It is frequently hailed as one of the weirdest Christmas movies ever made. It was lampooned in the mid ’90s on a memorable episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. And its spirit — Yuletide or otherwise — simply refuses to lay down and die. It’s Santa Claus, a truly bizarre Mexican fantasy film from 1959, directed by the venerable filmmaker René Cardona, who brought many projects to life over his long and illustrious career — including all kinds of dramas, comedies, Luchador films, horror flicks, exploitation titles, and this. But what is this? Well, it’s not an easy one to describe, kids, so here goes…
Santa Claus lives in a crystal palace up far out in the heavens, where he keeps tabs on the children of the world via his Cosmic Telescope and Master Eye (a creepy tentacled ocular organ) and listens to them with his magical ear (a giant disembodied lobe attached to an oscillating fan) and Tele-Talker (the most disturbing contraption to employ a hideous giant mouth ever). He’s also heavily into Jesus, apparently, as he is seen setting up a nativity scene in the opening portion of the film. A good thing he’s religious, too — because Lucifer is sending his minion, Pitch, to thwart Santa’s plans to deliver good cheer and peace to all the children of the world, thus giving the devil(s) the opportunity to take over.
Everybody with me so far? Oh, and did I mention this is a family film? Yes, this weird mashing of Christian, Catholic, and commercial holidays was conceived and released in Mexico — a land that was relatively unfamiliar with the concept of Santa Claus in general at the time — for the kids and their parents. In the United States, the one and only K. Gordon Murray released the Mexi-curio as a limited holiday engagement, playing it strictly for weekend matinee audiences; a marketing gimmick that not only paved the way for a wave of similar theatrical bookings throughout the ’60s, but also resulted in Mr. Murray striking pay dirt, allotting him the opportunity to regularly re-release the feature to packed movie houses over the next three decades.
OK, so back to the tale. It’s nearing Christmas, and Santa (played here by José Elías Moreno, who worked with Cardona more than a dozen times, including the gory horror oddity, Night of the Bloody Apes in 1969) is preparing for his annual gift delivering trip ’round the globe. To do so, he has an entire sweatshop full of stereotypical children hailing from all the nations of the world (the African kids wear animal skins and have bones in their hair!) who sing and make gifts as the jolly old elf plays the organ. But this year, the mischievous sprite Pitch (José Luis Aguirre aka Trotsky) — donned in red spandex, furry slippers and shorts, pointed ears and horns — is assigned by his master Satan to disrupt the cheer.
Alas, Pitch isn’t much at fulfilling the unenviable task of turning all of the planet’s children against Kris Kringle: he only manages to persuade three little boys to listen to him (in Mexico). He also tries to convert little Lupita (also in Mexico) to the dark side (via nightmares of giant dancing dollies!), but her strong sense of morals — despite being from a dirt-poor household — prevent her from giving in to the red-skinned imp’s charms (plus, the movie’s narrator manages to butt in and dissuade her). What Pitch does manage to do, however, is trap Santa up in a tree during the film’s anticlimactic climax — to wit St. Nick has to call upon his lifelong pal in the palace above, Merlin the Magician (!), to assist. There’s also a mean-looking blacksmith (Italian-born Ángel Di Stefani) at Santa’s beck and call, as well as a pint-sized youngster named Pedro (Cesáreo “Pulgarcito” Quezadas).
Chockfull of outlandish and completely surreal moments, Santa Claus is one of those movies that simply defies explanation. Comical moments of Santa and Satan’s little helper carrying on a passive-aggressive battle of wits are sure to drop jaws, as will the movie’s strange sense of theology. The movie has been released to home video over the years by various (mostly grey market) distributors, but has never been viewed in its original theatrical aspect ratio on the small screen until now. VCI has marketed their new Blu-ray and DVD issues of the holiday class-ick as being transferred from the original negative and in both its original English and Spanish incarnations, but one look at the presentation here, and you’ll probably call “No way.”
The film looks pretty damn sweet at first, boasting solid colors and very little signs of debris. As the film progresses, however, the Digital Noise Reduction Alert bulb starts to flash, and the movie starts to look pretty murky. Worse still, it appears that this HD transfer was culled from a fairly faded 35mm print (and not a negative after all), as all of the colors appear to have been “upped,” making everyone look as if they’re wearing lipstick (or just ate a shitload of pistachios). But that isn’t the only issue with this issue: the artwork advertises the film as being in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio (it’s more like 1.85:1), and two different cuts of the film — an English-language print at 85min and the Spanish language cut at 94min — though there’s only a 94-minute cut with English or Spanish audio options (though you have to switch over to Spanish via the Main and Pop-up Menus in order to do that).
Further goofs noticeable include a color bar that appeared near the 50:00 mark, and the inclusion of a 5.1 remix that was completely unnecessary and offers nothing to the presentation of this flick. In other words, stick with the original mono soundtrack. There are optional English subtitles present, and they can be switched on for either language track(s), though they only caption the English-language release. But, enough about the negative aspects about this release: Santa Claus has a bunch of nicely-wrapped presents going for it, starting out with an audio commentary with K. Gordon Murray historian Daniel Griffith of Ballyhoo Films. Griffith — who is also working on a feature-length documentary on the showman — has a lot of information to relay here, and anyone fascinated by the career of the late Mr. Murray will want to get this release for Griffith’s insights alone.
Additional goodies here include the featurette “Santa Claus Conquers the Devil,” which was previously released on Shout! Factory’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 XVI set from 2010; a theatrical trailer, radio and TV spot (the latter of which are narrated by K. Gordon Murray); and several “deleted” scenes. The first of the excised moments is an extended segment from Hell (literally) that Murray edited down severely, as he figured the sight of damned souls marching through the fiery caverns of Hades would be a little creepy even for this film. The last two trimmed bits are actually from Murray’s release, and were filmed by Cardona and staff for English-speaking audiences.
We also get several shorts, including the unrelated It’s a Howdy Doody Christmas from the genii at Castle Films, and three brain-melting shorts from ’64 and ’66 that K. Gordon Murray shot for the kiddie matinee audiences: Santa and His Helpers, Santa’s Enchanted Village, and Santa’s Magic Kingdom. The trio of terrors (which you have to see this to believe, kids, as they make Santa Claus seem normal by comparison) feature Murray’s mascots, Stinky the Skunk and the Ferocious Wolf, which were “Americanized” versions of famous critters seen in other Murray imports, such as Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters. The first short was constructed around footage from Santa Claus itself, while all three (which are shown out of order, though it doesn’t matter) were filmed at Santa’s Village (known today as Santa’s Village AZoosment Park) in Illinois.
The box art promised “Bonus K. Gordon Murray Trailers,” and there’s a “More Extras” option at the bottom of the Special Features page which I presume would lead to said collection of previews, but the link doesn’t work (frown). Yes, it would appear that VCI Home Entertainment sort of dropped the ball a bit on this one, but I’ll give them mad props for releasing this underground phenomenon in a special edition form and in High-Def to boot — I just wish they would have kept the DNR down more than anything (and double-checked their master before issuing these discs). I can safely say that I won’t be giving up my old DVD copy of the film anytime soon, but I shan’t be getting rid of this release either — as its selection of bonus materials (if incomplete) is a grand one, even if the A/V aspects of this release definitely fall under the “hit-and-miss” category (perhaps there will be an “improved” release sometime down the line?).
But hey, ’tis the season, right. It’s also the thought that counts, and VCI should win an award on those grounds alone.