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Case Number 23041: Small Claims Court

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Santa Claus (1959) (Blu-ray)

VCI Home Video // 1959 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // December 31st, 2011

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Tom Becker knows who has horns and a pointy tail—must be Satan!

The Charge

"If you do not succeed in making all the children of Earth do evil, you shall be punished!"—Initiation 101 for a devil's disciple

The Case

The Eraserhead of family holiday films has made it to Blu-ray.

Santa Claus is a Mexican-made, revisionist take on the legend of the jolly old elf who lives at the North Pole and brings a sleighload of gifts to good children on Christmas Eve. It was distributed in the U.S. by K. Gordon Murray, whose run of foreign-made, badly dubbed, cheap-o kiddie movies once made him a dubious household name.

As Santa's busiest—really, only—night draws near, there's trouble a'brewing. No, it's not Macy's or Mr. Potter, it's Satan…you know, Lucifer, Prince of Darkness, Mephistopheles—the Devil!

Since Santa represents all things good and encourages children to do the right thing lest be left giftless on Christmas, Satan decides to end the reign of dear St. Nick. To accomplish this, he sends one of his minions—a fey, if athletic, demon called Pitch—to Earth to screw up Santa's big night.

The battlefield: Mexico City. Team Satan: All the bad children Pitch can round up. Team Santa: Good children, including the poor but pure Lupita, and a variety of helpers.

Will Santa survive this onslaught from Hell, or will Christmas become a commercialized nightmare devoid of the spirit of giving?

Oh, wait…

Santa Claus isn't just a bad movie, it's a deeply bizarre one. With its images of the underworld—which includes "devils" in red body suits and pantaloons doing Jerome Robbins-style dance numbers—and creepy vision of Santa's home/office set up, it almost works as a Christmas horror fable.

"Almost," but not quite; in fact, Santa Claus doesn't really "work" on any level other than jaw-droppingly weird.

Unlike the legend we've come to know and accept, the Santa Claus of Santa Claus lives not at the North Pole, but in outer space, and is only allowed to come to Earth once a year. He's more like the Mothman than a jolly old elf.

Speaking of elves, Santa doesn't employ them in this telling. Instead, his helpers consist of unpaid child laborers from all over the world who spend their days making toys and their nights reinforcing stereotypes of their various lands of origin by singing and dancing in "traditional" ways. This means we're treated to an extended sequence of youngsters from Africa, China, Japan, England, Germany, and all sorts of other places doing mini-production numbers, like one of those mind-numbing "Christmas Around the World" school pageants that parents and teachers cringe at annually.

What about the reindeer? You know, Dasher, Dancer, Comet, that crew? Merely mechanical androids who turn to dust if Santa doesn't make it home by dawn on Christmas morning.

Speaking of dust, Santa has a variety of potions and tricks to keep his presence on Earth a secret. Working with the big S is Merlin—a magician (I don't know if he's Merlin the magician, but there are so many legends jumbled about here, why not?). Merlin invents a magic potion unsurpassed for sound sleeping. In real life, it was known as Seconal, but Santa uses a powdered version to blow in the faces of small children who stay up to get a look at him, rendering them immobile. Merlin also gives Santa a magic flower that makes him invisible so he can creep through houses undetected—I'm guessing it also helps keep Mrs. Claus in line.

According to the tagline on the packaging, "Santa sees you with his master eye." Does he ever! This Claus has more surveillance equipment than Harry Caul in The Conversation, including something that looks like a table fan with an ear attached (to listen to children converse among themselves, or the loony ones who talk to themselves), something that looks like a gooseneck lamp with an eye attached (the better to see you with, my dear), a pair of disembodied lips to keep him up-to-date on Earthly doings, and most distressing, a device that can see inside your dreams. I always knew he could see you when you were sleeping, I didn't realize he could actually see what you were doing when you were sleeping; I'd imagine the "naughty" factor spikes hard when that little fixture comes into play.

The major conflict, of course, is between Santa and Satan, or Satan's emissary, Pitch. Pitch—who, if he fails to deter Santa, will be doomed to eat ice cream for eternity (that Lucifer's a twisted one)—pulls out all the stops in his anti-Claus campaign. He convinces street urchins to throw a rock at a mechanical, store-window Santa, which somehow results in the real Santa getting hit in the head. He tries to get Lupita to steal a doll (all she wants is a dolly!), which results in the child having a Bunuel-esque dream of giant dolls with deformed faces dancing around her and bullying her to be bad (to no avail, I might add). Pitch tries to burn Santa alive; Santa retaliates by shooting him in the butt with a dart. Clearly, director René Cardona was making a trenchant statement about cold war politics in the era of Sputnik.

This film is such a bizarre stew, it's hard to really make heads or tails of it. The art direction seems more inspired by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari than Currier and Ives, though it does occasionally show flashes of whimsy. One of Santa's "secret weapons" is a "golden key" that will unlock any door; after passing through a number of doors on a test run, Santa exits through a door frame that looks like a key hole.

