Unfortunately, the only David Huddleston joint I've ever given the Better Living Through Bad Movies treatment to is the seasonably inappropriate Santa Claus: The Movie, which is scheduled to appear in our upcoming sequel. But time waits for no man, especially the dead ones, and attention must be paid to such a person. So we present Christmas in July, with...
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc
Written by: David Newman (screenplay) David & Leslie Newman (story)
Tagline: Seeing is Believing.
Santa Claus was produced by Alexander and Illya Salkind, at a time when the legendary team was at the height of their creative powers; that is to say, between Supergirl (1984) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). Suggested tagline: You Will Believe a Movie Can Suck.
Now, I’m not going to sugarcoat it, kids – this film takes a hard and uncompromising look at the hand-made wooden toy industry, and exposes us to some harsh truths about Santa; but I believe that in the end, we’ll be better or bitter people for it. One or the other.
The budget was reportedly $50 million (in 1985 dollars), and no expense was spared in creating an otherworldly realm of enchantment. We open in medieval Scandinavia, which at this performance will be played by a plastic log cabin inside a $9.99 musical snowglobe from Spencer’s Gifts.
It’s Christmas Eve, and inside the snowglobe, a Jessica Fletcher impersonator dressed like a Pilgrim is telling a rambling story about ice to a group of children whose immobile, slack-jawed faces suggest they have each been lovingly and individually stunned with a blunt object. Suddenly, we hear a jingling of sleigh bells, then portly, middle-aged fur-enthusiast Claus bursts into the lodge. The sole supplier of wood to the village’s entirely wood-based economy, the boisterous Claus still finds time to make crappy gifts for the stupefied moppets out of bark and sawdust.
A storm is raging, but Claus must still deliver his burlap sack full of crudely carved horse figurines and vaguely disturbing birchwood Voodoo dolls to the remaining children on the other side of the Village. Since the conditions are potentially deadly, he decides to drag his wife along with him; but not to worry, for Claus’s faithful reindeer, Donner and Blitzen, can pull his sleigh through any weather. They set off with a merry jingle and a twinkle in their eyes and immediately become lost in the blizzard, while the reindeer drop dead.
Realizing their lives are in danger, Claus hops out of the sleigh and delivers a tongue-lashing to his recently deceased draft animals. Meanwhile, Mrs. Claus begins pissing and moaning about the cold while her core temperature drops. Claus grabs hold of her just as she loses consciousness, and quickly but calmly takes action. Although by now he’s half-obscured by the driving snow, I think he cuts her open and tries to climb into her abdominal cavity; but he’s too slow slicing through her many layers of doeskin undergarments, and he freezes to death too.
Merry Christmas, kids! The only thing you’re going to find under the tree this year is Santa’s autopsy report.
Suddenly, a brilliant star appears above the pile of dead bodies, glowing ever brighter, and we realize that somewhere on this magic Christmas night, a supernova has obliterated an entire solar system.
But the star has amazing powers, for its ethereal radiance resurrects the reindeer, and turns them into overpriced puppets from FAO Schwartz. Then Claus is revived by the stellar defibrillator, and nudges awake his deceased wife just as a vast army of torch-wielding lawn gnomes shamble toward them. In the vanguard is Dudley Moore, who identifies himself as an elf, and adds, “I’m the one called Patch.” And while this hardly comes as welcome news, it could’ve been worse, I suppose; he could’ve been Patch Adams. The rest of the elves are named things like Boog, Honka, Vout – basically they all sound like things that were hawked up into a Kleenex.
Mrs. Claus is visibly uncomfortable to find that her lifeless body has been reanimated by Travelocity mascots, but Patch urges her not to feel “elf-conscious.” It seems the elves live in a vast, mystical ski lodge, and they have been observing humanity for centuries, waiting for “the Chosen One,” a man with a heart so pure he could see the invisible elfin realm, as if through the eyes of a child, and so stupid he doesn’t know to come in out of the blizzard. It’s all a little overwhelming, but the important thing is that Santa is dead, and his corpse enslaved by imps so he can work in their toy fulfillment operation.
As they drag Claus and his wife toward their new, gingerbread-encrusted prison, the elves remark that he seems very jolly for a Shanghaied cadaver, while Patch admits to “a real feeling of elf-confidence.” By the way, I hope you’re enjoying the elf puns, because the screenwriters have about 317 more of them.
The Clauses enter the intricately carved wooden lodge, which is both the elves’ home and their workshop, a whimsical wonderland that resembles a Vietnamese sneaker factory crammed inside a Black Forest cuckoo clock. As Zombie Santa gazes about, marveling at the abundance of toys lovingly fashioned from Scots pine and Norway spruce, aspen, birch, alder, and Siberian larch, we realize that elves are a serious cause of deforestation. We also realize that all the gnomes are male, and really hope this fairytale doesn’t end up with Mrs. Claus downing too much mulled wine one night and pulling an HO scale train.
