One helluva Christmas!

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I own a copy of René  Cardona’s SANTA CLAUS (1959) on DVD and yet there I was, sitting up at midnight on December 16th, less than 10 days to go until Christmas, watching the darn thing in bits and pieces on YouTube.  I’m twelve kinds of fascinated with this movie – have you ever seen it?  You’d remember it if you have… it’s the one with The Devil!santamovieposter1René Cardona made this rather extravagant little feature at Churubusco-Azteca Studios in Mexico City, where a lot of the El Santo masked wrestler movies were made, as well as the more prestigious likes of Emilio Fernandez’s THE PEARL (1945), John Ford’s THE FUGITIVE (1946), Luis  Buñuel ‘s THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1962), George Roy Hill’s BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) and Sam Peckinpah’s BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1972), to name but a few.  At the outset, I should confess that I have an abiding weakness for oddball Christmas movies, which is why I prize the Joseph E. Levine distributed cheapie SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS (1964) with Pia Zadora, Rossano Brazzi’s resolutely comfortless THE CHRISTMAS THAT ALMOST WASN’T (1966) and TriStar Pictures’ big ticket Yuletide stinkeroo SANTA CLAUS: THE MOVIE (1985), which starred Dudley Moore as an elf (are you laughing yet?  ARTHUR making toys!) and was directed by Jeannot Szwarc, who hadn’t yet worked all the lousy out of his system even after the one-two combination of JAWS 2 (1978) and SUPERGIRL (1984) .  Now, I want to make it clear that I am not attracted to these movies ironically, on the snooty hunt for easy laughs and a way to make myself feel superior.  No, I really like these movies, while admitting up front that they do more harm than good.  I suppose I just find it fascinating to see how badly some filmmakers stumble in trying to realize their idea of the perfect Christmas movie.

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Poor Lupita has a devil of a dilemma when she is tempted by Old Pitch.

Blame it on MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947), a movie so charming and disarmingly simple (an old man, a young girl and no special effects) that everybody who followed thought they could work the same magic simply by mixing those same ingredients.  Two lousy remakes and a bunch of copycats followed.  Anybody remember THE MAN IN THE SANTA CLAUS SUIT (1979) with Fred Astaire, THE NIGHT THEY SAVED CHRISTMAS (1984) with Art Carney (a few clicks upriver from his participation in THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL) or MR. ST. NICK (2002) with Kelsey Grammer?  Of course you do!  While these attempts at Yuletide cheer are, er, noteworthy in their own special ways, none really goes for the Full Monty quite like the Mexican SANTA CLAUS. Santa actually didn’t have a lot of clout South of the Border when this thing was made, Christmas joy being spread more commonly by the Magi, or wise men.  Yet Cardona likely realized there was no percentage to keeping it local, so he embraced the European and North American tradition of Kris Kringle and even threw in a reference to Sputnik to give the piece a global appeal.  Add to that that this particular St. Nick (Jose Elias Moreno, who went on to play the mad doctor in NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES) lives not on the North Pole but in Outer Space!  And his toys aren’t made by elves but by a United Nations-style legion of earth kids who have foresaken a normal childhood to live in the vacuum of space, keep Santa’s calendar and serve his special purpose.  The kids are a hoot, representing as they do many colors and creeds… which means the Soviet children wear Russian Tea Room tunics and sable hats, the Mexican kids sombreros and serapes and the African tots have bones through their hair and shake maracas made out of human skulls.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pma09UryJC0]

SANTA CLAUS is so out there (literally!) that you cannot take your eyes off it, even as the screenplay gets more and more bizarre.  Santa’s deep space “Toyland” is rigged up like Captain Nemo’s suite in the Nautilus, with a church organ hooked up to a TV screen that acts as a remote viewer of world doings (its lens looks like a disembodied eye) and a public address system in the shape of a giant pair of red Rolling Stones lips.  From here Santa can see that Satan himself is hell-bent on corrupting the world’s children through the Machiavellian ministrations of demi-demon “Pitch” (Jose Luis Aguirre, who often appeared under the professional name of “Trotsky”).  On Christmas Eve, Pitch visits the bedrooms of the world’s slumbering children, tempting them with the possible rewards of stealing and misbehaving.  (More than thirty years before A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, three Mexican urchins conspire to kidnap Santa and make him their slave.)  With the help of his A-team of pint sized helpmeets and a doddering but kind-hearted magician named Merlin (Armando Arriola, from BRING ME THE VAMPIRE), Santa rides down from the heavens to earth (by dint of clockwork reindeer, no less) to deliver his toys, save the world and kick Pitch’s tail back to perdition.

