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Made in Mexico: The 1959 movie “Santa Claus” has Santa, Satan, demons, the ‘wizard of wizards’ Merlin the magician and more
In the 1959 Mexican fantasy film Santa Claus — featuring primarily Spanish dialogue — was directed by René Cardona and co-written with Adolfo Torres Portillo, although most are probably familiar more with the dubbed and edited English-language version that came out in the U.S., after Florida-based “King of the Kiddie Matinee” K. Gordon Murray released as a weekend movie marketed directly to children.
Cardona and Torres Portillo’s story that blended the then relatively-unknown Christmas story about Santa Claus, mixing it with elements from horror and sci-fi movies. In Santa Claus, Santa (Jose Elias Moreno) doesn’t live at the North Pole; he lives in a magic castle in outer space, orbiting above the North Pole.
Santa doesn’t live alone, of course — he’s also pals with Merlin the magician, the “wizard of wizards” out of British Arthurian mythology (Armando Arriola, from The Phantom of the Red House and The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales) and the hairy Vulcan, the smith-god (Angel Di Stefani), who provide Santa with “the Flower of Invisibilty,” a kind of sleeping powder, which enables him to be able to enter homes without having to use the chimney.
The movie, in fact, opens with a musical tour of Santa’s outer space child labor sweatshop Toyland, where the toys are made by children from all over the world, instead of elves.
One of those kids is a little Mexican boy named Pedro (Cesareo Quezadas), who appeared in Cardona’s 1957 children’s film Tom Thumb, a rather unexpected runaway hit in Mexico, which then attracted the attention from U.S. film distributors and promoters like Murray, who saw that Santa Claus — which had played successfully for seven weeks in Mexico — might also be a big success.
The story continues when we learn that, for centuries, Satan has been putting up with Santa’s crap — making good children out of bad, you see — and so he sends his chief minion, the bright-red dancing demon named Pitch (House of Terror’s Jose Luis Aguirre), down to Earth on a mission to ruin Christmas by “making all the children of the Earth do evil,” with a plot that includes getting three little Mexican kids to conspire to kidnap Santa so that he can become their slave.
One of those children is Lupita (Lupita Quezadas), whose parents are too poor to buy her any toys. Much of the movie actually concerns the battle for her soul. In one scene, Lupita and her mother visit a market, and Lupita steals a doll. “No, Lupita, no!” cries the narrator (K. Gordon Murray himself, under the name of Ken Smith), but just as Pitch revels in his triumph, Lupita’s conscience prevails and she returns the toy to the stall.
Here we see Lupita having a truly nightmarish devil-ized dream:
At the time — in the late 1950s — the actual idea of a “Santa Claus” was fairly unknown in much of Mexico, where holiday gift-giving customs still focused more on the Catholic church-endorsed traditions of the Magi and their feast day, Epiphany, which is held on January 6. Even today, the concept of what many know as Christmas in much of Mexico is relatively unknown (and makes no mention of Santa Claus), instead focusing on such traditional holiday elements as posadas and piñatas.
In Santa Claus, Santa behaves more like St Nicholas, helping children to avoid temptation and rewarding those who are good, while threatening kids who are bad with eternal damnation (Santa even speaks of Jesus, whom he refers to as a close personal friend).
Murray — a distributor who bought in films, mostly from Mexico, dubbed them into English, before editing to make characters and settings more recognizable to English-speaking audiences — narrated the first U.S. trailer himself:
“Whether you’re in a cave, or behind a million mountains, Santa Claus sees you through his Master Eye, and invites you to his Magic Wonderland! See Santa Claus in his magic motion picture! Come past the doors of his towering castle, into a fantastic crystal laboratory, filled with weird and wonderful secrets; into his heavenly workshop, the most marvelous toy factory of all! Watch his battle with the mischievous demon who wants to get children into trouble! You’d better watch out! You’’ll wanna shout about the picture that won the Golden Gate Family Film award! Everyone, everywhere, is waiting for the K. Gordon Murray presentation, Santa Claus! In Eastman Colorscope. Saturday and Sunday, matinee only, at a theatre near you!”
Yes, believe it or not, Santa Claus won the Golden Gate Award for Best International Family Film at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1959. Murray’s success with the film was such that Santa Claus would periodically be re-released in theaters during the 1960s and 1970s, and it remained in circulation in America for nearly twenty years, and proved to be one of the biggest hits in the career of the prolific Mexican director Rene Cardona, who cast Jose Elias Moreno as the deranged scientist in the horror film Night of the Bloody Ape (1969).
It’s success eventually led to the film being mocked during the fifth season of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” when it first aired on Christmas Eve 1993. The devil Pitch then became a recurring character on MST3K, played by Paul Chaplin.
In December 2014, RiffTrax, featuring former members of MST3K, performed a live riff of the movie — now including a series of shorts by K. Gordon Murray mixed in with new footage filmed at the various Santa’s Village theme parks –as “Santa’s Village of Madness,” in movie theaters nationwide.
TV stations also air Santa Claus from time to time, including TCM, but if you’re itchin’ to see it, you can watch the entire movie here: