Santa Claus (1959)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Don't Open Till Christmas

Christmas Evil

Santa Claus

Lava Lamp

Our rating: one LAVA® motion lamps.

"And this is where we pick
the Lotto numbers."
Santa Claus is a figure revered around the world with nearly as many different incarnations are there are countries that celebrate Christmas. In the U.S. and Canada he is the familiar bearded fat guy in a red suit with white trim who brings presents at Christmas to the children who have behaved during the rest of the year. In the strange nation known as England, Father Christmas (a slimmed-down version of S. Claus) performs a similar task. Italian urchins are visited on the Epiphany by La Befana, a benevolent witch dressed in black. Pere Noel takes care of the French children, while the Christkindl (either the Christ-child or an angel, depending on which version you hear) takes care of the chores in Switzerland. In Mexico, however, the people revere Santa Claus as a boisterous (if somewhat empty-headed) agent of God who fights evil with the help of Merlin the magician, an arsenal of highly advanced technological gadgets, and an army of wide-eyed child slaves from around the world.

No, really. We saw it in a movie. Movies would never lie to us. Would they?

Someone will be going to
Hell for this one.
The Mexican movie Santa Claus (1959) attempts to update Kris Cringle to the age of Sputnik and the global community with predictably surreal and disturbing results. We are first introduced to Santa’s workshop as the jolly old elf inspects some of the children from around the world who “help out.” All the children are segregated by country (or region, if they aren't from an "important" country), and we couldn't help but notice that Santa skimped a little in recruitment. The kids from Japan and China are the same three kids in different outfits, and the kids from “Africa” wear loincloths and have bones in their hair, suggesting that Santa has confused old Bugs Bunny cartoons with serious cultural anthropology. Later in the movie one of these children expresses wonder at “Earth customs,” which suggests that perhaps Santa has a warehouse full of cloning vats where he creates little podlings who only think they are from various countries.

Santa Claus movies are usually limited by the fact that there are only so many plots to be derived from the Santa narrative. Santa does one thing, one day of the year. You can have him meet some sort of trouble that may prevent him from making his annual trip, or you can chronicle what happens on that trip. Revisionist stories deal with what Santa does during the rest of the year. Santa Claus plays it safe, going for Plot B.

"You got me a new chest merkin?
Thanks, Santa!"
We see a lot of Santa's preparations, even beyond the simple review of his multiple child welfare violations. Santa Claus visits his own version of Q, Merlin the Magician. Okay, who saw that one coming? Merlin provides Santa with magic items that allow Santa to do his job: a flower that makes him invisible when he sniffs it, a key that opens all locks (when a chimney is unavailable, presumably), and some magic dust that lulls its victims to sleep. In short, just the sort of things you'd want if you were about to go on a worldwide crime spree. Does Interpol have a file on this guy?

Santa also has a blacksmith who may be based on Hephaestus, and Saint Nick keeps an eye on Earth (his house floats on a sort of cloud city in space) with a probing eye-stalk telescope. Completing Santa's Big Brotherish tally of nice and naughty children is the age-old tradition of tattling on yourself: Santa reads pleading letters from children, which he sorts into one of three slots: Telling the Truth about Good Behavior, Lying about Good Behavior, and Wants a Baby Sibling. (The letters in this slot are forwarded to "The Stork.") So -- you say Mexico is a Catholic country?

On Tuesday Satan will be
appearing in The Producers.
Once Santa has established his influence over Mexico's fertility rate, he's off. What force will try to thwart the spread of Christmas joy this time? No lesser an evil than Satan himself! Satan (a disembodied voice on a theatrical set of Hell) sends his most fabulous devil, Pitch, to Earth with the mission of raising . . . well, let's just say Heck. All Pitch does is induce three naughty boys to create the sort of mischief they probably would have created anyway. Heck, the animatronic storefront Santa the urchins attack is so unspeakably creepy that we felt like hurling rocks at it ourselves. Pitch also plays a few pranks on Santa; the old "heated doorknob gag" shows up, along with a dog who chases Santa up a tree. That's not really raising Hell, is it?

The night Lupita discovered peyote.
If you're really looking for some Yuletide derangement, however, look no further than the scenes featuring little Lupita. This sweet-faced young lady wants nothing more than a dolly for Christmas but her family's poverty keeps her from realizing this modest goal. This is pathetic for two reasons. First, Lupita's family isn't that poor. She appears to be fairly well fed and groomed, and her family home is a sparse but comfortable one-room apartment with a courtyard. Sure, Dad comes home looking gloomy every night because he can't find work, but how hard would it be for Mom to stuff the contents of an old pillow into a doll body made from some old cheesecloth and paint a face on it? That old baby dress of Lupita's would make a dandy dolly dress, right? Lupita would like be delighted with such a present because of the second reason: Lupita just isn't that bright. You could give this kid a painted gourd in a burlap sack and she'd be delighted. Instead Lupita must pass through a gauntlet of temptation, resisting the siren song of the marketplace, where an extra dolly would hardly be missed among the hundreds of other unattended toys. Even worse, the poor girl is subjected to a musical number in which life-sized dollies torment the virtuous waif -- if you don't steal a doll, the giant figures tell her, "then you'll never have a dolly!" Call it the innocence of childhood if you like, but it's kind of ridiculous that Santa's victory over evil rests on Lupita's desire for a two-peso moppet.

Since when were Santa's reindeer
Creepy and Kooky?
Throughout this review, we have worked hard not to overuse the word "creepy," but it's a difficult assignment. Much of the film is downright shuddersome. Pitch himself is hardly the worst of it -- some guy in red tights trying to impel children to commit petty vandalism isn't exactly the stuff of which nightmares are made. Rather it's the Santa Claus parts that are scary, and scary beyond the normally sinister aspects of the jolly old elf. (You know, the part where a beastly disguised older man asks you to sit on his lap.) No, in this movie Santa's whole workshop is a crazy quilt of bizarre ideas dredged up from the (possibly mescaline-induced) fantasies of the film's production designer. How do you explain the telescope with a blinking eye at the end? Or the creepy laugh Santa's mechanical reindeer emit when they start up? Or the ultimate terror that is Lupita's dream, in which adults dressed up like dolls mince around her in a barely synchronized dance number while the on-set smoke machine escapes the control of the stage crew? We couldn't help but think this funeral approach to the happiest of holidays was absorbed by a young Tim Burton, who featured some very similar imagery in his production of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

Through the technological (and economic) magic of DVD, Santa Claus has started to pop up in dollar-deal bins around the U.S. and, for all we know, the world. Unsuspecting parents could well subject a new generation of innocents to this cinematic horror We're not the types to warn parents about every possibly objectionable aspect of a flick supposedly for children, but we feel duty-bound to sound the alarm about this picture. Not knowing about Santa Claus could do far worse damage than spoiling a movie -- it could spoil your Christmas. Forever.

Own it!

Review date: 01/01/2005

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