American exploitation film distributor K. Gordon Murray is more than a household name amongst horror fans, as he imported a ton of Mexi monsters movies, dubbed them into English and released the bulk of them straight to the boob tube courtesy of American International Television. But the one film that really started this import trend for Murray was 1959’s SANTA CLAUS, another Mexican excursion which saw limited Stateside play dates at the end of that year, but would become a kiddie matinee phenomenon throughout the 1960s and beyond. Longtime a staple of grey market public domain VHS and DVD releases, VCI ushers in the holiday season with a collector’s edition of this family-oriented marvel which no doubt had good intentions, but has since become a cult spectacle for bad movie fans over the last 50 years or so.
The legendary do-gooder known as Santa Claus (José Elías Moreno, NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES) lives in a crystal castle in the clouds somewhere in space, beyond the Moon. With the help of a small army of children from every region in the world, Santa is planning for his yearly sleigh ride to Earth to deliver toys to all the good boys and girls. The magician Merlin (Armando Arriola, PHANTOM OF THE RED HOUSE) creates a sprinkling dust that could put children to sleep, and he also supplies Santa with a flower which will make him invisible. Also, Vulcano the Blacksmith (Ángel D'Stefani, ROBOT VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY) supplies the big guy with a special key which will enable him to unlock any door. But Santa has one big problem; a minion of the Devil known as Pitch (José Luis Aguirre 'Trosky'), sent on a mission from Hades to thwart his Night-Before-Christmas plans and damage the Earth’s children with his sneaky, evil ways.
As the English-dubbed version of SANTA CLAUS has been seen by many Americans in theaters and on television, as well as being lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000, it’s often considered one of the worst movies ever made (along with its American cousin of a few years later, SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS). But how bad is it really? Yeah it’s campy and very, very weird indeed. But you have to give those Mexicans (namely writer Adolfo Torres Portillo and director René Cardona) credit for being original and churning out one of the strangest yet entertaining kids’ film ever committed to celluloid.
Lots of liberties are taken with the Santa Claus legend here, giving him an expected super-human persona, with film tending to dive into science fiction themes. Here, Santa is played appropriately jovial by burly Moreno (with the needed extra padding), even though his Latino exterior comes with an orange Snookie coloring. Instead of residing in the North Pole, Santa (possibly an alien) lives in his cloud-bedded castle in outer space, and instead of elves in his workshop, he has an international cast of children (he serenades them with his pipe organ in the opening sequence) to make toys and prepare him for his journey. He’s also a bachelor (no Mrs. Claus to be found) and instead of eight reindeer to pull his sleigh, there are four white ones which are mechanically wound up! The film’s concept that Santa can enter any locked door with a magic key is a clever one, and they even toy around with the idea that he can be in more than one place at a time (he is assumed to be a cocktail waiter convincing a pair dining parents to go see their child on Christmas Eve, while visiting the child’s home at the same instance).
But the weirdness is prevalent, giving the film its charm to enlightened adults while securing its bad movie status forever. Unforgettable is Santa’s castle, which is equipped with mechanized, enlarged body parts (ears, eyes and most disturbingly, talking lips) that look so surreal, they’ve often been likened to the set of TV's “Pee-wee’s Playhouse”, which aired years later. But what probably makes the film so memorable to many is Santa’s devilish foe Pitch, played by José Luis Aguirre 'Trosky'. With his shiny red face-paint, bull-horns, oversized Spock ears and crimson long-johns, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film rightfully describes him as fitting “right into a silent era comedy”. Pitch (who is invisible to people and can instantly appear and vanish into thin air) is seen stirring up a bizarre nightmare sequence (involving a string of dancing demonic rag dolls) and causing small boys to be bad to Santa and rotten to each other. Pitch also makes life hell for Santa, blowing hot smoke up his rear end, at which point the jolly guy retaliates by firing a toy cannon’s missile into his devil-tailed derriere!
As low budget a production as SANTA CLAUS probably was, it had the accommodating Azteca Studios behind it, which provided a rather spectacular set for his magical crystal castle. The film is not all just odd nonsense, as it provides two Mexican children with very different problems, bringing on the sentimental human-interest value. There’s a girl so poor that her only wish is to receive a doll on Christmas, while a rich boy’s only want is for his gallivanting parents to stay home for the holidays. SANTA CLAUS is also not afraid to keep Christ in Christmas, and with that, there are some touching moments to go along with the far-fetched shenanigans which personify the film. In both the English and Spanish versions of the film, an off-screen narrator takes us through the proceedings, making observations on most of the characters’ activities.
Having witnessed the various public domain releases of the title, the legit arrival of SANTA CLAUS on blu-ray disc is an eye-candy stocking stuffer just in time for the holidays (it’s also available on standard DVD). The 1080p HD transfer is full of detail, and there are only some scattered blemishes on the original negative print source. The original Eastman colors appear stronger than ever, even if at times the fleshtones are on the pale side. The back cover lists the film as presented in 2.35:1 (probably to match the erroneous IMDb listing); it’s actually 1.78:1, which frames the film perfectly (it was most likely intended for 1.85:1 projection). The original Spanish language track, as well as the K. Gordon Murray English-dubbed version we all know and love are included; both tracks are playable in the original Mono or a 5.1 option. The back cover also mistakenly lists that there’s two running times, with the American version being 85 minutes. This too is wrong, as there’s a single 94 minute cut of the film playable in both languages. Anyone viewing the Spanish language version with the optional English subtitles on may get a bit confused, as it’s a literal translation of the English version and differs in dialog and narration with the Spanish original. The white subtitles also tend to get washed out on the bottom of the screen, so you’ll have to strain your eyes to comprehend most of them correctly.
A commentary on the English language version is included, featuring K. Gordon Murray historian Daniel Griffith. Griffith does an excellent job, sharing loads of information about the production, the cast and Murray’s distribution involvement, ect. He even points out how in this cinematic example, Santa is played off as a kind of super hero. Griffith also produced an entertaining 14-minute documentary on the film entitled “Santa Claus VS. The Devil”, which includes interviews with Mexican cinema expert David Wilt and others. Also here are three short Christmas themed films (the first which uses a lot of footage from SANTA CLAUS) made by Murray during the mid 1960s for kiddie matinee purposes, all which parade some of the worst-looking animal costumes you’ll ever see. There's three deleted/alternate scenes all culled from 16mm print sources: "Extended Hades Musical Sequence" (in Spanish), the main title sequence from the Murray version, as well as the "Toy Factory Musical Sequence" which was altered so that the various countries' names on display on Santa's organ could be read in English. The short Castle Films subject “A Howdy Doody Christmas” is tagged on here, and rounding out the extras are a theatrical trailer, TV spot and radio spots (all narrated by Murray himself), a hefty still gallery and a promotional trailer for Griffith’s highly anticipated documentary, WONDER WORLD OF K. GORDON MURRAY. (George R. Reis)
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