The gnomes play dress-up with Santa, finally settling on the red suit because it nicely matches his rosacea, then they give him a magical sleigh, and six reindeer to go along with his team of two undead ones. Suddenly, a visibly confused Burgess Meredith wanders onto the set, and starts muttering about how Claus is “the Chosen One,” (I thought we’d covered this already), then explains the physics of his new powers: “Time travels with you. Indeed, the night of the world is a passage of endless night for you.” Well, that sure sounds like damnation to me. Thanks, Mick.
He dubs the confused walking corpse “Santa,” then wanders out of the room again, dragging eight yards of beard behind him. I never did get his name, but since he has the power to declare people saints, I presume it was the Pope.
The elves feed each reindeer a glowing mixture of crank, Pop Secret, and PCP, which allows them to fly, and to punch their hoof through a windshield and not even feel it.
Santa takes off, but almost immediately Donner gets airsick, and Claus has to bank sharply to dodge all the reindeer puke in the slipstream. The rest of the trip is a montage of wooden toys, bad blue screen flying effects, superimposed letters to Santa (although he never existed before tonight, so you have to admire the elves’ viral marketing) and one shot of a depressed adolescent dressed like a harlequin and moping on his mandolin.
The years pass. Much like a kidney stone. In the 18th century, a little girl writes a letter to Santa, ratting out her brother for being mean to the cat. Mrs. Claus declares that from now on, only good children will receive crappy wooden toys, and the Naughty List is established. Unfortunately, Santa can’t depend entirely on snitches, so the elves initiate an illegal surveillance program of the world’s children.
Then we get another montage of kids getting slightly more modern, but still incredibly crappy presents (a plastic abacus? Really, Santa?), while a horrible, keening childrens’ choir shrieks lyrics like, “Santa really knows the way to live…!”
Now it’s the 20th century, and a street urchin who resembles Jack Wild in Oliver! is dodging the police, when he suddenly glances into a townhouse, and locks eyes with a Poor Little Rich Boy or Girl (the Prince Valiant haircut is a little ambiguous). From across the street, they exchange long, lingering, unmotivated and intensely uncomfortable glances.
Back at the North Pole, Santa has gotten used to his slave name, but not the workload, and has begun passing out in his pea soup. Patch connives to be appointed Dick Cheney, and immediately reorganizes the artisanal workshop along industrial principles, and introduces innovations like toys made on an assembly line, before being hand-dipped in bright, lead-based paint.
It’s Christmas Eve again, and Santa takes his load of gifts to New York City, which is the only place he ever goes in this movie. Meanwhile, the Artful Dodger is gazing through the window of McDonalds, salivating as extras gorge themselves on product placement. Suddenly, he teleports to a window outside Pageboy’s townhouse, and peers at her for awhile. Deeply touched by his plight, Pageboy gathers scraps from her dinner table, and steps out back, clucking her tongue and calling “Little Boy! Hey Boy…!” She puts the plate down, then steps back inside. The Artful Dodger creeps out from under a bush, and ravenously feasts on her leftovers; then, while he’s groggy from the dinner roll, chicken skin, and residual salad, she traps and neuters him.
High above the city, Santa is ho-ho-hoing it up, declaring, “Tonight there’s not a child alive who’s not bursting with happiness!” Then, in the alley below, he spies the Artful Dodger – a child with no home, no parents, no testicles.
Santa teleports to the Dodger’s side, but the boy thinks the jolly old man is just another one of those winos who ring the bell beside the Salvation Army kettle, or a pedophile, or maybe both. Santa confirms this suspicion when he says, “wanna go for a ride?”
But Claus changes the Artful Dodger’s mind when he takes the grimy urchin on a glorious rear-projected tour of New York City; a thrill-ride that almost ends in disaster when Santa tries to pull an outside loop and nearly rams the sleigh deer-first into the World Trade Center.
He drags the kid along on his route, where they accidentally wake up Pageboy, and they have another oddly sexualized stare-down while Santa eats cookies. Coincidentally, it seems that Pageboy is the only child to get presents this year, since Santa is ready to knock off for the night. He drops Jack Wild off in the alley and says, “See you next Christmas Eve!” Naturally, the homeless child is thrilled, and promises to meet Santa again one year from tonight, providing he doesn’t starve to death, die of exposure, or get shanked in a culvert.
Meanwhile, all the wooden wagons and hobbyhorses turned out by Patch’s assembly line are breaking down, and overnight Santa gets a global reputation for giving out “shoddy, cheap toys.” Patch is demoted from Dick Cheney to Assistant Scooter Libby, so he throws a hobo bindle over his shoulder and trudges off across the tundra. Perhaps heading toward the Island of Misfit Toys, although with any luck, he’ll elf-destruct.
