Santa Claus (1959)

At our latitude, Santa Claus comes with a set of built-in expectations: an unhealthy BMI, a felt suit, more hos than a red light district, and of course, the white beard.

1959’s Santa Claus, aka, Mexican Santa Claus, aka, Santa Claus vs. The Devil, upturns the sled, and gives us so many weird twists and turns that it makes for must-see Christmas viewing (especially if you’re tired of seeing James Caan glower at Will Ferrell on every fourth channel this time of year).

In this version, children, not elves, are the unlucky toilers in Santa’s employment standards-skirting workshop, and director Rene Cardona goes through great pains to show us that the kids are of every color and creed: there’s a protracted scene of ethnic stereotypes as American kids with cowboy hats, Germans in dirndls (say that three times fast) and Africans in grass skirts sing traditional, and decidedly un-traditional songs (the Brits sing a few bars of “London Bridge is Falling Down,” for reasons that defy logic and description).

And weirder still: Santa’s workshop isn’t on the North Pole, but is lunar. So it’s not a stretch to say this film is sheer lunacy.

He really knows when you’re sleeping/awake, as his base is equipped with espionage equipment that’d be the envy of the Stasi: telescopic eyes, satellite dish ears, etc. so he can peer down onto the earth’s surface and find out who’s been naughty/nice (depicted here, oddly, as “good” vs “liars).

Santa’s antagonist is “Pitch,” which sounds like some obnoxious a capella singer but who is in actuality a devilish emissary sent by Satan himself to spoil Christmas (“pitch” is a reference to a pitchfork). Pitch gets inside the heads of children to make them do bad things, like chuck projectiles at Kris Kringle or covet expensive dolls.

As weird and wonderful as Cardona’s infamous Night of the Bloody Apes (in which a bad scientist tries to treat leukemia, a bone marrow ailment, with an animal heart transplant) Santa Claus is a real break from your typical holiday fare, not to mention reality.

*** (out of 5)

[Listen to the Really Awful Movies Podcast team discuss Mexican Santa Claus!] 

D.O.A.

The 90s Canadian Sanda Oh starrer, Last Night, was about the last night on earth, as an apocalyptic scenario (unexplained), descended on the world and played out in our hometown (Toronto). That one put a time limit on a question that has bugged everyone from the Stoics to Nietzsche and beyond, “how is life best lived?,” — especially when it’s about to come to an abrupt end. In D.O.A., the question is a simple one — it’s becoming your own detective as your last breath draws closer and closer.

Frank Bigelow, an accountant, is on a business trip to San Francisco. While on the coast, he hits a bebop club, The Fisherman, featuring the most frenetic jazz band ever depicted in celluloid. There, his drink is swapped for another one, and gradually, Frank finds himself becoming increasingly ill.

Docs point out that he’s been poisoned, like he’s a Ukrainian politician. Lab tests reveal he’s ingested a substance for which there’s no antidote. Who would’ve/could’ve done such a thing?

Frank has dwindling time to effectively solve his own murder, and it’s in the film’s stunning tracking shot opener that he saunters into a police precinct to make such a proclamation.

From there, twists and turns aplenty, as Frank finds out there is a distant associate, Eugene, who’d been desperate to contact him before he died, apparently from a suicide. The trail then leads to Eugene’s window, and a mysterious bill of sale that Frank had notarized for the deceased, involving a suspicious substance.

What keeps D.O.A. in motion is essentially an inversion of Kant’s categorical imperative: Frank has to treat people as a means to an end he can’t behave otherwise as the clock is ticking away. As a result, what we get is a character removed from the conventions of how someone might ordinarily act. It’s unsettling, and realistic.

D.O.A. fell into the public domain, but do yourself a favor and track down a high quality print. After all, it’s film noir, and you need the blacks as black as they can be (thanks, guys in Spinal Tap).

Director Rudolph Maté cut his teeth working for Hitch (Foreign Correspondent) among others, and the Master’s influence is pretty apparent in the pupil.

***1/2 (out of 5)

[Check out our podcast of DOA here!]