This week on TCM Underground: SANTA CLAUS (1959). You know, the one with the Devil.

Santa Claus

Mexico becomes ground zero for an all-out turf war between the intergalactic forces of Christmas and the Devil himself. No, seriously, that’s what happens.

SANTA CLAUS (1959)

Cast: Jose Elias Moreno (Santa Claus), Jose Luis Aguirre (Pitch), Armando Arriola (Merlin), Cesareo Quezadas (Pedro), Lupita Quezadas (Lupita), Nora Veryan (Lupita’s Mother), K. Gordon Murray (English Language Narrator). Director: Rene Cardona. Story/Screenplay: Rene Cardona, Adolfo Torres Portillo. Cinematography: Raul Martinez Solares. Music: Antonio Diaz Conde.

94 minutes. Color

Showtime: Saturday, December 20th, 11:00pm PST/2:00am EST

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Blame it on MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947), a movie so charming and disarmingly simple (an old man, a young girl, no special effects — not even snow!) that everybody who followed thought they could work a similar glamour by mixing those same ingredients. Two lousy remakes and a bunch of copycats followed. Anybody remember THE MAN IN THE SANTA CLAUS SUIT (1979) with Fred Astaire? THE NIGHT THEY SAVED CHRISTMAS (1984) with Art Carney (a few clicks upriver from his participation in THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL)? MR. ST. NICK (2002) with Kelsey Grammer?  Of course you do or don’t!  While these anemic attempts at Yuletide cheer are noteworthy in their own singular ways, none really goes for the Full Monty quite like the Mexican SANTA CLAUS (1959), from the director of WRESTLING WOMEN VERSUS THE AZTEC MUMMY (1964), NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES (1969), and SURVIVE! (1976), the first feature film account of the 1972 Andes air crash disaster. At the time, Santa had not enjoyed much clout South of the Border, Christmas joy being spread more more commonly in those parts by the Magi, aka the Three Wise Men.  Yet writer-director Rene Cardona, Sr. clearly came to the realization that there was no percentage in keeping the holiday local, and so he embraced the European and North American tradition of Kris Kringle and even threw in a reference to Sputnik to give the film universal appeal. 

Samta Claus

Add to the mix that this particular St. Nick (Jose Elias Moreno) lives not on the North Pole but in Outer Space!  And his toys aren’t made by elves but by a United Nations/Rainbow Coalition-style legion of earth kids who have forsaken normal childhoods to live in the vacuum of space, keeping Santa’s calendar and serving his special purpose via some vaguely defined sweat equity. The kids of SANTA CLAUS are a hoot, representing as they do many colors and creeds… which means the Soviet children wear Russian Tea Room tunics and sable hats, the Mexican kids sombreros and serapes, and the African tots have bones through their hair and shake maracas made out of human skulls! SANTA CLAUS got U.S. cinema dates courtesy of Florida-based showman K. Gordon Murray, the King of the Kiddie Matinee, the man who gave us many an English-dubbed foreign import, from HANSEL AND GRETEL (1954), RUMPELSTILTSKIN (1955) and MOTHER GOOSE’S BIRTHDAY PARTY (1970) to THE LIVING COFFIN (1959), THE BRAINIAC (1961), and THE BLOODY VAMPIRE (1962), in addition to several Mexican masked wrestler movies starring the famous luchador El Santo, whom Murray rechristened Samson. If you’re curious as to who the hell is narrating the American dub of SANTA CLAUS, why it’s K. Gordon Murray himself. 

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SANTA CLAUS is so out there (literally!) that you cannot take your eyes off the damn thing, even as the screenplay gets more and more bizarre. Santa’s deep space toyland is rigged up like Captain Nemo’s executive suite in the Nautilus, with a church organ-TV set combo that acts as a window on world doings (its lens looks like a disembodied eye) and a public address system in the shape of a giant pair of Rolling Stones lips. From here Santa can see that Satan himself is hell-bent on corrupting the world’s children through the Machiavellian ministrations of demi-demon “Pitch” (Jose Luis Aguirre). On Christmas Eve, Pitch visits the bedrooms of the world’s slumbering children, tempting them with the possible rewards of stealing and misbehaving. (More than thirty years before A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, three Mexican urchins conspire to kidnap Santa and make him their slave.) With the help of his A-Team of pint-sized helpmeets and a magician named Merlin (Armando Arriola), Santa rides down from the heavens with his clockwork reindeer to deliver toys, save the world, and kick Pitch’s tail back to perdition.

