The holiday season is just around the corner. Dozens of films have been made for this time of year. Some are classics, some plain awful and rightly forgotten. Some, however, are legendary for how truly bad and downright weird they are. Let’s take a look back at two of the strangest Christmas movies ever made, both of which could make you take a second look at what a “Santa movie” can be.
Santa Claus (1959)
The behind-the-scenes development of this film is just as unusual as the movie itself. René Cardona, a veteran Mexican director, turned out this bizarre children’s Christmas film among the hundred-plus he directed in his lifetime (including such future cult-classics as Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy and Night of The Bloody Apes).
Gordon Murray, a distributor of mostly exploitation films, hit on the idea of importing foreign children’s films (mostly from Mexico), redubbing them into English and putting on weekend afternoon matinee showings in movie theaters across the U.S. Santa Claus was one of these movies.
In his Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, author Michael Weldon calls the movie “holiday exploitation at its finest.”
“Every winter for years K. Gordon Murray has dusted off his dubbed prints of this creaky south-of-the-border cheapie and made a bundle… a 60s Christmastime matinee staple…”
In Santa Claus, a young girl named Lupita is tempted by the demon Pitch to steal a doll she wants for Christmas (her parents are poor and cannot afford it). Santa and Merlin (yes, the wizard) team up to disrupt Pitch and keep Lupita on the side of good. Pitch, who works directly for Satan, attempts to also prevent Santa from delivering toys but fails in a number of comical ways.
The mythology for Santa in this film is unlike that seen in any other Christmas tale. He lives not in the Arctic, but instead in a castle in the sky, resting upon the clouds. Along with Merlin, Santa possesses a magic electronic eyeball observation system to aid him. The wacky, cartoonish, and very surreal design of his gadgets have been mentioned as a potential forerunner of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.
In the 1960s, Murray added Mexican superhero wrestler Santo to his repertoire of films. Apparently in the late 1970s, trouble with taxes led the IRS to prohibiting any future distribution of his films in the U.S. Santa Claus had managed to play in local runs around the U.S. for over twenty years. He died shortly thereafter of a heart attack, having provided many Boomers with unusual childhood memories at the movies.
Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (1964)
Weldon says, “As bad as the Mexican Santa Claus is, residents of our own Long Island proved they could make a more inept, embarrassing movie and reap and even bigger profit!”
“The spirit of Christmas shines through in one of the worst movies of any kind ever made… The sets, props, and acting are all bottom-of-the-budget-barrel.”
The film’s plot is not much of a surprise, given the title. Santa does not appear on the planet of war with domination in mind, though. He is, in fact, kidnapped – directly from the North Pole by a Martian robot. The aliens’ goal is to improve the morale of their children, who live regimented lives with little time for play or happiness. Santa is opposed by Voldar, a Martian second-in-command who feels the Martian lifestyle should not be changed.
Of some note is Pia Zadora, who plays one of the Martian children. Zadora would later be a controversial figure in the early 1980s, when her Golden Globe for the movie Butterfly was allegedly obtained by an incessant promotional push by her then-husband, a wealthy businessman many years older than her.
Writer John M. Miller, in an article on the Turner Classic Movies Database website, notes how the movie was a true independent effort.
“Producer Paul L. Jacobson had previous experience with children’s entertainment, working as a unit manager on the Howdy Doody TV series. In the early 1960s he formed Jalor Productions and raised $200,000 (mostly from private investors) to film Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, based on his own original story. The film was shot at Michael Myerberg Studios on Long Island in New York; the facility had once served as an aircraft hanger…
“…[it] fared poorly at the box office during its initial run, but went on to turn a profit during annual reissues and later became a staple on local television stations…”
Both of these films were covered on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (and later RiffTrax), where many new audiences were exposed to them for the first time, with the added benefit of intentional comedy commenting on all the unintentional comedy occuring.
Thanks to both films apparently falling into the public domain, they are easily found on video streaming websites. A brief summary can only do some justice to how weird these movies are. They must be seen to be believed.
Here they are:
What’s one of the weirdest Christmas movies you’ve ever seen? Leave a comment below.
[Featured Image by Cinematográfica Calderón/K. Gordon Murray/Jalor Productions/Embassy Pictures]