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I know what you’re thinking: homicidal maniac dressed as Santa! But, no, it’s really him… promise!

Mexico has a reputation for Z-grade filmmaking that certainly isn’t deserved, considering the wealth of wonderful films that were made there through its “Golden Age” (during World War II, Hollywood pumped funds into the Mexican film industry that had once gone to Europe and built many movie palaces and second run cinemas as showcases for its own product) and even beyond that.  As bizarro and Psychotronic as is SANTA CLAUS, it actually looks relatively opulent, certainly compared to other movies by Cardona (THE CRYING WOMAN, DOCTOR OF DOOM, WRESTLING WOMEN VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY, INVASION OF THE DEAD).  Somebody clearly spent a little money on this… not that its above average budget and candied chromatics can save this production from seeming weird and creepy… especially when Santa snorts the petals of a white flower to obtain invisibility and dopes the world’s children to keep them sleeping and save them from temptation. We won’t even talk about Santa’s obsession with surveillance… which enables him to see inside our dreams!  Dr. Mabuse had nothing on this guy!

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No, Santa does not kill this little boy!  How could you even think that?

I should hope by this point you might begin to understand my obsession with this movie.  It’s just… different!  Despite its concessions to international and, more specifically American, conceptions of Christmas, SANTA CLAUS was not given a standard release in the United States.  The title was acquired by Florida-based independent film distributor K. Gordon Murray, who had imported many horror and masked wrestling films north of the border, dubbing them into English (at which point the Mexican icon El Santo became “Samson”) and even recutting them to suit the presumed tastes of gringo filmgoers.  Murry packaged SANTA CLAUS as a “weekends only” special event movie, booking it into select venues and faithfully rereleasing it every three years well into the 1970s. Rumor has it he made a small fortune from its recepits… but what he received pales in comparison to what he gave us.  Which is the wonder that is, warts and all, SANTA CLAUS.

20 Responses One helluva Christmas!
Posted By Jeff (Atlanta) : December 16, 2008 8:25 pm

Damn it! Why isn’t TCM showing this in December? And The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t on TCM Imports? But in the original Italian language version, letterboxed, of course. I think I’m mixing that up with The Christmas Tree with William Holden & Virna Lisi..the one about the little kid who learns he has only 6 months to live…perfect holiday viewing!

Posted By Jeff (Atlanta) : December 16, 2008 8:25 pm

Damn it! Why isn’t TCM showing this in December? And The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t on TCM Imports? But in the original Italian language version, letterboxed, of course. I think I’m mixing that up with The Christmas Tree with William Holden & Virna Lisi..the one about the little kid who learns he has only 6 months to live…perfect holiday viewing!

Posted By David : December 19, 2008 11:27 am

I proudly own a copy of SANTA CLAUS. It is such a wacked-out movie (and fun), and along with SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS(not quite as fun), will be trotted out for Yuletide viewing. Thanks for reminding me!

Posted By David : December 19, 2008 11:27 am

I proudly own a copy of SANTA CLAUS. It is such a wacked-out movie (and fun), and along with SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS(not quite as fun), will be trotted out for Yuletide viewing. Thanks for reminding me!

Posted By Earl B : December 19, 2008 4:24 pm

I’ve been looking for years for the original, uncut version of this. Supposedly, there’s a scene of damned souls (in tattered rags and connected together by chains) being led into the underworld for eternity … for having lost the Christmas spirit (!?!!).

Posted By Earl B : December 19, 2008 4:24 pm

I’ve been looking for years for the original, uncut version of this. Supposedly, there’s a scene of damned souls (in tattered rags and connected together by chains) being led into the underworld for eternity … for having lost the Christmas spirit (!?!!).

Posted By brent : December 19, 2008 11:38 pm

Is this the same Rene Cardona who made the cannibalism flick “Survive” & “Guyana Cult of the Damned”?

Posted By brent : December 19, 2008 11:38 pm

Is this the same Rene Cardona who made the cannibalism flick “Survive” & “Guyana Cult of the Damned”?

Posted By RHS : December 20, 2008 1:17 am

Survive, yes; Guyana, Cult of the Damned was directed by René Cardona, Jr.

Posted By RHS : December 20, 2008 1:17 am

Survive, yes; Guyana, Cult of the Damned was directed by René Cardona, Jr.