Cut to Capitol Hill, where Congress is holding hearings on John Lithgow’s toy company. The committee members read Lithgow the riot act for manufacturing baby dolls that combust like flash paper, and adorable pandas that are stuffed with nails and broken glass, but they still vote him a 34 billion dollar bailout.
Patch goes to Lithgow’s office, and introduces himself as an “elf-taught” toymaker with skills that are “elf-explanatory.” He’s got a stash of stolen reindeer crack, and wants to lace lollipops with it and deliver it to all children all over the world on Christmas night, thus becoming Santa himself! (The original title of this film was Kringle White Female.)
Patch creates a whimsical rocket sled powered by Christmas lights in a plastic tube, and delivers his highly addictive confections all over the world, while Santa, as usual, meanders around New York City. Suddenly the jolly old Zombie remembers that homeless kid from last year, and lands in a urine-scented vacant lot. Amazingly, the kid is still alive, and Santa presents him with a hand-carved wooden elf effigy. The urchin is naturally excited by this gift, because as soon as Santa dumps him again, he can burn it in a trashcan to stay warm.
The repurposed reindeer crack is a huge hit, and Patch becomes a media darling. Meanwhile, back at the North Pole, Santa is having a mid-immortal life crisis, and wondering if he should just eliminate Christmas altogether, since he’s getting underbid by treacherous former employees who are flagrantly violating their non-compete agreements.
At Lithgow’s factory, Patch is having second thoughts about going mano a mano with Santa Claus, and spends a good 30 seconds moping in the giant dresser where he sleeps. Then he sighs, grabs a copy of Sleighboy magazine and retires to his drawer for a little elf-abuse. (If you can’t beat ‘em…)
Back in the Big Apple, the Artful Dodger climbs into Pageboy’s bedroom so he can share his tuberculosis and dangerously high fever. The Poor Little Rich Boy/Girl is again touched by the plight of this friendless, destitute orphan, and insists that he stay and recuperate in a damp storage closet in her basement.
Cut to the North Pole, where the new Dick Cheney tries to cheer up Santa by making dolls that pee, but the old man, despite his Germanic origins, seems to have lost his taste for water sports.
Cut to Pageboy’s townhouse, where the kids are eavesdropping on her step-uncle, John Lithgow, and his plans for a hostile takeover of Christmas. It seems the reindeer crack, which they’re planning to distribute again, is explosive, and will blow the heads off their prepubescent demographic.
Lithgow catches the Artful Dodger, but Pageboy escapes and writes an emergency letter to Santa, explaining the asinine third act complications. Santa tells the elves to hitch up the reindeer, because he’s going to kick ass and rescue that homeless kid he keeps ditching. Tragically, two of the reindeer are on the DL, but Santa gives the remaining members of the team a pep talk. “Now listen,” he says. “I know we’re two men short today, but this time you’ve got to fly like the wind. Can you do it for me? Can you do it for that homeless kid I keep ditching? Sure you can!”
As inspirational speeches go, it’s not exactly St. Crispin’s Day, but then, he’s a zombie trying to rabble-rouse ungulates.
Patch finds the Artful Dodger tried up in the basement, and immediately enlists him to help distribute his deadly explosive candy canes. They take off in the Fisher Price Rocket Sled of Death, with Santa and Pageboy in hot pursuit.
Back at the toy factory, the police pull up outside, and Lithgow reaches into his desk just the way Bob Gunton did when he committed suicide at the end of The Shawshank Redemption. Sadly, though, he doesn’t pull out a gun; instead, he takes an overdose of reindeer crack and floats away into the sky like a mylar Happy Birthday balloon, except he’s wearing spats and screaming.
The candy crack in the trunk of Patch’s sled is about to explode, and Santa realizes his only hope of saving his turncoat elf and that grimy homeless kid is to perform a completely senseless outside loop, which he does. And somehow everything is fine now.
Back at the North Pole, the urchin decides to join the gnome fraternity, because they have a damp spot in the basement where he can sleep, and Pageboy decides to hang around until next Christmas, when Santa can drop her off at home, even though it’s likely someone would have reported her missing at some point, and Fox News would be running nightly updates about the Missing White Girl with the Prince Valiant Hair, and Nancy Grace would be showing composite sketches of Santa, who would die, tragically, in a police crossfire when he attempted to return the girl to her townhouse.
Our movie ends as John Lithgow floats above the atmosphere, into outer space, and we cut away seconds before his lungs rupture and his eyes burst from their sockets.
Happy Holidays, everyone.
And R.I.P. to David Huddleston, who left behind a distinguished body of work -- if not necessarily in this film, then certainly in that one episode of Barnaby Jones. Or The Fall Guy. Or Supertrain! So join us in lifting a drink to one of the last of the classic character actors. who spent a career bringing an artists' touch to assembly line product and making the mundane moments between the commercial breaks funny, scary, disturbingly off-beat, but always his own.
Anyway, we're gonna need a new Santa next year, so somebody should get right on that...