Monday, December 7, 2009

Santa Claus

Since the holidays are fast approaching, it's time to celebrate the secular emblem of the season, jolly old Saint Nick. And since we're in Weird Movie Village, we just have to talk about him in context with the 1959 Mexican fantasy film "Santa Claus." Millions of American kids were treated to this seasonal delight courtesy of K. Gordon Murray, a Florida-based exploitationeer and huckster who bought children's (and horror) films made south of the border, dubbed them into English, and four-walled them at kiddie matinees, a genre he was responsible for inventing.

Murray would book his films into theaters on weekends, publicize the hell out of them beforehand, and watch the profits roll in. He knew that parents would be thrilled to get rid of their responsibilities for a few hours on the weekend, and sure enough, they dropped their tots off in droves to have their minds warped by these epics whose inherent strangeness was enhanced by the English dubbing.

Murray (known as "Kagey" to his friends) even served as the narrator for "Santa Claus." He released the English version for the first time in 1960 and continued to re-release it every few years throughout the seventies. It made tons of money and even became a seasonal staple on television. I can only imagine the college students and other enlightened individuals, armed with the necessary quantities of mind-altering substances, sitting down to enjoy the annual broadcast.

In 1959 Mexico, Santa wasn't a big deal. They were still celebrating the holiday traditionally, with piñatas and posadas and, of course, lots of religion. So this film in a way was introducing Saint Nick to the kids of Mexico. And what a warped debut it is!

The picture opens on Christmas Eve in Santa's magical castle in the sky. He is overseeing the final preparations for his flight. The toys are all ready, having been built by child laborers he seems to have kidnapped from all over the world. There's still time for him to sit down at the organ, though, and accompany each stereotyped ethnic group as they sing their native holiday songs.

Later, with the help of his young assistant Pedro, who looks like a creepy doll come to life and keeps lapsing into Spanish even on the dubbed soundtrack, he gets ready to launch his sleigh. The reindeer are all mechanical, and when Pedro winds them up with huge keys jammed into their sides, they begin to laugh maniacally. I'm sure many a toddler stored that image alongside the sugarplums dancing in his head.

But there's trouble afoot. Satan (not Santa) is sending his minion, Pitch, up to Earth to ruin Santa's night by luring children into corruption and screwing up Santa's toy delivery schedule. The actor playing Pitch wears a form-fitting red bodysuit, greasy red facepaint and various prosthetics to give him just the right demonic demeanor. Three little boys are easy to convert—soon he has them running through town smashing store windows and writing phony letters to Santa about how good they've been! They also plan to kidnap Santa and steal all the toys. Another intended victim is little Lupita, whose family is too poor to buy her a doll. Pitch tries to convince her to steal one from the marketplace instead. There's also a little rich boy whose parents ignore him, but what the hell—he's rich.

Santa takes the "he sees you when your sleeping" line a bit too far with his heavily-equipped communications room. He uses a bizarre telescope—a huge human eye mounted on an extendable rod—to watch the children on earth. There's also a huge pair of Mick Jagger lips mounted on the wall that tell him what the kids are saying. Even more disturbing, he has a "Dreamscope" that can see into their minds.

Noting Pitch's interference, he becomes irate and is determined to stop the devil in his tracks. What follows is a bizarre series of episodes of one-upsmanship, with occasional visits to the kids. Even Merlin the Magician pops in for a visit to give Santa dreaming powders (eh?) and a flower that enables him to disappear at will, since children aren't supposed to see him. I guess jaded adults would just think he's a fat guy in a red suit who got lost after the company Christmas party, so I guess it doesn't really matter. Although he does visit the wealthy couple at a luxe restaurant and serves them the Cocktail of Remembrance, which makes them long to be reunited with their child. I wonder how you make that?

Speaking of class differences, when Santa goes to the rich boy's house, he brings him a buttload of presents and even reveals himself to the kid (I said reveals, not exposes). Meanwhile, Lupita, who has struggled to maintain a virtuous life, doesn't get squat.

"Santa Claus" is readily available on video, but Shout Factory just released a Christmas gift for everyone—the "Mystery Science Theatre" version on DVD, and it's hysterical. Here's a nice long clip from the show with the singing slaves, Pitch and his intended victims:

Either way, MST'd or not, this is one weird flick. Make sure to catch it this holiday season. I gotta warn you, though: if you're one of the "kiddie matinee" orphans, viewing it may bring long-suppressed memories bubbling to the surface and cause some trauma.

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