Posted By Daniel Griffith : December 21, 2008 7:26 pm

Greetings from the director of THE WONDER WORLD OF K. GORDON MURRAY documentary!!! First, to answer Earl B’s question,… an uncut version of the film does exist, but it is not available on DVD (yet). I will be featuring these scenes… along with an explanation as to why Murray excised them from his english language release in the documentary. Be sure to check out the new 10 minute ‘promo’ trailer entitled, “CITIZEN MURRAY”… premiering online DECEMBER 24th, 2008. Visit http://www.kgordonmurraymovie.com Christmas Eve for more information on this exciting production.

Have a MURRAY Christmas… boys and girls!!!

Best,
DANIEL

Posted By Daniel Griffith : December 21, 2008 7:26 pm

Greetings from the director of THE WONDER WORLD OF K. GORDON MURRAY documentary!!! First, to answer Earl B’s question,… an uncut version of the film does exist, but it is not available on DVD (yet). I will be featuring these scenes… along with an explanation as to why Murray excised them from his english language release in the documentary. Be sure to check out the new 10 minute ‘promo’ trailer entitled, “CITIZEN MURRAY”… premiering online DECEMBER 24th, 2008. Visit http://www.kgordonmurraymovie.com Christmas Eve for more information on this exciting production.

Have a MURRAY Christmas… boys and girls!!!

Best,
DANIEL

Posted By RHS : December 22, 2008 5:29 pm

Have a MURRAY Christmas…

How did I miss that opportunity?!

Posted By RHS : December 22, 2008 5:29 pm

Have a MURRAY Christmas…

How did I miss that opportunity?!

Posted By Stephen : December 30, 2008 3:01 pm

LOVE this film. Genuine holiday nightmare fuel for sure. I remember they were still showing this as a December weekend kids matinee into the early ’80s in my neck of the woods, where parents would dump their kids at the cinema so they could go off and do some Christmas shopping unburdened by writhing moppets. I can only imagine what this film did to the psyches of a generation of children abandoned (if only temporarily) by their folks.

Once I spotted a VHS version of this in the early days of tape rentals, and took it home only to discover that it was a bizarre re-edited version that removed all references to the devil (and I suspect was redubbed to cover up his absence). Talk about a warped deja vu, wondering what was different about this film I’d experienced in my youth…

Posted By Stephen : December 30, 2008 3:01 pm

LOVE this film. Genuine holiday nightmare fuel for sure. I remember they were still showing this as a December weekend kids matinee into the early ’80s in my neck of the woods, where parents would dump their kids at the cinema so they could go off and do some Christmas shopping unburdened by writhing moppets. I can only imagine what this film did to the psyches of a generation of children abandoned (if only temporarily) by their folks.

Once I spotted a VHS version of this in the early days of tape rentals, and took it home only to discover that it was a bizarre re-edited version that removed all references to the devil (and I suspect was redubbed to cover up his absence). Talk about a warped deja vu, wondering what was different about this film I’d experienced in my youth…

Posted By Daniel Griffith : January 11, 2009 10:09 am

BALLYHOO MOTION PICTURES Presents…
A Film by DANIEL GRIFFITH

Ladies and Gentleman… Boys and Girls of all ages…

The official “WONDER WORLD OF K. GORDON MURRAY in COLORSCOPE” documentary website is NOW ONLINE… featuring the online premiere of the ALL NEW ‘Promotional’ Trailer entitled, “CITIZEN MURRAY”!!!

Visit the WONDER WORLD at: http://www.kgordonmurraymovie.com

COPYRIGHT © 2009 BALLYHOO MOTION PICTURES
Chattanooga, TN Contact: kgordonmurraymovie@yahoo.com

Posted By Daniel Griffith : January 11, 2009 10:09 am

BALLYHOO MOTION PICTURES Presents…
A Film by DANIEL GRIFFITH

Ladies and Gentleman… Boys and Girls of all ages…

The official “WONDER WORLD OF K. GORDON MURRAY in COLORSCOPE” documentary website is NOW ONLINE… featuring the online premiere of the ALL NEW ‘Promotional’ Trailer entitled, “CITIZEN MURRAY”!!!

Visit the WONDER WORLD at: http://www.kgordonmurraymovie.com

COPYRIGHT © 2009 BALLYHOO MOTION PICTURES
Chattanooga, TN Contact: kgordonmurraymovie@yahoo.com

Posted By Nicholas : December 18, 2009 4:21 pm

RHS,

A great piece on the most warped Christmas movie ever made. I’ll read it every December.

The last still you posted looks identical to the primal scene flashback that opens DEEP RED. I think a mash-up is in order.

Posted By Nicholas : December 18, 2009 4:21 pm

RHS,

A great piece on the most warped Christmas movie ever made. I’ll read it every December.

The last still you posted looks identical to the primal scene flashback that opens DEEP RED. I think a mash-up is in order.

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