(1960), Color/Scope, 94 minutes
Distributed by K. Gordon Murray Productions
Presented by K. Gordon Murray
Produced by K. Gordon Murray
Directed by K. Gordon Murray (as “Ken Smith”)
Narrated by K. Gordon Murray (as “Ken Smith”)
SANTA CLAUS is an extraordinary film, likely the most perverse, absurd, complex and subversive movie ever made expressly for children. There are simply too many bizarre happenings going on to be safely absorbed by any self-respecting ‘1960’s tot.
One wonders whether history will paint K. Gordon Murray as a devil or a saviour. One might think of him as no worse than Disney, bringing to cinematic life time-worn, cliche fairy tales and hoary cultural myths. But where Disney shined them up like an apple, Murray beat them to death with extreme prejudice.
Perhaps this is a plus, forcing society to examine and reevaluate the fairy tales and holiday icons it feeds to its children. But the consistently sinister quality in almost all of Murray’s product, an enervating sense of spiritual malaise and malevolent occult manipulation, haunts all of his films to this day, and at the time of their original heyday, led one theatre-chain owner to reportedly dub the Florida producer, “Disney from Hell.”
One paranoid theory suggests that Murray was in fact engaged in a deliberate effort to corrupt the youth of America, by the overt and covert insertion of occult reference into children’s cinema. Though the methods would be largely subliminal, the effects would be eventually evident, and it is curious to note how interest in the occult skyrocketed in the mid-to-late 1960’s, just when Murray’s reign as shadow-Disney was waning.
One must not forget, when one counters that relatively few children probably went to any given Murray movie, that virtually every child saw (numerous times most likely) the TV spots for the films, which were plastered all over TV-creation in Murray’s saturation advertising campaigns.
The TV spot for SANTA CLAUS is a good example. You can pack a lot of subliminal, and not so subliminal, occult ideology into a 60-second TV spot. Witness the narration for the SANTA CLAUS TV spot:
“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’re gonna shout about the picture that won the Golden Gate Family Film award! Everyone, everywhere, is waiting for the K. Gordon Murray presentation, SANTA CLAUS!”
Aside from invoking an intense sense of paranoia, the child viewer is hit with myriad references to a creepy connection between technology and the occult (a theme that oddly pops up in much post-war kiddie-cinema.) And it is obvious that both the Mexican film-makers and Murray are trying to expand the S. Claus myth to where he is, essentially, a cross between God, Jesus and the elder gods of Greek mythology.
Regardless, SANTA CLAUS, Murray’s first import and mass-marketing genius-stroke, was his crowning achievement, and let loose the floodgates of inferior, infernal product for kiddies for decades to come.
Murray was the first (before Disney followed) to rent out films on a strictly “weekends-only” matinee policy, as even the Disney films were shown both at night and day at neighborhood theatres. And, like the snake-oil salesman of yore, Murray and his latest absurdity would be in (and out) of town in three days, long before word-of-mouth could get around as to how awful and diabolical the movie was, or even worse, how traumatic. At any rate, Murray’s U.S. release of SANTA CLAUS was a huge hit in it’s first release in October 1960, and in it’s subsequent re-release every three years thereafter, well into the stoned mid- 1970’s.
As diabolical as SANTA CLAUS is, this movie would have been even weirder if Murray hadn’t snipped out the coolest shot from the original Mexican version: A long line of hooded, chained lost souls walking towards the gates of Hell, wailing and gnashing of teeth…
SANTA CLAUS was a huge success in its first release in 1960, and in major rereleases in 1964, 1967, 1970 and 1974. By the time I saw this infernal classic on the big screen, in 1974, the print was so red it looked like the inferno itself, and so choppy it sounded like it had been turned back into a foreign film. In short, it was incoherent, but it still ran through the projector, which was apparently Murray’s criterion for releasing a film. When the SC prints finally deteriorated so badly that they couldn’t be shown intact, the crafty Murray would snip out passable segments and splice them into one of his creepy featurettes, like SANTA CLAUS AND HIS HELPERS, or into one of his cost-saving “anthologies” (MOTHER GOOSE’ BIRTHDAY PARTY, THE BROTHERS GRIMM STORYBOOK FAIR, SANTA’S FANTASY FAIR), which were just receptacles for odd reels of several “fairy tale” movies that had completely fallen apart. This assessment of Murray’s cost-saving strategy is given credence by the fact that no two prints of these featurettes/anthologies are exactly the same.
THE FIFTH DIMENSION
With SANTA CLAUS, Murray introduced a concept to moviegoers of the world that would permeate (haunt) the rest of his filmic career: “The Fifth Dimension”. This odd reference, made in passing by Merlin to Santa, refers explicitly to a mystic phenomenon in which Merlin, an avowed magician, can manifest amazing metaphysical feats such as telepathy, time travel, astral projection, and dimension jumping, to aid his employer, Mr. Claus, in his yearly supernatural chores.
