Prime in the Dustbin: ‘Santa Claus vs The Devil’ (1959)

Santa Claus vs The Devil does everything it can to turn the Christmas myth upside down and shake it until all the loose change falls out of its pockets. It posits Santa as a space alien god figure locked in slapstick battle against a Christian demon on Christmas Eve. Oh, and the wizard, Merlin, is also involved. Look, I’ve taken acid, and not even that kind of hot kick could have compelled me to come up with a Christmas cluster like this.

This was the first Mexican holiday film to be released in the United States. It is so Mexican, the credits state it is filmed in Mexiscope. I don’t know what that is. I had hoped wrestling would be involved, where Luchador Claus gives Satan a plancha suicida, but that does not happen. That would have made too much sense.

Santa (José Elias Moreno) doesn’t live at the North Pole in this movie. Nope, he lives in space, dwelling within a palace made of crystal and candy. He’s got a Christmas tree and a creche. He also has a magical organ, which is something I’ve also claimed to have, but only to strangers in bars around closing time. There are no elves in Santa’s workshop. There are only children from around the world, to whom we are introduced in the most stereotypical way possible. Each group of children is dressed in their native garb while singing the songs of their people. The African kids are shirtless, chanting, and playing drums. The Swiss kids pretend to churn butter. The Spanish children sound like they’re praying to Kali. The children from the Caribbean hold maracas and rifles. By modern standards, it is an astonishingly tone-deaf sequence. Santa plays all the music for the children on his keyboard, and he attempts to chair dance, but it looks like he’s having a seizure while being pegged on a Sybian.

One of Santa’s helpers creates a doll in the image of the devil. This image spins and activates a dance in hell, the real hell, if hell is real, which this movie claims it is. A demon named Pitch (José Luis Aguirre ‘Trotsky’) is chosen to go to earth and prevent Santa from making his yearly rounds. He’s a devil, but he’s not the devil, even though he is all red and has a tail and all the standard devilish accoutréments. All of the children on the planet must do evil or else Pitch will be punished. Every single child. Luckily, the movie only focuses on five of those kids.

There’s the poor little rich boy, ignored by his jet-setting parents. Then there’s the poor little poor girl, Lupita, whose parents have never been able to purchase her a present. All she wants is a dolly, and they couldn’t get it for her! Just one dolly! Rounding things out are three little nasty children whom Pitch coerces into causing mischief.

Up on his amazing racist, crystal planet, Santa has his eyes and ears on everything. In his magical observatory (everything is magical in this movie, because it’s easier than trying to explain things), Santa has his magical Cosmic Telescope. This thing has a gigantic human eye attached to the end of a vacuum hose that can see everything. Imagine a lousy War of the Worlds fan film, and you’re close to what this thing looks like. There’s an Earscope, which allows Santa to listen to everyone on Earth. It’s a satellite dish with an human ear glued to the center. There’s the Master Eye and the Tele-Talker and I’m not sure what all these things do, but they’re magical, so who cares? What it boils down to is that Santa is a voyeur.

I realize this is a movie for children, but even kids had to think, “Wait a minute. This goes against everything I’ve ever heard.” It does! Along with Santa’s cobbled-together surveillance system, he also employs the services of Merlin (Armando Arriola). The doddering magician is Santa’s Q, providing all kinds of tricks to make sure Santa can deliver all the kids. Merlin concocts magical dreaming powders, which put children to sleep so Santa can visit homes undisturbed. That’s right. Santa’s got roofies. One of the ingredients of these powders comes from the Morpheum flower, so these glittery powders include either morphine or tiny bits of Lawrence Fishburne. Merlin also growers the Flower of Disappearing. When Santa sniffs it, he becomes invisible. That’s what cocaine does, right?

Then, stuck in a dungeon somewhere is the Key Man, a Greek deity, filthy and hirsute, who forges the Master Key. This key allows Santa to enter through any locked door. How? Magic, of course!

The myth of Santa’s sleigh isn’t immune to this wretched reimagining. The reindeer aren’t even real. They’re mechanical. Santa has to wind them up with a giant key before they clockwork their way to the Trans-Heavenly Highway for the journey to Earth. Really, that’s the route he takes to get here. There’s a sign for it and everything.

Santa has sedatives, a lockpick, and a means of escape. If he wanted to, Santa could become the perfect serial rapist.

That all is revealed within the first thirty minutes. There is still an hour left in Santa Claus vs The Devil. The amount of psychotic nightmare-inducing material in this movie cannot even be discussed in a column such as this. It seems like every couple of minutes, something else mind-blowingly weird happens. Lupita has a dream where giant dolls come dancing towards her, like the shambling sound-activated nurses from Silent Hill. It is chilling. Who decided this movie was for children?

Well, come to think of it, some of the best horror movies are children’s movies. Somehow, we think it’s okay to frighten kids, as long as we wrap it up in a bright package and use small words in the dialogue. That’s what Santa Claus vs The Devil does. It distorts familiar stories. It offers garish imagery that could bring awful dreams to impressionable young ones. But it’s a Christmas movie, so it’s perfectly fine for them to watch. There’s nothing like a mixed message to give the kiddies for the holidays. By all means, set them down in front of the television for this brightly-colored assault on their senses and sensibilities, and let them figure everything out for themselves.

Truly, Santa Claus vs. The Devil isn’t a bad movie, but it is incredibly strange. By bringing together classical Christmas traditions and bizarre notions that may have been brought about by brain damage, this movie becomes a singular piece of weird cinema. It’s one of those movies you foist upon unsuspecting friends at inopportune times. They’ll either thank you for it, or they’ll never speak to you again.

If you’re ready to see a Santa who lives in the floating castle from Krull, one who sneaks in through windows like some jolly Wet Bandit, and who isn’t above serving spiked drinks to people whom he deems need them, then Santa Claus vs The Devil is for you. Billy Bob Thornton he isn’t, but this Santa is on Prime Video in all of his Mexiscope glory. Happy holidays, I guess.

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