"O LITTLE TOWN OF CHURUBUSCO-AZTECA". One of the oddest Christmas thingies I've ever seen in my entire life has got to be the 1959 Mexican production of "SANTA CLAUS". The original film was produced at Churubusco-Azteca studios (the company that gave us all those Mexican wrestling monster movies) and was directed by Rene Cardona (who not only directed but starred as the lead monster in the classically unforgettable "BRAINIAC"). As usual, these Mexican monster movies were snapped up by K. Gordon Murray, re-edited, dubbed into English and sold to drive-ins and television stations so that they could forever warp our tiny little developing minds.
Bizarre is the only word to describe this film (as well as many other K. Gordon Murray flicks). The film opens at the North Pole headquarters of Santa Claus (which actually hangs in the clouds like Flash Gordon's city of the hawk-men or Lando Calrissian's Cloud City -- sponsored by Colt .45). Check out the cool Arabian-like archway with the criss-cross pattern which can be glimpsed in this lobby poster!
Now, where most movies in the first reel attempt to initiate the plot -- here we instead are treated (?!?) to almost ten minutes of kiddies from around the world singing native tunes (which have little to do with Christmas) in their native costumes. Now, I don't speak the languages but, since the English kids sing "London Bridge is Falling Down" and the Yanks sing (badly) "Mary Had a Little Lamb", I doubt very highly the other children are singing Christmas carols either. After all this, we then scoot on over to downtown Hell. . .that's right. . .HELL in a Christmas movie. . .where we find Satan planning to spoil Christmas by promoting evil in earth's children. A devil apparently named Pitch (with trademark red skin, devil horns, forked tail and red longjohns) is dispatched to do just that. Believe it or not, we actually catch glimpses of damned souls in hooded robes endlessly circling around the fiery pits of Hell. I don't know about you but that IMMEDIATELY conjures up cozy Christmas morning for me.
We also get to see several earth children doing their stuff. We see three hoodlums who throws rocks through windows and try to defraud Santa with an "I've been good" letter. We see a little rich boy who is ignored by his parents so all he wants for Christmas is a little attention. And we also see an angelic little girl named Lupita who is poor but refuses to steal a doll (even with constant pressuring from the devil Pitch). Meanwhile, Santa is gearing up for his Christmas Eve flight by essentially spying on all the world's children; even going so far as to read their minds which he does with a tabletop device resembling the Bottle City of Kandor. Santa's also go something called the "Master Eye" which is an eyeball on a stalk that enables him to see all. He can eavesdrop by using a device which can only be described as a plastic rotary fan with an ear glued onto it. Then there's the "Teletalker" which is a machine that looks like a huge face with an almost obscene-looking fleshy red mouth. All the equipment and more packs Santa's fantastic "crystal laboratory" which is manned by children instead of the traditional elves. Santa apparently flouts earthly child labour laws. One of my favourite catchphrases from the film is the recited command which causes Santa's machines to search for a specific child -- somberly intoned by several children it goes "Find her. . .whether she is in a cave or behind a million mountains!" Another of my favourite quotes is more of a mondegreen than an actual quote. When the devil Pitch fails at one particular bit of mischief, the jaunty narrator (actually K. Gordon Murray himself) says "Tough luck, Pitch!" Of course, to my ears, it sounded like he said "Tough luck, bitch!" Guess which one I prefer.
In preparation for his sleigh ride, we see Santa's other assistants: the Arthurian occult mage Merlin (check out the pentacle above his mantle) and a Hephaestus-like blacksmith called "The Keymaster". Merlin (who is short quite a few marbles) provides Santa with magic dust to knock out nosey children and a magic moonflower to render himself invisible when he sniffs it. Insert your own symbolic drug references here. The Keymaster provides Santa with a magic key that will open any lock. Santa loads up his sleigh which, instead of being pulled by real reindeer is pulled by mechanical clockwork jobs. Perhaps he borrowed the design for his robotic reindeer from Dr. Phibes? Naturally, Santa's trip is plagued by the devil Pitch; who cuts a hole in Santa's bag so the magical gadgets fall out. After a wacky series of events, Santa is trapped up a tree (shades of "On Borrowed Time") by a snarling dog while the police, fire department. . .even the Red Cross race to the scene. Oddly, Santa must return to his workshop before the sun rises or else his mechanical reindeer will turn to dust. I don't know, maybe they're vampires. It's never explained more than this.
While it is extremely easy to mock or slam a picture like this, it must be said that SANTA CLAUS is nothing if not memorable. In fact, it is much more watchable than that other wacky Christmas oddity SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS. In fact, there are one or two really emotionally effecting scenes that come off much better than they have a right to: the scene were Lupita's mother tries to explain who Santa Claus is only to have Lupita ask why he has never left her presents before. Doesn't Santa like poor people? Another effective scene surprisingly involves the "poor little rich boy" who yearns for attention from his absentee parents while they are out at a Christmas party. For once in these films, the voice actors dubbing the dialogue actually "ACT" and the actress voicing Lupita's mother is particularly good.
Those who were ambushed by this movie as children usually say it has stuck with them and those who see it as adults still aren't likely to forget it. SANTA CLAUS is a strange combination of fairy tale and gadgety James Bond flick for kiddies. And like every good fairy tale, there is a strong vein of occult darkness and threat running through it. There is even a scene which one can take two ways -- as Santa's jolly highjinx or outright blasphemy -- where Santa stands in front of a tabletop manger scene and just laughs and laughs and laughs. Throughout the film, Santa (played by Jose Elias Morena) doesn't "Ho Ho Ho" but merely laughs. So what exactly is going through his mind here while he's laughing at this classic Christmas scene of the virgin birth? You can insert your own Christmas conspiracy theory here or just ignore the whole thing as new age paranoia. But the odd strain of darkness that runs through the rest of the film is real enough. Refreshingly, and unlike every other Christmas movie I've ever seen, the bad kids actually DO get coal from Santa. No last minute change of heart by the hoodlums occur. No last minute wishy-washy backsliding from Santa to give them real gifts after all. The three naughty boys (who bizarrely plan to kidnap Santa, make him their slave (!) and steal all his candy and toys) earn coal and damn it that's what they end up with. They deserve coal and they GET coal. At long last -- consequences for your actions! If there's only one lesson children can take away from this film it would be this: if you do something bad you're going to have to take the consequences. However, long-suffering little Lupita does finally receive the doll she wanted; Santa finds a way to get it to her at the last moment and you'd have to be a hard-hearted grinch not to be touched. SANTA CLAUS is endlessly (and bizarrely) interesting for adults and a great way to mess with a kid's head. You know. . .like adults USED to do in the old days. When kids were kids instead of fragile china cups. For a good old warped holiday film, you can't miss SANTA CLAUS. Even if it's behind a million mountains.