Now that Christmas is over, I think it’s safe to talk about director Rene Cardona’s 1959 Mexican film “Santa Claus.” No, it’s not a Christmas slasher film or a Christmas horror film. It is ostensibly a straightforward children’s film; but it has to be the weirdest, wildest, most unsettling children’s film in the history of children’s films. OK, maybe it IS a Christmas horror film. What do I know.
“Santa Claus” is jaw-droppingly awful. Is it one of those “so bad it’s good” films? I dunno. It struck me as so grotesque, I didn’t quite know what to make of it. And the fact that VCI Entertainment have reproduced it in a widescreen, high-definition Blu-ray transfer only makes it seem all the more freakish. Well, this film is what we have come to love from VCI: Not one of their highbrow English dramas but an all-out appalling film that has “CULT” written all over it. I had never seen or even heard of “Santa Claus” before seeing it on BD, but I couldn’t help feeling as I watched it that it must have a strong cult following somewhere simply because it’s so…strange.
Director Rene Cardona is the fellow who gave the world “Night of the Bloody Apes,” “Carta Marcadas,” “Noche de muerte,” and “Santo and the Vengeance of the Mummy,” to give you an idea of the kind of things he made. The film’s distributor was K. Gordon Murray, who also narrates the English-language version of the movie. Murray was a producer, writer, and distributor who gave us low-budget horror films, exploitation films, and children’s films, things like “Bring Me the Vampire,” “Shanty Tramp,” and “Santa’s Fantasy Fair.” Between Cardona and Murray, how could they fail?
In this version of the Santa tale, Santa (Jose Elias Moreno), doesn’t live at the North Pole but in space, hovering around Earth in a tiny planetoid of some kind. There, he not only keeps an eye on children who’ve been naughty or nice, he plays Christmas songs on his pipe organ when he isn’t worshiping at the feet of religious statues.
Santa’s helpers are not elves but children from all over the world; apparently, there are no child-labor laws in space. We can tell the African kids because of the bones in their hair, the American kids because of their cowboy hats, and the other kids because of their similar stereotypes. Each group of children gets to sing their own song, and while the film is only ninety-five minutes long, I would swear this musical sequence went on for ninety-six minutes.
Suddenly, from out of nowhere, the devil appears, complete with fire and brimstone. He and his minions then do a sort of infernal dance in hell. The devil’s job is to make all the children of the world do evil, and only Santa can stop him. It seems the devil reports to Lucifer, who will condemn the devil to eating chocolate ice cream if he doesn’t obey. (We recognize the devil throughout the film because he’s the one wearing the red long johns.)
As an aside, it appears that rich little boys and girls are good (though sometimes lonely) and therefore hard to tempt into doing evil, while poor little boys and girls are easiest to tempt. But you knew that.
Santa has fitted out his workshop in the sky with all the latest contraptions for keeping watch on naughty or nice children. Santa’s main gadget is the “Magic Eye,” a telescope with a literal eye that protrudes from it for spying on kids when they least expect it. It’s a creepy affair, actually, making Santa a kind of interstellar Peeping Tom. He’s also got a “DreamScope” for eavesdropping on children’s dreams, another of the jolly old fellow’s voyeuristic traits.
A dance sequence with a little girl and a bevy of live, human-sized rag dolls is downright scary, even for this adult; a key that will open any door on Earth is something of an unpleasant thought; Santa’s paper-mache reindeer will have you shaking your head; and a senile old Merlin, who comes complete with pointed cap, further highlights the film’s peculiar nature.
“Santa Claus” features some of the worst acting you’ll encounter in any motion picture, some of the worst singing, and some of the worst dancing. Its plot meanders all over the place, with little rhyme or reason. And Santa ends up in a tree.
Fans would have it no other way.
VCI digitally restored the film and present it in its original aspect ratio, 1.85:1 (1.78:1 actually). At least that’s what commentator Daniel Griffith says. The opening titles call the filming process “MexiScope,” and the keep case mistakenly says it’s 2.35:1, but I guess the distributor, K. Gordon Murray, cropped or matted it to 2.35:1 from 1.85:1 for its limited theatrical release. Or not. I’m only reporting here. VCI also use a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 codec in producing the transfer, which looks decent enough given the movie’s age and the probable condition of the print.
The film’s colors range from excellent–bright, vivid, and rich–to somewhat pale and faded. Black levels are solid, however, and whites are often glistening. Definition is only so-so, sometimes well etched, sometimes fairly bland for an HD release, with evidence of DNR filtering throughout. The print shows some signs of wear, with occasional flecks and lines, but, as I say, it looks OK for its fifty-odd years.
One minor glitch, though: At about the fifty-minute mark, a color bar pops onto the screen for a single frame. It’s an odd little annoyance, and VCI now tell me they will replace the disc for a newly remastered one if you contact them.
For sound we get both Dolby Digital monaural and an enhanced Dolby Digital 5.1. I started with the 5.1 but found it too loud, too soft, and too cavernous, engulfed with reverberation and with little or no meaningful surround. So I switched to the mono track, which is clearer and more focused. Although you won’t find much in the way of dynamic range, impact, or frequency extension, it does render dialogue cleanly.
VCI provide a ton of extras for the disc, starting with making available both the Spanish and English-language versions of the movie. The keep case states that the English version is eighty-five minutes and the Mexican version ninety-five minutes, but, in fact, they are both about ninety-five minutes long. Next up is an audio commentary by Daniel Griffith, a K. Gordon Murray historian and the founder of Ballyhoo Motion Pictures. He describes the movie as “surreal,” an understatement if ever there was one. After that is a making-of featurette, “Santa Conquers the Devil,” about fourteen minutes about the main feature. Then, there’s an eight-minute, black-and-white, Castle Films short subject, “A Howdy Doody Christmas,” starring Buffalo Bob, Clarabell the Clown, and everybody’s favorite marionette, Howdy Doody. Continuing, we get a four-minute animated stills gallery; a series of K. Gordon Murray-produced short subjects, including “Santa and His Helpers,” “Santa’s Enchanted Village,” and “Santa’s Magic Kingdom; and twelve minutes of extended scenes.
The extras wrap up with twelve scene selections; an original theatrical trailer; a trailer for Murray’s films; various TV and radio spots; English and Spanish spoken languages; and English subtitles.
I suppose everybody should see Rene Cardona’s “Santa Claus” at least once in their life, just to say they did it. It’s like a ritual passage into adulthood or maybe a sobriety test, something to ensure you’ve still got your senses and wits about you. Just don’t leave your jaw on the floor.