Richard J. Leskosky: Movie Santas have been naughty and nice
Hollywood never met a stereotype, cliche, platitude or popular symbol it did not embrace wholeheartedly. That's just good business and sells lots of movie tickets.
But Hollywood also loves to undercut those same generally accepted images or even recast them in a negative light. That gambit sells tickets to a (usually) different audience and might even earn the filmmakers a nod for being edgy, ironic, dark, satiric — or even for making social or political comments.
Even Santa Claus does not escape. True, most movies depicting Santa show him as the sort of "jolly old elf" described in "The Night Before Christmas" and pictured in Thomas Nast's iconic 19th-century cartoon and in decades of Coca-Cola ads. But quite a few films do show him — or, rather, his imitators — in a decidedly dubious light.
Even positive Santa films sometimes have dark elements. In the classic 1947 "Miracle on 34th Street" (and in John Hughes' 1994 remake) Kris Kringle gets to be Santa in the big Thanksgiving Day parade when the guy originally hired shows up drunk.
"The Santa Clause 2" rings in a life-size toy Santa replica to complicate things for Tim Allen's real Santa; and "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause" briefly turns a jealous, self-aggrandizing Jack Frost into a real but un-Santa-like Santa after tricking Allen's character into giving up his Santa-hood.
And in both Chuck Jones' 1966 cartoon version of "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and the 2000 live-action Jim Carrey version, the Grinch dresses like Santa while doing his dirty work.
In this year's "Rise of the Guardians," based on William Joyce's children's novels, Santa Claus, aka North, though definitely a good guy, qualifies as "bad" in the slang sense of "cool" or "excellent" for his heavily tattooed arms and his dazzling two-fisted swordsmanship.
But guys in films wearing Santa suits who aren't really Santa go way beyond "naughty" — and the bounds of family entertainment.
Take the larcenous Santas — reversing the real Santa's gift giving and perhaps commenting on the materialism and consumerism that have come to permeate the Christmas season. Billy Bob Thornton's character in "Bad Santa" (2003), an alcoholic misanthrope and something of a pervert, works every Christmas as a department store Santa so that he and his partner can burglarize the store of its Christmas receipts.
In "Reindeer Games," (2003) when Ben Affleck's car thief is forced to assist in robbing a casino, the whole gang wears Santa outfits for the heist. The film actually opens with a shot of dead Santas sprawled across the casino floor.
But the best thief-dressed-as-Santa movie remains 1978's "The Silent Partner." At Christmastime, bank teller Elliott Gould becomes suspicious of the activities of a Santa (Christopher Plummer) hanging around the bank, and when the thief actually pulls off the robbery, the teller shortchanges him, making off with a bigger haul himself. When the thief finds out, he comes after the teller and the dough, and a duel of wits ensues. It's a minor yet solid crime classic and worth searching out, but be warned that it contains a brutal murder with an aquarium that was shocking at the time and has not lost any of its impact.
Oddly, no one has ever made a film based on the infamous real-life Santa Claus Bank Robbery of 1927 in Cisco, Texas. The leader of a four-man gang of robbers wore a Santa outfit as a disguise (he had lived in Cisco before being imprisoned for another bank robbery and figured he would be recognized without a disguise).
The robbery began to go wrong even before the robbers left the bank. That led to the taking of two little girls as hostages, several running gun battles (at the time the Texas Bankers Association was offering $5,000 to anyone who shot a robber during the crime), the largest manhunt in Texas history, several gunshot deaths and a lynching.
Quite a few movie homicidal maniacs like to dress up as Santa while using axes, knives and other sharp objects (e.g., ice skates) to ruin other characters' holidays. Not every horror film set during the Christmas season involves a psycho Santa, but the following definitely do: the "And All Through the House" episode in "Tales from the Crypt" (1972), "Christmas Evil" aka "You Better Watch Out" (1980), "To All a Good Night" with two killer Santas (1980), "Silent Night, Deadly Night" (1984) and 1987's "Silent Night, Deadly Night, Part 2" (but not the other three films in the series), "Santa Claws" (1996), "Black Christmas" (2006) and "Silent Night" (2012).
Clearly, these filmmakers also like a bit of wordplay in their titles — though that's often the extent of the wit demonstrated in the films.
Besides killers dressed as Santa, a couple of American movies actually do present Santa himself as a threat.
In the 2003 action comedy "The Hebrew Hammer," a surly Claus stomps on a Jewish boy's dreidel and gives him a rude gesture. That little boy grows up to become the Hebrew Hammer, a detective who defends all things Jewish. The good, tolerant successor to that earlier, biased Santa is murdered by his own son who plans to destroy Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, and the Hammer is called upon to nail him.
"Santa's Slay" (2005) casts Santa (wrestler Bill Goldberg) as a murderous demon (well, "Santa" is an anagram of "Satan," after all) who lost a curling match (!) to an angel back in the year 1005 and as forfeit had to deliver presents on Christmas for 1,000 years. With the 1,000 years up, he returns to slaughtering people indiscriminately.
For deadly Santa figures in strange horror films, though, you need to look abroad. Different countries have different takes on the Santa Claus legend, and it's interesting seeing them played out with horror (tinged with comedy) readings.
In the Netherlands. Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat from Spain with his helper, Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), who is black either because he is a Moor or because he goes down chimneys to deliver presents.
St. Nicholas, a bishop, is wont to ride his gray-white horse across the rooftops. In the Dutch "Saint" (2010), however, that legend conceals a horrendous truth.
Outraged villagers actually burned Nicholas and his helpers hundreds of years ago for looting and pillaging. Every couple of dozen years when the anniversary of their deaths coincides with a full moon, their ghosts return and slaughter hundreds of people, but the Dutch government covers it up.
In 2010, a police detective who had survived such a massacre when he was a child tries to convince his superiors that another disaster is imminent. Much decapitation ensues (Nicholas' crozier is actually topped with razor edges) as well as a chase between a police car on the ground and Nicholas and his horse barreling along the rooftops.
In the Alpine parts of Europe, St. Nicholas may be accompanied by Krampus, a horned devil-like figure who punishes bad children. The excellent 2010 Finnish horror comedy, "Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale," tinkers with that version of the myth by reversing the hierarchy and orientation of the two figures.
When archeologists discover a gigantic Krampus frozen in ice beneath a huge burial mound, elves who look like dirty, thin Santas pop up and start killing adults, stealing children and trying to thaw out the ancient demon. Local reindeer herders rise to the challenge and also find a lucrative new product to export.
The feature film derives from a couple of shorts (included on the same DVD) in which wild Father Christmases are hunted down and trained to be department store Santas. The training sessions to keep them from biting off the heads of the children sitting on their laps and the instructions for safely handling their transport are darkly hilarious.
Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.