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Mexico has a reputation for Z-grade filmmaking that is largely unearned, given the wealth of wonderful films made during and beyond the country’s “Golden Age” (after the onset of World War II, Hollywood redirected funds into the Mexican film industry that had once gone to Europe and also built many movie palaces and second run cinemas to serve as showcases for its own product). As dodgy as is SANTA CLAUS, the production looks relatively opulent compared to other movies by Cardona. Somebody clearly spent some coin on this, not that its candied chromatics keep can save the film from being just plain weird and creepy… especially when Santa snorts the petals of a white flower to obtain invisibility and dopes the world’s children to save them from temptation. We won’t even talk about Santa’s obsession with surveillance, which enables him to see inside our dreams!  Dr. Mabuse had nothing on this guy!

Santa Claus04

Despite its concessions to international and, more specifically American, conceptions of Christmas, SANTA CLAUS was not given a standard release in the United States.  K. Gordon Murray packaged the acquisition as a “weekends only” special event, booking it into select venues and faithfully re-releasing it every three years well into the 1970s. Rumor has it he made a small fortune from its recepits… but what he received pales in comparison to what he gave back.  Which is the wonder that is, warts and all, SANTA CLAUS. This year my children both insisted that on Christmas Eve they want to watch the movie “with Santa Claus and the Devil.” And to all a good night!

Trivia: I first wrote about SANTA CLAUS for the Movie Morlocks almost exactly six years ago, at which time my then-boss and Morlocks founder Jeff Stafford replied: “Damn it! Why isn’t TCM showing this in December?” Dreams do come true, Jeff, particularly if you are very, very, very, very patient and have a very liberal definition of the word “dreams.” 

To buy SANTA CLAUS on DVD from the TCM shop, click here.

To buy SANTA CLAUS on Blu-ray from the TCM shop, click here.

New Year's Evil

Pig-a-back to SANTA CLAUS (and on the far side of the 10-minute 1963 short subject A VISIT TO SANTA CLAUS, which has all the seasonal charm of a stag reel) is the early holiday-themed slasher NEW YEAR’S EVIL (1980), starring HAPPY DAYS semi-regular Roz Kelly and Kip Niven, son of THE BISHOP’S WIFE‘s David Niven. I have this one sheet somewhere. I got it free.

9 Responses This week on TCM Underground: SANTA CLAUS (1959). You know, the one with the Devil.
Posted By Emgee : December 17, 2014 10:46 am

Sounds like a winning formula to me! May i also heartily recommend another Yuletide classic, “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians”. Truly unforgettable.

Posted By Ben Martin : December 17, 2014 2:49 pm

This became the go-to holiday perennial for my boys and me much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife. So many moments to relish: the nightmarish dance of the dolls, the horrible giggling mechanical reindeer, the insensitive rich couple leaving their only child alone on Christmas eve, Santa getting wailed on the sconce with a rock and later treed by a vicious boxer dog.

Posted By swac44 : December 17, 2014 3:32 pm

My parents dropped me off at a kiddy matinee of this in the 1970s while they went off to do their Christmas shopping. Why did they hate me so?

Interestingly, there’s a version of this that circulated on home video which completely deleted all references to the Devil! I guess they wanted to make it safe for good Christian families, who had no problems with child labour or violations of one’s civil rights.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : December 17, 2014 4:15 pm

Must’ve been a short movie!

Posted By Ben Martin : December 17, 2014 4:24 pm

Gee – Santa Claus without the Devil is like Jaws without a shark.

Posted By Shuvcat : December 17, 2014 5:36 pm

I had seen all those other Santa movies on TV, but I would never ever have heard of this if not for Mystery Science Theater 3000, and even then not till ’06 or so. I guess it was just too weird for TV.

Posted By Richard : December 17, 2014 6:02 pm

I’ve always liked this movie as well as the Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

Posted By Jeffrey E. Ford : December 18, 2014 7:12 am

Say what you will — good and bad — about SANTA CLAUS, I saw it way back when (sometime in the 60′s) when I was a child and never forgot it. Especially the devil! I taped it a few years ago when TCM ran it on a double bill with SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS (a much better choice than NEW YEAR’S EVIL) and it was as weird as I remembered. But there was just something about it that I found innocent, nostalgic, and rather appealing… It must have been memories.

Posted By JoeS : December 19, 2014 8:34 am

Whatever happened to the K. Gordon Murray doc that was scheduled to run on TCM several years ago and got pulled?

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