Thursday, December 22, 2011

Santa with Muscles (Cabin Fever Entertainment, Cineplex Odeon Films, HIT Entertainment, 1996)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s library movie was in their “Schlockfest” series, a 1996 release called Santa with Muscles, filmed in Fillmore, California (a town in Ventura County whose population rose from 13,643 in the 2000 census to 15,002 in the 2010 census and whose urban motto is “The Last, Best Small Town”!) and starring professional wrestler Hulk Hogan as Blake Thorne, health-foods magnate and arrogant bastard who spends his time doing martial-arts training with his household help (the scene at the beginning in which they “attack” him with kitchen implements is marvelous) and insisting that his picture on every one of his products be made larger and his skin in the photo be made more tan. As a movie rich guy, he’s clearly deserving of a comeuppance and he gets one when a gang of unscrupulous speculators led by Ebner Frost (a still hot-looking Ed Begley, Jr.) and the sinister Dr. Blight (Steve Valentine, who looks like some weird cross-breeding experiment to produce a hybrid of the young Malcolm McDowell and John Lone) target the local orphanage. It takes several reels before the filmmakers — director John Murlowski and writers Jonathan Bond, Fred Mata and Dorrie Krum Raymond — tell us why the land under the orphanage is so important to these baddies, but we already learn from Ebner’s map that he’s putting together parcels to form a large landholding and he and his gang force the next-to-last owner to sell by literally stringing him upside-down until he complies.

While all that’s going on, Blake leads his household crew into war games with paintballs, driving in front of them in a Hummer and attracting the attention of the local sheriff, Thomas Hinkley (Clint Howard), who’s convinced they’re domestic terrorists (remember this is 1996, when the term “terrorist” was as likely, if not more so, to conjure up images of a Timothy McVeigh-style Right-wing white-supremacist nutcase as anyone Arab or Muslim) and gives chase. Fleeing, he ends up in a mall whose anchor tenant, a giant toy store, is awaiting the arrival of their Santa Claus. The stage set where Santa holds forth in the store is being swarmed by hundreds of kids demanding Santa’s appearance with the frenzy of a rock audience waiting for a tardy star, and the originally engaged Santa is nowhere to be found. Blake flees into the store and comes upon a locker containing the store’s Santa costume; he dons it but a bit of his camo uniform sticking out the back gives him away. The store’s security people, radioed by the sheriff to be on the lookout for him, chase him down a garbage chute — and he’s hit on the head by a life-sized plaster bust of Santa and the combination gives him amnesia, or at least movie amnesia. He develops the delusion that he is Santa Claus, and the only person in the movie that is onto his true identity is Lenny (a nicely Danny DeVito-esque performance by Don Stark), who lifts Thorne’s wallet and tries to access his ATM — only instead of numerical codes, this ATM uses fingerprint identification and has a threatening voice (Melody Clark-Curzon) that snarls when an unauthorized person tries to access an account.

Blake a.k.a. “Santa” foils a plot by two young crooks (whose ineptitude is so risible they make the thugs in Home Alone seem like Moriarty and Mabuse by comparison) to steal the in-store collection from the orphanage, whereupon he gets covered in the local media, dubbed “Santa with Muscles,” and gets a re-tailoring of his Santa suit from Lenny, who cuts off the sleeves and makes it fit more snugly to emphasize his musculature (though, somewhat surprisingly for a film starring a professional wrestler, I can’t recall any scenes in which we got to see him topless). Eventually he ends up in the orphanage trying to save the kids, the woman who runs the place (Robin Curtis) and the old Black retainer whose function remains a bit mysterious (Garrett Morris from the early cast of Saturday Night Live) from having it taken over by Ebner, Blight and their weirdo gang, which includes a top-knotted samurai wanna-be and Dr. Watt (Diane Robin), a woman with an electrical charge running through her body so anyone she touches gets a jolt of current. It turns out that the reason the orphanage is so important is that it and the neighboring buildings are sitting on a rich deposit of piezoelectric crystals that promise to be a new energy source for the world, and Ebner plans not only to take over the crystal deposit but force the orphan kids to mine it for him, sort of like Alberich and the Nibelungs.

Santa with Muscles got voted number 63 on a poll of the worst Christmas movies of all time, but it’s really not as bad as all that; it’s a typical modern dorky comedy (though there’s one good thing about it: no gags about vomiting, farting or other involuntary bodily functions) but it’s at least good fun, and much of it is genuinely amusing in ways the writers and director clearly intended it to be. It’s also nice that Hulk Hogan, unlike some men of artificially enhanced bulk who have become or attempted to become movie stars (can you say “Arnold Schwarzenegger”?), takes himself refreshingly un-seriously and seems well aware that he’s in a rather silly movie whose main attraction was trading on his fame doing something else. An awful lot of it hearkens back to older, better movies — including the final duel with piezoelectric stalactites, which is an obvious cop from the light-saber fight in the original Star Wars — and even the music score by James Covell is full of bits and pieces that are supposed to make us think of earlier films, from the main theme for The Great Escape to the opening of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra as heard in 2001: A Space Odyssey (an odd reference because — unlike the similar quote in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — there’s no attempt in this film to make fun of 2001 itself, either thematically or visually) — but still Santa with Muscles, though not a great movie, is a nice little comedy that didn’t deserve to make it on an all-time-worst list (though if Mystery Science Theatre 3000 were still in existence they could probably do a pretty good job on it!).