Assuming for the moment that this concept was intact in the original Mexican version of the film, it suggests a very up-to-date awareness of topical metaphysical concerns by the screenwriters.
Murray dubbed these many occult references faithfully, and due to repeated mentions throughout SANTA CLAUS, “The Fifth Dimension” becomes a central theme.
Murray seems to have liked the mystical lyrical allusions that this term conjured up, for he used it subsequently in several advertising campaigns (SANTA CLAUS AND HIS HELPERS and CURSE OF THE DOLL PEOPLE being two of the most memorable), and through the recycled SANTA featurettes and anthology features, kept the term alive throughout most of his career.
In the late 1970’s, when Murray leased some of his aging horror films to f/x guru Doug Hobart, who mounted a drive-in road show program, the package was called… “The Fifth Dimension!”
It is likely that, to Murray, the poetic term was nothing more than an evocative marketing expression, suggesting science and magic combined with thrills and chills. But it is certainly odd that a term which has come to mean so much in subsequent years, is fixated upon virtually obsessively in this film, and is a pivotal overlying premise of Murray’s entire career. Why?
Depending on your perspective and training, “The Fifth Dimension” can refer to many different things. To some, it is an accepted delineation of the occult dimension, as witness the 5-sided pentagram, used as a symbolic power-gatherer by practicing occultists for centuries.
To others, “The Fifth Dimension” refers to the dimension of “soul”.
Again, “The Fifth Dimension” is a term used by some to suggest the dimension of temporal potentiality, following the fourth dimension, generally considered to be the dimension of “time.” “The Fifth Dimension” suggests the endless possibilities of all feasible roads that any one individual may have taken in all conceivable timelines.
Also, “The Fifth Dimension” has recently become a new-age catch-all phrase which encompasses such diverse and antithetical practices as meditation, channeling, astral projection and telepathy.
We all recall THE TWILIGHT ZONE, the beloved TV series. Rod Serling intoned at the start of each episode, “There is a Fifth Dimension, that beyond sight and sound and mind. It is the dimension of imagination…” This segways nicely with the view of “The Fifth Dimension” as being the dimension of infinite temporal possibility.
Lastly, through the pioneering mind-work of Timothy Leary and others, in which gateways to other mental, psychic and astral dimensions were opened through proper use of hallucinogenic drugs, one has often heard the term “The Fifth Dimension” used in reference to the expanding consciousness of the psychotropic drug adventurer.
Now, one may argue that ascribing all these heavy metaphysical, occult and philosophical baggage to a little kiddie movie is overinterpreting to an extraordinary degree. Certainly, we are not suggesting that the original producers, or Murray & Co., were implying any of these references to the term as used in the film.
But SANTA CLAUS is assuredly a strange and mysterious film, working on many levels, and containing many gems of mystical wisdom.
For instance, magician Merlin’s use of “The Fifth Dimension” encompasses many of the various contemporary uses of the term. Of course, Merlin is an obvious occult figure, what with the Pentagram hanging over his fireplace and all.
Merlin specifically refers to it as an occult dimension from whence one may extract magical favors. In addition, his use of it enables Santa to be in infinite locations at one time (dimension of endless temporal possibility), and to jump from the heaven to earth in a snap (dimension of astral travel).
One might even make a case for the drug angle of the terms’s usage in that Santa is instructed by Merlin to “sniff the magic flower” (arguably a poppy), in order to launch his being into that coveted dimension of all possibility.
As a drug reference, some might say it is obscure to the point of virtual absurdity, yet one must admit that inhaling an aromatic blossom does seem an odd way to instigate an extra-dimensional journey. And Santa is grinning like an idiot as he snorts the posie…
Indeed, Merlin makes another, rather odd claim about his beloved Fifth Dimension: “It is unsurpassed in making all the people of the world disappear!” Misanthropic and apocalyptic explanations aside, this queer little revelation seems to indicate that the “The Fifth Dimension” can manifest a completely different reality, a parallel universe as it were, in which the material world becomes invisible and/or suppressed.
To what gain this ability is to Merlin or Santa is unclear, possibly even lost in translation, but it suggests that Santa can, through Merlin’s assist, manipulate the material world at will, and dis-invent or freeze humanity while he goes about his magical gift-bearing business.
As mindbending a concept as this is, it most clearly explains, better than any other pop culture source, the “magic” behind Santa Claus.
One of the first questions a child asks his parents, and his peers, and thinks about on his own, is “How can Santa Claus go to every house in the world in one evening?” The typical answers are evasive and ambiguous at best: “He has many helpers,” “He’s magic!”
