Rad Santa --to find him, look to Mexico. In 1959.
I am not here to disapprove of your favorite Santa, no matter how dysfunctional he may be. I like Billy Bob Thornton as much as the next red-blooded American hater. When he uses the F-word in front of children, my heart grows three sizes.
But if you think about it, the past few decades have given filmgoers a drunk-tank full of Santa Clauses, disproportionately weird in character. More often than not, they’re blanks (1985’s Santa Claus: The Movie, 2004’s The Polar Express) or just befuddled and out of it (2011’s Arthur Christmas, which admittedly, also featured a young, go-getter junior executive Santa with a big heart and tons of Christmas spirit – it’s complicated). They’re pissed off about too many things (A Christmas Story’s boot-to-the-face department store Santa, 2007’s Fred Claus) or they’re criminals or psycho killers (1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night). This year we were given one who comes off like an intimidating biker (the underperforming and strange but still entertaining Rise of the Guardians features a jovial Santa who looks like a tattooed, Sons of Anarchy-style bruiser--or, to quote an anonymous commenter on one review, “a dirtbag”).
What all that means is for a graduate student to figure out. Filmmakers and audiences are either more jaded than ever or else the current tendency toward ironic distance has made everyone suspicious of the real-world ramifications of a total stranger conducting surveillance on the moral failings of children and then sneaking into the house while they sleep. But explaining through that morass of complicated contemporary Christmas mythology is not my job today. My job is to bring you joy. The world is horrible and ironic enough as it is and you can only watch Miracle on 34th Street so many times. That’s why the answer to your Christmas movie prayers is nothing less than a full-tilt Power Santa. And he lives in a cheapo 1959 Mexican kiddie movie, graciously dubbed into English and titled, mission-statement-ready-enough, Santa Claus (pronounce it like “house” if you want to do it right).
First brought to the attention of a wider, English-speaking audience by Mystery Science Theater 3000, Santa Claus upends ideas about bad filmmaking by virtue of balls-to-the-wall commitment to its vision. And that vision is one of a full-fat Santa Claus, an omnipotent super-wizard whose only logical counterpart from the realm of other mythological beings is Merlin the Magician. So the movie trots out Merlin the Magician, of course. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Santa (Jose Elias Moreno) lives not on Earth but, godlike, in the clouds above it, in a castle with an arsenal of child-monitoring gadgets and actual children, volunteers from every racially stereotyped corner of the globe. These kids spend much of their time singing for Santa rather than making toys, but whatever, it’s a gig for them and they all seem happy. With his giant roving-eyeball spy equipment, Santa witnesses three naughty boys bent on making trouble, one sweet yet impoverished girl named Lupita (Lupita Quezadas) and one rich boy, Billy (Antonio Diaz Conde), whose Christmas malaise is spiritual, brought on by parents who don’t love him enough.
No, that’s not a typo or a spelling error. This film is full of demons. The Lord of Darkness, always looking for a way to destroy Santa’s mission of joy and generosity, tempts poor little Lupita with the notion to steal a doll she wants for Christmas (why Satan concerns himself with anyone’s happy holiday is a theological point left on the cutting-room floor). His minion, Pitch (Jose Luis Aguirre), is sent to Earth to wreak havoc and cause kids to misbehave. Santa enlists the help of Merlin (Armando Arriola) to battle for the soul of the tempted girl and multitasks with the fates of the others -- simultaneously correcting the behavior of the bad street urchins and addressing Billy’s need for loving, attentive parents.
It may seem unlikely or even inappropriate that a film about Santa Claus was directed by a guy like Rene Cardona, whose wildly erratic body of work included a lot of masked wrestler movies starring famed Mexican luchadoras like Santo and Blue Demon, the titles of which, Las Luchadoras vs. El Robot Asesino and Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy, are as much fun as the films themselves. But it turns out that Santa Claus benefits from this association with the lowbrow thrills of genre fight cinema. Santa, portrayed here, is bold, aggressive, take-charge and always knows the way to victory, kind of like a masked wrestler fighting robot assassins.
And in spite of its legacy as a “bad” film, it’s actually beyond categorization. You can laugh the first time (or maybe the 12th time, too) but watch it again. And again. Watch it annually. And you begin to realize that it’s pretty brilliant, joyfully weird and borderline psychedelic, like starter Jodorowsky for children.
The low-budget, flimsy set design and uncertain child performances never detract from the strangeness. Inadvertently or not, they only amplify the film’s already woozy reason for being. Dreams and fantasy sequences take up significant portions of the running time and turn the cracked-out plot into a kind of Holy Motors-meets-Inception-style hallucination about Christmas: giant dolls surrounding Lupita and engulfing her consciousness, gift-wrapped parents dreamed by lonely rich Billy, wind-up mechanical reindeer with nightmarish staccato laughs, a whole modern dance number performed by demons that takes place in Hell and, in the film’s climax of craziness, a resourceful, whatever-it-takes Santa drugs the cocktails of the waywardly affluent mother and father by posing as a waiter, slipping their drinks with chemicals to help them remember to love their kid. Seriously.
Through it all, Santa’s the boss. The film will have it no other way. Merlin helps him, sure, but in the end it’s all his show, standing in for the movie’s absent God and righting moral dilemmas. No doubts, no neuroses, no complaints from this St. Nicholas, just magic and goodness. He’s certain of his authority and knows how to lay it down. He’s the man who does more than deliver gifts, he delivers all of Christmas and nothing gets in his way, not amateur child acting, not rickety cheapo sets, nothing. Not even all the demons of Hell. He’s a Santa to believe in. Add him (and some spiked egg nog if necessary) to your annual watch list. You won’t regret it.