But how do you reconcile a film that has dancing devils and sodden mechanical reindeer that look like they should be menacing someone on The Twilight Zone as family holiday entertainment? Not to mention Santa's weird, spy-ware filled house of horrors? Pathos is doled out through the stories of the sorry Lupita and a rich boy whose parents leave him home alone on Christmas Eve and go partying (though Santa fixes them but good); orphans write Santa letters asking for their fathers while sad versions of Silent Night play in the background. But then we have the "comic" antics of Pitch-the-Devil and the bratty antics of the "bad" Mexican children, and Santa's uncomfortable interplay with the doddering Merlin.

Part of the problem is that the actor playing Santa just doesn't inspire an especially warm feeling. José Elias Moreno, was known for playing heavies in Mexican films. Clearly, he carries this over to his portrayal of the beloved Father Christmas. If instead of clowns, John Wayne Gacy dressed up like Santa Claus, it might have been something like what we get here. Some of the problems have to do with the dubbing; Santa's merry and comforting "Ho Ho Ho" comes off like a maniacal cackle (in the Spanish version, he doesn't laugh, but the subtitles list all the "Ho Ho Hos" anyway), mouth movement and word matches are hit or miss, and none of the voices sounds like it belongs to the actor speaking the words. Plus, the English-language version has a narrator who tells us what's happening on screen and occasionally talks directly to Santa (although Santa doesn't hear him or respond, ear-to-the-fan technology notwithstanding).

K. Gordon Murray was a producer and distributor who was responsible for bringing some of the creepiest children's films from around the world to U.S. shores. One-time matinee-goers of a certain age might remember being thrilled and horrified by the likes of Rumpelstiltskin, Puss N' Boots, and Little Red Riding Hood. He also released a number of low-level foreign action and horror movies. Hideous dubbing was a hallmark of these films, and Santa Claus—which was actually profitable, thanks to its built-in holiday appeal—is no exception.

Why Santa Claus is being released on Blu-ray is something of a mystery; certainly, VCI did little to Blu it up, offering an overall ragged-looking transfer, though the colors are pretty vivid. The disc offers Dolby audio tracks in 5.1 and Mono (English) and a Spanish mono track; the 5.1 is the way to go, as it sounds a bit richer than the monos.

Supplements are weirdly plentiful and surprisingly good:

A "Commentary by Daniel Griffith"—who's a K. Gordon Murray historian and has made a film about Murray—is entertaining, informative, and absolutely fascinating. A trailer for Griffith's film, The Wonder World of K. Gordon Murray, is included as an extra.

"A Howdy-Doody Christmas" offers up characters from the surprisingly creepy '50s-era puppet show in a tale about a kidnapped Santa Claus.

"Santa Claus Conquers the Devil" is the best kind of retrospective for a film like this: historians, as well as some writers from Mystery Science Theater 3000, talk about the genesis of the film and its creators and make some clever and witty observations about the weirdness of the film. Santa Claus would likely have just been a terrible memory for Baby Boomers had it not been "rediscovered" by the MST3k crew, and in fact, this featurette was created for the Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XVI release, which contained the film. This featurette is both funny and affectionate, a great combination.

"Short Films by K. Gordon Murray" are the three films that made up Murray's Santaland Trilogy. These films contained scenes from Santa Claus cut in with other footage, along with characters from other Murray-distributed films, and played with Murray releases at the holidays; they also promoted Santa-themed amusement parks. The films are Santa Claus and His Helpers, Santa's Enchanted Village, and Santa's Magic Kingdom.

We also get a trailer, raido and TV spots, and a photo gallery.

The disc itself runs a little oddly. When viewing a supplement, you can't click back to the menu screen using the remote; you have to wait for the featurette to finish or fast forward, and then, it doesn't go back to the Extras screen but to the Main Menu. The Extras screen has an option for More Extras, but the remote won't go there; plus, there are no more extras listed on the case as there are on the main Extras screen. The case promises the American version and the Mexican version as though they are two different cuts of the film, but you get the same film in either language. Because it's set up like two different versions, you can't use the remote to toggle between languages. Also, when the film ends, the disc doesn't return to the main menu, the screen simply goes blank and returns to your machine's entry mode.

It's a slightly wonky product for an extremely wonky film.

The Verdict

How to score this puppy? It's a terrible film, and the tech is nowhere the standards of Blu-ray, but the supplements—thanks mainly to Daniel Griffith—are a lot of fun.

I'm grading it low, but I'm also giving it a high recommendation. Bad movie lovers should have a great time with it.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 40

Perp Profile

Studio: VCI Home Video
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Spanish)
• English
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Bad
• Blu-ray
• Christmas
• Classic
• Family
• Fantasy

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary
• Featurettes
• Short Films
• Photo Gallery
• TV/Radio Spots
• Trailers

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