But to the enquiring young mind, these answers don’t gel, and it is indeed curious that the film SANTA CLAUS offers a ostensibly scientific, yet fundamentally metaphysical answer to the question: Santa Claus is an occult magus, and with the help of his assistant Merlin, he can manipulate reality and actually warp time, enter other dimensions where time has no meaning, and travel astrally to accomplish a seemingly impossible feat in the blink of God’s eye.
The Fifth Dimension, then, becomes an awesome, albeit somewhat creepy concept to a kid, and the movie SANTA CLAUS brings this most compelling aspect of the icon Santa Claus to full and vivid life, via a bizarre mixture of creepy occult inference and gaudy space-age gadgetry. This, in part, is the magic of SANTA CLAUS.
SAVE THE CHILDREN
SANTA CLAUS has a strange obsession with children, as does the title character (understandable as children are his business). The opening reel of the film is absolute time-capsule gold: a smattering of kids from all over the world are workers (volunteers? slaves?) in Santa’s magic toy factory up in the clouds. This strange place is like a combination of Noah’s Ark and Heaven for the newly dead.
The world children perform little musical samplings of their country’s culture, seemingly only for the Fat Man’s benefit. While some are playful, many of the mini-acts that emanate from each representative seem somber, even melancholy, capturing more of the emotional paradox of each land than the filmmakers had consciously intended.
At one point, we hear our narrator gush, “Talented children from the Orient!”, and a sexy twelve-year old girl sways her hips in a provocative belly dance! What’s worse; we cut to an insert of Santa, looking clearly aroused as he plays on his organ! If this ain’t primal cinema, I don’t know what is!
More sexy dancers from Brazil and Argentina reinforce an uncomfortable sexual subtext of erotic children and old voyeurs.
The kids of Central America sing a redundant folk song. Even worse, the USA segment is pathetic, a horrible, out of tune “Mary Had a Little Lamb” by two stoned children in cowboy suits!
And then there’s Lupita, the little poor girl who cannot talk well, who is tempted (successfully) by the devil to do evil. Lupita (played by Lupita Quezadas, sister of Cesareo Quezadas, aka “Pulgarcito”/”Tom Thumb”) is great as she watches a sad, violent, angry, Punch-and-Judy show. Lupita’s considerable persecution and suffering make SANTA CLAUS undoubtedly Catholic, all suffering and want and punishment for ungodly sinners.
Lupita is surely damaged psychologically as a result of her religious upbringing: she has a surreal, horrifying dream of evil dancing doll-corpses, who jump out of upright coffins to taunt her.
When the devil says to Lupita: “Steal the doll! What does one little doll matter, don’t you see?”, we know that of course, he’s right. Honor is obsolete in this cold, modern technocracy that surrounds her. “Little girls must steal to have the things they want!” Good advice from a bad source!
SANTA’S EVIL INFERNO
SANTA CLAUS is also obsessed with evil, as well as, again, the title character. And Santa Claus’ perspective on evil is ambiguous: the very first time we see him, he is laughing at a creche depicting the birth of Christ! What are we to make of this? Devotion, or mockery?
Soon after, at the prompting of Tom Thumb (Cesareo Quezadas, reprising his role from the 1958 fantasy PULGARCITO, aka TOM THUMB), and Little Red Riding Hood (actually the first appearance of Maria Gracia, a year before her first starring vehicle, LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD), Santa picks up a Devil firecracker, and lights it. We blink our eyes, and we are in Hell! A literal terrifying Hell! The Catholic Hell! The most horrible place in the universe! One of the most amazing depictions of Hell, in fact, in all cinema.
This scene is surely one of the most absurd, and potentially frightening visages of evil’s domain ever to be foisted upon small children.
At this juncture, we can have no doubt that, title aside, the real star of this “All-time Children’s Fantasy Classic” is, of course, Lucifer himself!
And as depicted here, Lucifer is one of the most bizarre/literal depictions of evil as an actual, tangible presence ever mounted in cinema. One wonders, why weren’t there Christian picketers outside this sacrilegious film, instead of LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST?”
SANTA CLAUS’ Hell is sinister, theatrical, grotesque, much too complex and grim for a child. It is, even in its more comical aspects, truly a Hell for children.
As we soon discover, the Devil not only preys on little girls: he also likes rude little boys! Pitch’s subsequent mental torture of three young boys borders at times on pure harassment, and again, we feel that no human child in his right mind could resist such powerful spiritual temptation.
SANTA CLAUS may have unwittingly taught little ones more about evil than any film in History; the devil’s plan to use the human qualities of pride, greed, fear, ignorance and envy to mess up Santa Claus, that is, destroy civilization.
