When the conversation rolls around to bad Christmas movies, there’s of course a broad spectrum from which to choose, Santa Claus (1959) being one of them. Given that nearly every Christmas movie ever made is insufferable to some degree, it’s generally easier, I’ve found, to break things down into categories that stretch from the simply godawful (Jingle All the Way) to the agonizingly painful (A Very Brady Christmas or that Marlo Thomas remake of It’s a Wonderful Life) to the merely baffling (the continued string of Home Alone sequels and reboots).
Of course there are some people who think they can bring the conversation to an abrupt end by pulling out Santa Claus Conquers the Martians as the last word on holiday cinema. There’s simply nothing more to say.
Oh, but that’s far too simple. There’s another level out there. Something that reaches far beyond banal categorizations like “good” and “bad” and even “weird,” deep into the almost unfathomable territory of “brain damaging” and “utterly terrifying” and a number of adjectives that have yet to be discovered. Films that cannot and should not be called “bad” no matter how easy it would make thinking for the smug hipsters in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crowd. These are films that come from another plane, another universe, another way of thinking, and for that they remain fascinating and cannot be so easily dismissed.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, K. Gordon Murray was an American film producer and distributor who made a decent living for himself by picking up the rights to foreign genre pictures (mostly from Mexico), dubbing them into English and renting them to U.S. theaters. English-speaking audiences can thank Murray for The Brainiac and Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy.
In 1956 he bought the rights to a children’s holiday picture directed by René Cardona, a man better known for horror and exploitation pictures like Survive! and Night of the Bloody Apes. Instead of widespread distribution, Murray limited the film to short (two or three day) runs around the holidays, when the film would only be shown as a children’s matinee. In retrospect I have to wonder if he limited viewings that way because he knew what kind of effect the film would have on people.
Santa Claus sounds about as innocuous as they come. Who would even pay attention to a title like that? It’s only when you note the shrill, almost frantic tone of some of the taglines attached to the film that you begin to get some sense that there’s something else going on here; that this isn’t another Rankin/Bass production:
Bursting upon our BIG SCREEN in all the colors of the rainbow… a prize-winning blue ribbon treat for old and young alike! Here’s something for the whole family to see together!
Another tagline makes it sound even more ominous:
See All the Weird and Wonderful Characters of Make-Believe! The Fantastic Crystal Work-Room of the Happy Elves! The Fabulous Realm of the Candy-Stick Palaces!
Those families who weren’t scared away by those dire warnings were never the same again.
In Cardona’s vision, Santa (José Elías Moreno) lives in a cloud kingdom in space, positioned in a stationary orbit above the North Pole. Instead of elves, Santa has collected groups of children from all corners of the world—North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa. It’s unclear who these children belong to or if they’re in space willingly, but they open the film with a long recital of traditional songs from each nation.
Ten minutes later we cut to Hell. Although this happens in most Christmas movies, few do it so literally. There amid the flames, Satan informs a minor and bumbling demon named Pitch (José Luis Aguirre ‘Trotsky’) that he is to turn all of the children on Earth evil in order to anger “that old goat Santa Claus” and show the people of the world “who their true master is.”
We are then introduced to three storylines: a lonely rich boy whose parents neglect him; a poor girl whose single mother can barely support them both; and three young thugs. Behind each story, we hear Santa’s echoed laughter. Santa laughs through the entire film, often at scenes of misery and despair. It’s unclear why.
Finally and centrally, we see the core of Santa’s orbiting kingdom; an observatory equipped with a collection of surveillance devices that would put the NSA to shame. As the narrator (Murray himself) describes it:
This is Santa’s Magic Observatory. What wonderful instruments! The Ear Scope! The Teletalker, that knows everything! The Cosmic Telescope! The Master Eye! Nothing that happens on Earth is unknown to Santa Claus!
He’s not kidding, either. Santa can see anyone he chooses merely by thinking of them, listen to what they’re saying, even watch their dreams and these are powers he abuses freely.
There is no reason to attempt to describe the plot any further. It’s not an issue. Visually, however, the film is a thing of deranged wonder, reminiscent of Japanese films that would be made ten or fifteen years later. It’s a world of remarkable and sometimes frightening imagination. The telescope features a large, roving eyeball instead of a lens. Santa’s sleigh is actually a giant wind-up toy, the living reindeer replaced with carousel reindeer made of white plastic. The color palate throughout the film (if you can find a decent print) is intense. And the film’s multiple dream sequences are, well, pretty jaw-dropping.
It’s also a remarkably subversive film, which intertwines both with the visuals as well as the director’s background, may be no surprise at all. Along with the kidnapped children he’s using as slave labor, the cannon he fires at the demon’s ass and Santa’s often inappropriate laughter, which snakes throughout much of the soundtrack, there’s Merlin, another of Santa’s employees. Merlin runs a drug lab, and on Christmas Eve has just developed a “magic powder” that will “give people a sound sleep and fill them with wonderful thoughts and good intentions.”
Santa is perfectly willing to deliver babies to children who request little brothers or sisters and one good little boy is set to receive “an atomic lab and a machine gun.” And then of course there’s the role of the demons here, in a world in which Santa and his toys have replaced Christianity.
Santa Claus is a film that’s often mocked by fools for its cheap sets and bad acting, without pausing to think about what’s really going on here; the kind of twisted, alien imagination at work or the ideas that Cardona is sneaking in under their smug noses. Santa Claus is a deeply strange and disturbing work, a visionary work on a miniscule budget and one that says more about the holidays than we may care to think about.