Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Holidaze Review: Santa Claus (1959)

Santa versus…Satan?

Yes, the Jolly Ol’ Elf takes on the Devil himself in this intensely surreal Christmas “treat” from writer/director Rene Cardona, better know for directing Mexican horror films like Night of the Bloody Apes and films featuring Lucha Libre legends El Santo and Blue Demon.

In Santa Claus, St. Nick doesn’t live at the North Pole, but in a palace in the clouds, where it’s got all sorts of high-tech gadgets—including a telescope with an actual eyeball and a satellite dish with an ear—to peek in on kids to see if they’ve been naughty or nice. (The NSA has nothing on Santa.)

Speaking of kids, Santa has a whole bunch of them in his palace (or maybe outside the palace, since it’s snowing on them constantly). The children come from all over the world in conveniently stereotypical costumes: The Mexican kids wear sombreros, the Americans are dressed as cowboys, the African tykes have bones through their noses, etc. It’s not clear why all these children are here, or where Santa got them. (Did he kidnap them? Is Santa running a sweatshop?) They all sing songs in their native tongues. Most of them look pretty unhappy to be there.

Meanwhile, in the fiery pits (yes, this movie literally goes straight to Hell), Pitch is engaged in an energetic dance number with other devils when Lucifer gives him his marching orders: Go to Earth and convince some kids to be naughty for Christmas.

Pitch has no problems talking a trio of little boys into throwing rocks at a department store window (we know these kids are bad news because, even at 10 years old, they’re already wearing leather jackets).

It’s tougher, though, to make little Lupita steal a doll she really wants (maybe she hears the narrator screaming at her to stop) even when he makes her dream about it in a really weird sequence of life-sized dolls dancing around Lupita, telling her that good girls never get dolls.

There’s also a little boy who has plenty of presents under the tree from his wealthy parents, but all he really wants for Christmas is the parents themselves. (In yet another creepy dream sequence, we see the little boy open up huge gifts containing his mom and dad.)

Back in La Casa del Santa, Kris Kringle is working with his assistant, Merlin the Wizard (yes, that Merlin), on ways to stop Pitch and save Christmas.

Nothing I’ve written above can properly convey the sheer weirdness of Santa Claus. From the descent into Hell to the dream sequences to the abundant glee with which Santa plays his organ (while the children left out in the snow sing and sing) to the windup mechanical reindeer, the whole thing has the uncomfortable feel of adults trying to imagine what kids would like to see in a Christmas movie, but instead projecting all their adult insecurities onto the screen.

Imagine being a kid at a matinee in the early 1960s, dropped of by Mom/Dad to dip into this cauldron of fever dreams? Were these kids scarred for life? Could they ever sit in Santa’s lap again without expecting an eyeball telescope to be watching their every move? How many years of therapy did it take to shake this movie off?

Or is it possible to unsee Santa Claus, once it’s been seen? It’s likely only Merlin knows—and he ain’t telling.

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