Rob Walker | Movie Poster of the Day

Holiday Movies in Print: Santa Claus (vs. the devil)

The second time I watched Santa Claus, it was only to confirm that this bizarre and exhausting artifact existed somewhere outside of memory. It was not easy, that second viewing.

Although the title curiously omits this presumed selling point, the movie's plot involves Santa Claus sparring with a demon agent of Satan. There’s no reason to get bogged down in details, but in this narrative Santa’s base of operations is in outer space; instead of elves, his workers are children of various nationalities; the devil’s mission is to thwart the delivery of toys; and while the hero and villain jab at each other with various magical tactics that have pratfall consequences, the day is ultimately saved by way of an assist from Merlin, the wizard associated with Arthurian legend.

It is a children’s movie. I didn’t understand that when I saw it the first time, as a pre-teen. In fact, I just didn’t understand what I was seeing, in general. I’ll guess that that this was around 1980, but it was certainly during a media era that was not only pre-Internet, but pre-cable (at least where I grew up). It was the time of three commercial broadcast networks, PBS, and, in larger cities, an independent local channel or two. When something truly weird, without explanation or context, poked its way into that constricted media world, it was hard for me to look away.

Santa Claus dates back to an even earlier media era. First released in Mexico in 1959, it came out in dubbed form in the United States the following year. By the time I saw the latter version, I’m sure it would have struck me as preposterous that anyone might have designed and printed materials to promote such an unlikely entertainment to a mass audience. But of course there were posters and lobby cards meant to do precisely that.

Santa Claus poster (US), image courtesy of Posteritati

This US poster strikes me as a fairly evasive document. It leans on a comforting cliché image of Santa—albeit a mildly intriguing one, for its curious cut-out feel—surrounded by a mix of vague sells (“an enchanting world,” “wonderful characters of make-believe”) and straight facts positioned as features (“Full length!”). Okay, but what might the potential moviegoer have made of the unexplained devil figure in the lower right panel?  

Santa Claus lobby card (US), image courtesy of Posteritati

The related lobby card more bluntly highlights Santa and the demon in a confrontational pose. But the smattering of cartoon-like mini-scenes read to me less as summations of the film than as evidence of the designer’s uncertainty.

Those thumbnail scenes are also used in Mexican versions of the poster and lobby card floating around online. These are slightly more appealing—their palette seems brighter, and they emphasize that Santa Claus was filmed in “Mexiscope” (which means nothing to me, but has an exciting logo).

Christmases came and went after my first encounter with Santa Claus, and while I have little interest in holiday-themed movies, I thought back on this one with steadily increasing uncertainty. Did that actually happen? Apart from the essentially nonsensical mashup of imagined universes, I remembered super-saturated colors, cartoonish sets, Santa wrestling Satan. I remembered this unfolding as I watched alone, with no one around to confirm that one of Houston’s UHF stations (I forget whether it was channel 26 or 39) was airing this oddity instead of the usual Leave It To Beaver or Star Trek reruns. It felt like someone had snuck this onto the airwaves, or maybe even overridden regularly scheduled programming by way of some jamming mechanism.

A year or two ago it occurred to me I could determine whether or not I had hallucinated the entire thing. By then, after all, we’d arrived in a brand new media era, of seemingly infinite choice. And of course the film is real and you can watch it right now: It’s available through the Internet Archive, or YouTube.

Some of what I remembered was wrong—there was no drawn-out Santa-Satan punchup as I’d thought, and I recalled the movie being called Santa vs. The Devil. All-in-all, it wasn’t so much delightfully weird as boringly and insipidly so, alternatively inducing headaches and drowsiness. In fact, I regret the experience, because I actually preferred my false or exaggerated memories: they are more surreal, more druggy, more thrillingly (if inadvertently) subversive than reality. The reality, like the posters that advertised it, was a disappointment.

Actually, looking at the posters now just makes me wish I could somehow conjure up promotional materials for the semi-real film in my head. The perfect poster would scream with disorienting color, relying on visual tricks and slightly sinister graphic details; it would feel like something between an acid trip and a prank. It would make you glance around to see if anybody else had noticed this thing.

And then, when you turned back to look a little more closely, it would be gone.

Special thanks to Posteritati for image assists.

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