The ultra-simplistic morality of SANTA CLAUS, emphatic to the point of dogma, seems from another mindset entirely, like something you might even hear in church, conveyed with the force of a sledge-hammer.
One of the things which makes SANTA CLAUS a fantasy classic is the absolutely amazing, daring, bizarre production design. There are numerous wonderful, colorful, lurid, cheesy and surreal f/x and objects, an exceptional combination of baroque and ultra-modern, reflecting no doubt significant cultural changes in Mexico at the time.
For instance, Santa’s “Fantastic Crystal Laboratory” is surely one of the most amazing things ever designed for children’s cinema as well. (Disney surely stole many of the concepts for the scientific toy factory in his BABES IN TOYLAND musical, which was released the next year).
An entirely expressionist view of cutting-edge scientific technology, this astonishing super-lab boasts many amazing new inventions, many, curiously, of a “covert surveillance” nature.
The very creepy “Master Eye” was an early cinematic manifestation of the fear and paranoia of Cold War spying, chilling because it might have been true. The design itself is a steal from the Martians in George Pal’s exciting WAR OF THE WORLDS.
A TV dish antenna with a human ear grafted on is effective, but perverse, to say the least.
Most odd of all, however, is the absurd “Tele-Talker”, a giant face screen with a phallic, light-up nose and gargantuan, talking, ruby-red lips, aptly illustrating every small child’s oral fixation, bigger than life itself!
Elsewhere, Santa’s mechanical reindeer are extremely malefic, as they laugh in a most sinister (and irritating) way.
Throughout this innovative fantasy, Santa Claus is depicted as an amalgam of God, Jesus, Humanitarian and Magician.
But Santa is actually kind of a sneaky guy too, and we wonder about his past as he shows sides of himself as wizard, scientist and warlock to boot.
In short, Santa represents everything that modern industrial society wants to hold up as admirable, powerful and fascinating, AND everything from the superstitious past it wants to divest itself of; Santa is a sort of Renaissance Man draping an embodiment of societal schizophrenia.
Indeed, many have argued that Santa Claus is really the evil one, for he bullies children into being well-behaved by making them fear the rejection of his love, through the symbology of gifts, and instills paranoia to do this.
This dark analysis is given (perhaps unwanted) credence when Santa, late in the film, becomes clearly nervous when it seems likely he will be exposed to the sunlight of dawn. Is Santa Claus, thus, an evil vampire, sucking the joy and love out of the world’s children by exploiting their fear and greed?
Santa Claus has always been a cultural enigma, and SANTA CLAUS illustrates this baffling spiritual puzzle in brilliant terms.
SANTA CLAUS is full of mixed messages, light scenes which can be seen as dark, and vice versa.
A lonely young boy has a dream, in which his Mom and Pop step out of giant gift boxes, which look for all the world like upright coffins. Our narrator chirps: “These contain what a child loves best: his parents!” Was the child dreaming of their arrival in his heart, or of their death, and burial?
Earlier, Santa puts a child’s letter request for a baby brother in a mail slot labeled “Paris”, making some odd, unspoken comment about France, storks, and Sex.
And Santa has a locksmith who looks like a fruity Hell’s Angel, with his heaving bare chest and tight pants. Santa’s glee at this sweating bruiser and his magical key border on gay cruising.
Possibly due to this philosophic fence-riding, SANTA CLAUS is one of those movies which can make you feel, in the right state of mind, as if you are once again an awe-struck, vulnerable, terrified child of eight. And this feeling is not all hugs and kisses. There is real terror in SANTA CLAUS, one of the reasons it has such a profound impact on anyone watching it.
From its cheesy hand-lettered title cards, reminiscent of silent movies, to its enthusiastic and apprehensive narrator, SANTA CLAUS comes across as something naive and innocent, yet has a streak of darkness which is quite compelling and subversive.
SANTA CLAUS is in many ways very modern, yet it is surely steeped in the “old world”, and this dichotomy gives it some of its considerable aesthetic charisma.
And in case you think the seal of approval on the poster is a gimmick, stand corrected. According to Golden Gate Film Festival spokesman Miguel Pendas, “the Mexican children’s film, SANTA CLAUS, indeed won the award for ‘Best International Family Film’ at the Third San Francisco International Film Festival in November of 1959. This fact was reported in Daily Variety on November 25, 1959, and in the Oakland Tribune on November 29, 1959.” Many thanks to Marc Berezin for tracking down this important piece of SANTA CLAUS history!
SANTA CLAUS is a genuine fantasy masterpiece, a rare and awesome jewel of children’s cinema.
color, fullscreen, mono, 94 minutes, and packed with holiday extras. DVD-R comes packaged as shown in color DVD case, wrapped in plastic!