeping in on the rich little boy's dream, Santa learns that all he wants for Christmas is to be with his parents. Through his earscope (an oscillating fan with Van Gogh's missing ear attached to it) he hears the three little street urchins make fun of him and tells them off in a loud, booming, disembodied voice.

But more importantly, we see Lupita caught between moral grounds when she is tempted to steal a doll from a sidewalk marketplace, with a little nudging from Pitch. After she decides to put the doll back, Pitch follows her home and blows in her ear while she is sleeping, which causes her to have a nightmare. In this dream Lupita sings to a little doll in a room full of smoke surrounded by several giant boxes. The boxes open, and several freakish man-sized dolls dance awkwardly around the confused little girl, one of whom engages her in conversation about the negative ramifications of her honesty when presented with an opportunity to illicitly relieve herself of a consequence of her family's desperate, impoverished living conditions. In other words, "why don't you steal a doll?"

I'm willing to wager the smoke isn't from a fog machine.

Next we see a montage of kids writing and mailing letters to Santa which magically rise out of the post office incinerator with the power of rolling film backwards and up into Santa's crystal castle. These letters he divides into three boxes: "verdad surtase" (telling the truth), "mentira tirese" (lying) and a third slot delivering letters to the metaphorical stork for kids who want little brothers and sisters.

Then we visit Santa's crystal meth lab where Merlin the Magician (yes, THE Merlin the Magician) provides him with a magic flower which will make him invisible when he sniffs it, as well as a special dreaming powder which will send anyone still awake when he arrives to sleep, dreaming dreams of joy and good will. Next a magic blacksmith and keymaker provides Santa with a magic key with the power to open any lock on any door, presumably for houses without chimneys.

Now we come to Santa's training room, where we learn that he does in fact NOT have a belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly - no, he has to keep his waistline in check so he can fit down any chimney. During all this Santa continues to laugh unprovoked, probably because he is the jolly old elf that he is, but I can't help but suspect he's taken one too many sniffs on that magic flower.

"First batch is free. The second one'll cost ya."

And now it's time for Santa to make his annual Christmas Eve rounds. As he prepares his sleigh, a clever little child with a poncho and sombrero whom I suspect the dubbers of having named Pedro warns Santa that he must be back at the castle before sunrise (he doesn't mention in which time zone) or else his FOUR NAMELESS MECHANIZED PHOTOSENSITIVE REINDEER will turn to dust, and Santa would perish on an Earth diet of "most of the animals, the plants, the flowers, the roots, the birds, even smoke and alcohol" instead of the "pastries and ice cream made of soft clouds" he normally eats. A parade of Santa's child labor form a line to his sleigh and start loading his great big seemingly bottomless sack of toys, singing a song with strange lyrics all the while. Santa joins in a couple of verses, singing "Hurry up my children, get on with your packing, it's the night for Santa Claus to fill all those stockings" in a VERY DEEP, VERY OFF-KEY VOICE which must be heard to be believed. I'd call this the worst Christmas-related song I've ever heard if not for Carrie Fisher's drug-induced crooning at the end of The Star Wars Holiday Special, and the fact that it's the most unintentionally hilarious bit in the whole movie.

Then after he winds up his reindeer, one of which joins him in a magic flower-induced fit of laughter which, again, must be heard to be believed, he finally sets out to deliver the presents.

Santa's first stop is--here's a shocker--Mexico City, where Pitch is waiting for him. From here, we get some Wile E. Coyote-Roadrunner-style shtick where Pitch sets traps for Santa to thwart his yuletide duties, such as pushing chimneys out of place, super-heating doorknobs with his breath and setting fires in fireplaces he's about to enter through. Naturally Santa sees through Pitch's every move and even comes up with a few tricks of his own, like blowing soot in his face and shooting him in the butt with a toy rocket launcher. Meanwhile, the subplots with the lonely little rich boy and the three young rapscallions are quickly resolved - Santa poses as a waiter at the only restaurant that's open on Christmas Eve night and serves the rich kid's parents a magic cocktail with undisclosed ingredients that makes them want to go home and see him, and as for the three plotting to capture him and make off with his toys, he shoots some kind of sparkly missile at them and scares them back home where they find lumps of coal in their shoes.

Read into this scene whatever you will.

Well, around this time the writers finally decided to add some tension to the story, as Pitch sneaks up to Santa's sleigh while he is making another delivery and conjures up a pair of scissors to snip a hole in Santa's bag of dreaming powder, which also causes his magic flower to fall out of the sleigh. Santa doesn't realize this until he's sneaking through some rich family's front yard and Pitch sics a vicious dog on him, and while he is forced to climb a tree to get away, Pitch gleefully wakes up the whole neighborhood and summons the police and the fire department.

With morning imminent (Mexico standard time) Santa calls up to the castle for help, which Pedro overhears while dusting the observatory and rushes to retrieve Merlin. Merlin racks his brain for a few seconds, and then suggests that Santa use a stuffed toy cat on wheels (and apparently motorized) from his sack to distract the dog and make his escape as the authorities and firemen arrive, one of whom turns on his hose and drenches the residents for no reason. Pitch lingers around the scene long enough for one of the firemen to notice some smoke from where he is standing and unknowingly hose him down, to which the narrator comments "Well, that serves him right, the old troublemaker. He'll probably catch pneumonia, but he asked for it." Sheesh, narrator, whose side are you on?

Meanwhile, Santa's magic flower has conveniently landed right at Lupita's front door, which is where Santa was making one last stop before flying home. Lupita suddenly wakes up and gives a semi-intelligible thick-accented monologue to her mother and father that Santa left a doll for her, which is waiting for her right outside her door, and wow it's just as tall as she is. Lupita thanks Santa as he arrives back at his castle, having once again brought joy and love to all the children of the world. Or rather, four or five children in Mexico City to the exclusion of every other Christmas-celebrating household, let alone all the children who are from Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Jewish families or are otherwise celebrating other winter holidays, but whatever, happy ending.

Blow in his ear and he'll follow you anywhere.

Wow. This movie is just...wow.

I don't think there is any conceivable way to describe just how utterly outrageous this movie is. Picture a Sunday school class taught by a hellfire-and-damnation preacher combined with a wildly inaccurate episode of Mythbusters and a Nativity play on PCP and airplane glue and you haven't even come remotely close to how crazy this movie is. There are some genuinely sentimental moments in it which mostly revolve around Lupita and the poor little rich boy, but those bits just get lost in the sheer insanity of everything else. This is without a doubt the strangest Christmas movie I've ever seen. It just defies all belief.

So would I recommend this movie? ...Well, obviously not to kids, since some of the imagery would scare them into celebrating Festivus for the rest of their lives. If you prefer more competent Christmas movies, then...no. Just no. Everybody else? Well, if you like bad movies, and bad Christmas movies in particular, be advised that there's no lifeguard on duty, so swim at your own risk. And mind you don't catch pneumonia.

He sees you when you're sleeping. And he KNOWS when you're awake.

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