Unwatchable #25: “Santa Claus”

Your fearless – and quite possibly senseless – movie janitor is watching every movie on the IMDb Bottom 100 list. Join us now for another installment of Unwatchable.

Halloween and Election Day are both behind us, which must mean it’s Christmas season again, which in turn must mean it’s time to revisit a beloved, perennial Yuletide classic. No, not It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol or even the Star Wars Holiday Special (which has still not gotten the digitally restored 3D re-release it so richly deserves – and some people still think George Lucas is a genius!). You can have your Christmas stories and your polar expresses and your miracles on 34th street; when I’m relaxing in front of the fireplace, nursing an egg nog and wearing nothing but my “Jingle Balls” thong, there’s only one movie that truly summons the spirit of the season for me, and it’s simply called Santa Claus.

Many words can be used to describe this 1959 film – made in Mexico but shaped into its enduring, indelible form by “King of the Kiddie Matinee” K. Gordon Murray – but “unwatchable” isn’t one of them. The IMDb users who voted Santa Claus the 25th worst movie of all time are clearly joyless, miserable scrooges every one, deserving of nothing but stockings full of coal. People hate what they fear, so perhaps the film’s many detractors are frightened of the dark truths it exposes about jolly ol’ Saint Nick. Of course, every movie about Father Christmas tinkers with the Claus mythos in some way, but few dare to go as far as Santa Claus, which reimagines the traditional Christmas Eve journey as some kind of creepy cross between Ocean’s 11 and The Exorcist.

Forget everything you thought you knew about Santa, the elves, the North Pole, the reindeer and all the other visions of sugarplums dancing in your head. This Santa dwells way above the North Pole, far out in space, on a cloud. You know, a space cloud. They have those, right? They’re called nebulas or some shit. What am I, an astronomer? He just lives on a space cloud, okay? In a cosmic observatory! Staffed with child slave labor! No kidding, in lieu of elves, Santa has a virtual United Nations of wee helpers, from Africa, Mexico, China and “The Orient,” among others. (He claims to have American children working for him, too, but the U.S. contingent’s rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” sure doesn’t sound American to me.) Some of these toddlers are walking around in nothing but loincloths, which is very disturbing. I don’t know exactly how cold it is on a space cloud hovering far over the North Pole, but come on, it’s got to be freezing. Can’t we get Amnesty International involved somehow?

Anyway, Santa’s getting ready for the big night, spying on kids with a giant telescope, eavesdropping on them with a Rocky Horror-lipped machine, and even conducting surveillance on their dreams, decades before Leonardo DiCaprio invented Inception. This is not really behavior I would ever categorize as “jolly,” I have to say. This is some kind of diabolical J. Edgar Hoover character here, and he’s definitely not someone I want sliding down my chimney in the middle of the night. I don’t need that Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle that badly! And yet, Santa is supposed to be the good guy here, as we learn when the movie introduces his nemesis from the pits of Hell, Mr. Pitch.

Yep, that’s him, all right. Lucifer has sent Pitch to the surface in order to spread his evil influence and make sure all the children end up on Santa’s naughty list. That includes Lupita, a poor little girl who only wants a dolly for Christmas, as well as three brothers who, quite honestly, were already annoying little punks before the devil showed up. Meanwhile, Santa is still making the preparations for his annual earthly visitation. As any decent ringleader plotting a caper would do, Papa Noel has assembled a team of experts, including the Safecracker (a hairy, shirtless ginger who prepares a special key that will open any door) and the Chemist (in this case, Merlin the wizard, visiting from an entirely different mythology and concocting sleeping potions for the boss. What, you thought Santa was above drugging children?). And then, of course, there’s Santa’s wheelmen, those eight tiny reindeer – in this case, white, robotic, wind-up reindeer. (I mean, come on, we all know reindeer can fly, but in space? That would be too crazy.)

There are some cult movies that sound like weird, crazy can’t-miss stuff when described, but turn out to be much less interesting when you actually sit down to watch them. Santa Claus isn’t one of them – it really is this weird and crazy. But I don’t want to give the impression that it’s some kind of runaway freight train of insanity, either; there’s plenty of dead air and annoyingly repetitive action, and the momentum does not exactly build to a pulse-pounding climax (Santa gets trapped in a tree and uses a wind-up cat to chase away the dog that’s menacing him). But it does boast a startling twist ending, at least if I’m interpreting it correctly. After Santa has completed his rounds for another year (and even poor little Lupita finally gets her dolly), a title card appears on screen: “Blessed are they who believe, for they shall see God.” Wait – what? So all this time, God has been Santa Claus? I mean, I knew there was some resemblance, but…man. Now this movie is even more disturbing than I remember.

Previously on Unwatchable:

26. Going Overboard
27. Bottoms Up
28. Seven Mummies
29. Seed
30. Alien From L.A.

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