Friday, July 16, 2021

Santa Claus (1959)

... aka: Santa Claus vs. the Devil

Directed by:
René Cardona
"Ken Smith" (K. Gordon Murray) (U.S. version only)

I for one could use a little faux holiday cheer today after getting up at 6am, driving an hour to my car dealership and sitting in the waiting room for 2 1/2 hours just for them to tend to a (very minor) recall. That was followed by a trip to Kohl's where they only had small and XXL sizes of the hoodie I wanted, and then Wal-Mart, which was packed so they decided to open three registers and let the self-checkouts do the rest so I was stuck in line for 30 minutes, and then IHOP, for a disappointing stack of under-cooked double blueberry pancakes, which concluded with me giving the waitress a 20 dollar tip just because I was desperate to see someone - anyone - fucking smile by that point. Well, let's just say it wasn't my best of days, so Christmas in July it is! Besides, we can't let the Hallmark Channel and QVC have all the fun, can we?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but... Everything you thought you knew about Santa Claus is a lie! He lives at the North Pole? Not exactly. He resides far up in the heavens deep in outer space a zillion miles above the North Pole. Lives in a cozy, humble little abode? No. He actually lives the lap of luxury in a giant crystal palace floating on a cloud. Not particularly religious? Catholic. Elves as helpers? Nope. Children from around the globe (including China, Japan, Africa, Italy, the U. S., Mexico and "The Orient") have apparently been kidnapped and forced to work in his toy factory sweatshop, where they sing (terrible!) songs in their (terrible!) off-key, cracking voices and do things stereotypical to the region. The U. S. ones, for instance, are dressed like little cowpokes, strum guitars and treat us to an ear-splitting rendition of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" while the Mexican representatives do only a slightly better job with "La Cucaracha." And I don't even really want to get into the drum beating child savages from Africa. While the kids "sing," Santa (José Elías Moreno) bangs on an organ making wide-eyed expressions like a deranged maniac.

Meanwhile, in hell (!!), "Lucifer, the King of Hades" gets upset when he catches all of his red horned demon men dancing around and enjoying themselves. He banishes them all except for one: Pitch (José Luis Aguirre 'Trotsky'), the leader of the demons. Lucifer gives him one objective: To go to Earth and make all of the children do evil things because he wants to piss off his "bearded old goat" nemesis.

Santa Claus and his sidekick Pedro (Cesáreo Quezadas aka 'Pulgarcito', who played Tom Thumb in the demented LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD AND THE MONSTERS and went on to do some even more demented things in real life) then use their high powered telescope to spy on some children in Mexico. A trio of little hoodlums ("The devil likes rude boys!") are coerced into pelting an animatronic Santa with rocks, to which Santa solemnly notes: "They will be punished in due course." Restoring his faith in humanity somewhat is poor little Lupita (Lupita Quezadas), whose only dream is to own a doll. Like the proverbial "demon over the shoulder," Pitch attempts to persuade her to shoplift one since her mother (Nora Veryán) can't afford to buy it but Lupita resists the urge and puts it back on the shelf. Good girl, Lupita.

Not content with spying on kids as they go about their daily lives, Santa takes the "he knows when you are sleeping" thing to a creepy new extreme by also using his "dream-scope" to keep tabs on what children are dreaming about! "Little Rich Boy" Billy (Antonio Díaz Conde hijo), for example, has dreams about two giant gifts under the tree with his parents inside because he merely wants more of their time. Lupita's dream, tainted by Pitch when he blows on her (!) while she's sleeping, involves her being in some cavernous, foggy void where two-faced dolls emerge from coffin-like boxes and do a dance routine before trying to convince her that she needs to be just a little evil to get what she wants out of life. I guess he does have a point.

After a montage of kids writing Santa and mailing out their letters, which the post office promptly throws into an oven (!) Christmas Eve finally arrives and uber-jolly Saint Nick (who never stops laughing) and his assistants rush to get all of their stuff together. The absent-minded Merlin the Magician (Armando Arriola) gives Santa a "flower to disappear" which enables him to become invisible and concocts a "magic dust" sleeping powder so that Santa can drug kids (!!) who stay up too late, while a blacksmith (Ángel Di Stefani) creates a golden key he can use to break-and-enter into chimney-less homes. After his sled is loaded, his robot reindeer whisk him off through space to Earth, where he encounters numerous problems in Mexico City.

The three evil boys plot to jump Santa, tie him up, kidnap him, make him their slave (!!) and then steal all of his toys and candy. Meanwhile, Pitch does what he can to try to prevent Santa from delivering all of his gifts, including moving chimneys, trying to set his ass on fire, making a doorknob red hot by blowing on it and trying to kill him by unleashing a dog and trying to trick people into shooting him. Santa retaliates a few times, like shooting Pitch in the ass with a toy cannon, but is mostly up a tree at the finale begging Merlin for help.

This has been popping in and out of IMDb's Bottom 100 list since the list has existed (note: as of this writing it's no longer on there), frequently shows up on "Worst Movies of All Time" lists and there are versions available with MST3K and Rifftrax "riffing" it in case you don't want to come up with your own wisecracks. But is the movie itself really that bad? That is a question I simply cannot answer. It's complicated.

For starters, any criticisms about the film being ridiculous and silly should automatically be discounted because, let's face it, every Santa Claus movie in existence is silly and ridiculous when we get right down to it. This is a fairy tale about a fictional character magically zapping around one night of the year giving out billions of presents we're talking about here, not reality, folks. Does it really matter if Santa lives at the North Pole or in space? Are toy robot reindeer any sillier than the U.S. version of actual magical reindeer that sometimes talk? Of course not. Knocking Mexican Santa mythology, at least per this film, merely because it deviates from your culture's representation of the character is sillier than anything you'll actually see in this movie. However, that also doesn't mean one can't marvel at or be amused by the differences, which I was at times and you'll no doubt also be.

It's also impossible to give this completely fair shakes due to the horribly-dubbed English language version courtesy of K. Gordon Murray, which relies heavily on new, perfunctory and often extremely dumb narration. I've no clue how the original Spanish language version stacks up but we all know how bad dubbing can ruin an otherwise perfectly fine film. That said, this is clearly not a perfectly fine film from a technical vantage point! While the sets and costumes are fun at times, the film is heavily padded, posits Santa as a mythical God stand-in in a basic religionized good vs. evil morality play and has plenty of irritating moments (it truly does take an iron will to make it past the ten-minute-long opening musical number!) to go along with the more amusing stuff. It's also extremely sentimental and schmaltzy at times, but the same can be said for most other holiday films and it has a few honestly affecting moments. But what this is really best known for nowadays is the high-for-a-kid's-movie creepiness factor. Many viewers of a certain age even remember being somewhat traumatized seeing this when they were young and I can fully understand why!

I'm sure Murray made an absolute fortune off of this when he released it as a children's matinee feature back in the day. In fact, it was still playing theaters as a seasonal Christmas film well into the 1970s! It was also shown often on TV and, heavily marketed as a bad movie cult feature, has been released numerous times on VHS and DVD by nearly every budget label under the sun.

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