The Beguiling Strangeness of 1959’s ‘Santa Claus’

Since the holidays are fast approaching, it’s time to celebrate with the secular emblem of the season — jolly old Saint Nick. And since we’re in the Cult Corner, we just have to talk about him in context with the bizarre 1959 Mexican fantasy film Santa Claus.

Throughout the sixties and seventies, millions of American kids were treated to this surreal seasonal delight, courtesy of K. Gordon Murray, a Florida-based exploitationist and huckster who bought films that were made south of the border for peanuts, dubbed them into English, and presented them at theatrical “kiddie matinees,” a genre he was responsible for inventing.

Ironically, Murray ended up serving a noble purpose, as Anglo audiences would never have been able to experience such classics as The Brainiac, Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy and Bring Me the Vampire without his efforts.

Using the huckster’s time-honored distribution technique known as four-walling, Murray would book his films into small-market theaters on weekends, publicize the hell out of them beforehand, and watch the profits roll in. He knew that parents would be thrilled to get rid of their responsibilities for a few hours, and sure enough, they dropped their tots off in droves to have their minds warped by his epics whose inherent strangeness was only enhanced by the English-language dubbing.

Murray (known as “Kagey” to his friends) even served as the narrator for Santa Claus. He brought it to American kids for the first time in 1960 and continued to re-release it every few years throughout the seventies.

It made tons of money and even became a seasonal staple on television. I can only imagine the college students and other enlightened individuals, armed with the necessary quantities of mind-altering substances, sitting down to enjoy the annual broadcast.

In 1959 Mexico, Santa wasn’t a big deal. They were still celebrating the holiday traditionally, with piñatas and posadas and, of course, lots of religion. So this film in a way was introducing the secular Saint Nick to the kids south of the border. And what a warped debut it is!

The picture opens on Christmas Eve in Santa’s magical castle in the sky. He is overseeing the final preparations for his flight. The toys are all ready, having been built by child laborers he seems to have kidnapped from all over the world. There’s still time for him to sit down at the organ, though, and accompany each stereotyped ethnic group as they sing their native holiday songs.

Later, with the help of his young assistant, Pedro (who looks like a creepy Chucky doll and keeps lapsing into Spanish even on the dubbed soundtrack), he gets ready to launch his sleigh. The reindeer are all mechanical, and when Pedro winds them up with huge keys jammed into their sides, they begin to laugh maniacally. I’m sure many a toddler stored that nightmarish image alongside the sugarplums dancing in their heads.

Evidently Santa’s lair doubles as an adult bookstore.

But there’s trouble afoot. Satan (not Santa) is sending his minion, Pitch, up to Earth to ruin Santa’s night by luring children into corruption and screwing up the toy delivery schedule. The actor playing Pitch wears a form-fitting red bodysuit, greasy red facepaint and various prosthetics to give him just the right demonic demeanor.

Three little boys are easy to convert — soon he has them running through town smashing store windows and writing phony letters to Santa about how good they’ve been! They also plan to kidnap Santa and steal all his toys. Another intended victim is little Lupita, whose family is too poor to buy her a doll. Pitch tries to convince her to steal one from the marketplace instead. There’s also a little rich boy whose parents ignore him, but what the hell — he’s rich.

Santa takes the “he sees you when you’re sleeping” line a bit too far with his heavily-equipped communications room. He uses a bizarre telescope — a huge human eye mounted on an extendable rod — to watch the children on earth. There’s also a giant pair of Mick Jagger lips mounted on the wall that tell him what the kids are saying. Even more disturbing, he has a “Dreamscope” that can see into their minds.

The Mystery Science Theater gang gets festive.

Discovering Pitch’s interference, he becomes irate and is determined to stop the devil in his tracks. What follows is a bizarre series of episodes of Three Stooges-style one-upsmanship, with occasional visits to the kids. Even Merlin the Magician pops in for a visit to give Santa dreaming powders (eh?) and a flower that enables him to disappear at will, since children aren’t supposed to see him.

Adults can see him, though. I guess they just think he’s a fat guy in a red suit who got lost after the company Christmas party, so it doesn’t really matter. Although he does visit the wealthy couple at a luxe restaurant and serves them the Cocktail of Remembrance, which makes them long to be reunited with their child. So Santa is a mixologist in his spare time?

Speaking of class differences, when Santa goes to the rich boy’s house, he brings him a buttload of presents and even reveals himself to the kid. Meanwhile, Lupita, who has struggled to maintain a virtuous life, doesn’t get squat.

Santa Claus is readily available on various formats, but the best way to watch it is MSTy-fied.

Either way, MST’d or not, this is one weird mamma jamma. Make sure to catch it this holiday season. I gotta warn you, though: if you’re one of the “kiddie matinee” orphans, viewing it may bring long-suppressed memories bubbling to the surface and cause trauma. And have you actually seen The Brainiac? Don’t get me started…

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