Just because a story is aimed at children doesn’t mean it is actually safe for them to experience it. Since the days of the Brothers Grimm, adults have been scaring the bejesus out of children with tales ostensibly designed to teach morals or just provide light, age-appropriate entertainment. Everyone has disturbed memories of a kid-flick with a dark side that creeped them out (there’s even a website devoted to this phenomenon, the endlessly readable Kindertrauma).
Even beloved Father Christmas himself couldn’t escape the disturbing kid-flick treatment… and that brings us to Santa Claus, the infamous 1959 flick masterminded by Mexican schlock auteur Rene Cardona. He’s best known to exploitation fans for fare like Survive!, Night Of The Bloody Apes and Wrestling Women Vs. The Aztec Mummy, but his commercial mindset drew him to the lore of Christmas for this yuletide cash-in. The result is perhaps the most disturbing and demented take on the Kris Kringle story ever filmed.
You know things have gone awry from the opening moments. Instead of living at the North Pole, this film presents Santa living in a crystal castle in outer space (this image is depicted with a matte painting that eerily resembles the cover of the first album by Starcastle). Inside the castle, Santa Claus (Jose Elias Moreno) presides over a complex operation where James Bond-style spy equipment is used to observe the behavior of children on earth and a squad of international kiddies replace the expected elves as Santa’s work force. To make things even weirder, Merlin The Magician (Armando Arriola) gives Santa an array of magical tools to use on his journey and Santa also has a sleigh driven by automated reindeer.
Believe it or not, things get even weirder when Santa makes it to earth. It seems that Santa’s mortal enemy in this film is Satan himself and old Lucifer has sent out his top demon, Pitch (Jose Luis Aguirre) to end Santa’s reign of good cheer by any means necessary. He knows that Santa will die if trapped on planet Earth (!) so he plots with a trio of greedy little boys to trap Santa. When he’s not working on those evil schemes, Pitch also tries to trick innocent little poor girl Lupita (Lupita Quezadas) into stealing since she can’t afford a doll of her own – and torments her with wicked dreams designed to break her Christmas spirit when she doesn’t. There’s also a subplot involving Billy (Antonio Diaz Conde), a little rich boy who is denied the love he craves by his oblivious parents.
As the previous two paragraphs should reveal, Santa Claus is an treasure trove of childhood psyche-scarring riches. Screenwriters Cardona and Adolfo Torres Portillo take a stunning amount of liberties with the Santa Claus legend and weave in all manner of bizarre, troubling elements that shouldn’t be in a kid’s movie. For example, the reasons Santa will die if trapped on earth because the rising sun will cause his reindeer to dissolve into dust and he will perish from starvation… and also because he is used to eating food made of clouds and can’t eat the food Earth people consume.
Even scarier is the thick layer of macabre elements woven into the tale. For instance, the little boys working with Pitch to trap Santa not only want to steal all his gifts but also keep him as a slave so they can keep getting anything they want. The end also has a Brothers Grimm-ish scenario in which Pitch steals Santa’s magic items, traps him in a tree via a killer dog and tries to trick the people in a nearby house to pick up guns and shoot “the prowler” outside. There’s also a weird dream sequence in which giant dolls menace Lupita, encouraging her to steal and then berating her when she won’t do it – this bit comes off like a twisted Christmas pageant as directed by Mario Bava.
If all that isn’t enough to warp a child’s brain, Santa Claus has one final weapon left in its arsenal: a downright morbid streak of pathos and overbearing sentimentality. This is manifested in the subplots involving Lupita and Billy. Both children are positioned to perpetually be on the verge of heartbreak and disillusionment and the film wallows in their misery. Lupita gets it the worst, with the audience also being treated to scenes where her parents agonize over their poverty and inability to provide her with proper gifts. If this movie isn’t try to scare the crap out of you, it doing it’s damnedest to drive you into a deep depression.
In other words, forget Silent Night, Deadly Night – this is the most disturbing and wrong-minded Christmas movie ever made. As such, Santa Claus is an ideal holiday treat for the schlock-minded and essential viewing. “Bah humbug” to anyone who dares say otherwise.