Control Nathan Rabin: Santa with Muscles
For previous entries in Control Nathan Rabin, the column where I allow the site’s Patreon donors to choose which of two dire-looking movies I will be forced to watch and write about, I have chosen movies with a strong connection to each other: Adam Sandler’s Sandy Wernick or Adam Sandler’s The Do-Over. Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America or Dinesh D’Souza’s Hillary's America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party. Robert De Niro’s Dirty Grandpa or Robert De Niro’s The Comedian. 50 Shades of Grey or 50 Shades Of Black. Continually smashing my testicles with a hammer or repeatedly smashing my nut sack with a mallet.
For the latest Control Nathan Rabin, I did something different. With this entry, I gave readers an opportunity to torment me with options from much different places in the pop culture universe. The only thing they share is the absolute certainty that they will both be hot garbage. So I gave readers the option to force me to watch either Fred 2: Night of the Living Fred, the second feature-film vehicle for nasally human aggravation/massive Youtube star “Fred”, a character Lucas Cruickshank explicitly created as a form of torture not covered by the Geneva Convention but that went on to become obscenely popular with children with terrible tastes (which is to say, children) or the poorly received Hulk Hogan Christmas 1996 vehicle Santa With Muscles.
The road to me wasting my Sunday afternoon drinking in the craziness of Santa With Muscles began when I accepted my friend Clint Worthington’s invitation to watch and talk about the earlier, equally poorly received Hulk Hogan vehicle Mr. Nanny for a live recording of his excellent bad movie podcast Alcohollywood. I didn’t know what to expect from Mr. Nanny, with the exception of absolute crap, so I was delighted to discover that the film is the best kind of bad movie: utterly distinctive, howlingly cheap and ill-conceived, unintentionally hilarious and full of bizarre moments that lodge themselves deep into your psyche and never leave, like a notorious shot where, apropos of absolutely nothing, an extra throws a dog in a body of water for no discernible reason.
Of course, the first rule of being an extra is to not do bizarre things to call attention to yourself and distract from the reality of the moment. So it is particularly perverse and particularly awesome for an extra to do something so bizarre and so memorable that you find yourself remembering it years later.
I had a blast watching and talking Mr. Nanny. It made such an indelible impression on me that I wondered if Hogan had made other vehicles that deserve to be in the hallowed pantheon of movies that are so wonderfully terrible that they angrily demand to be watched and ironically savored.
Well, friends, I am pleased to report that Santa With Muscles is exactly what I was hoping it would be. If the filmmakers have a choice between the expected and something that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, they go with the option that’s completely nonsensical. Most movies, for example, would have villainous henchmen characters be brawny and monosyllabic.
Santa With Muscles, on the other hand, features henchmen, (and a henchwoman, who confusingly, appears to be able to control electricity) who are all physically unimposing doctors or scientists, most notably a sinister head henchman played by a dude who looks like Richard Grant following some manner of wasting disease. Oh, and they operate out of an ice cream truck for some reason.
Santa With Muscles is full of bizarre, memorable details like that. It’s a movie that asks, “Why just have an orphanage full of disgustingly adorable moppets in peril at Christmastime (including a young Mila Kunis, long before she was in a position to tell her agent, “Honestly, I’m insulted that you’d even ask me to audition for something called Santa With Muscles”) when you can have an an orphanage full of disgustingly adorable moppets in peril at Christmastime that happens to reside above an elaborate series of catacombs containing magical crystals?”
The movie opens with a little girl named Elizabeth (Aria Curzon) writing a letter to Santa where she says she doesn’t much want anything for Christmas but she’s worried that the film’s villain, an evil scientist named Ebner Frost (Ed Begley Jr, in the role he will be remembered for), will do something sinister to hurt her and her friends.
Curzon plays Elizabeth as a grotesque burlesque of sticky childhood innocence. She’s the human equivalent of a Precious Moments figurine, a “Love Is” cartoon come to nauseous life. The opening of Santa With Muscles is so sugary that I got a mouthful of cavities just watching it. Yet it’s also saccharine enough that it could keep the good folks over at Tab stocked for decades.
It seems a little odd that this little girl is too naive and immature to realize that Santa Claus is a fiction more or less created by the Coca-Cola corporation to sell overpriced sugar-water yet is savvy enough to know that a weird adult stranger who leads a Howard Hughes-like existence as a germaphobic recluse has sinister designs on her orphanage.
That would be like if a movie where Donald Trump was the villain began with a little girl writing a letter to Santa reading, “Dear Santa, I want an Xbox and a Paw Patrol lunchbox and for my brother to come back from the dead and also I’m concerned that a lot of President Trump’s Executive orders are going to really negatively affect a lot of my immigrant friends, so if you could do something about that, I’d appreciate it too. I know that’s not usually your bag, but if this year you could add defeating my town, and the country's, primary bad guy to your usual rounds, that’d be great.”
Incidentally, if anyone wants to purchase my wonderful new children's book idea The Year Santa Fistfought President Trump, which I totally just trademarked, it's available for a steep yet reasonable price.
Elsewhere, health-supplement mogul Blake Thorn (Hulk Hogan), lives by his own rules, literally. Like Kenny Powers, if Kenny Powers was a terrible character atrociously conceived and badly executed by an ostensibly wholesome wrestler with an unfortunate predilection for racial slurs, sex tapes, steroids and self-destruction, Thorn fancies himself a self-help guru and dispenser of life lessons. He regularly favors his underlings with lessons from his various “rules.”
One of Thorn’s “rules” is to never surrender. This holds true even when the police are chasing him after he made the mistake of shooting a cop played by Clint Howard with a paintball gun. I’m no fan of the police, but even I find it a little alarming how cavalier the movie is about its hero shooting at police officers with any kind of gun, even a paint gun. This is true even of police officers who look like Clint Howard.
True, Blake is supposed to be a crazed narcissist desperately in need of the kind of life lessons you only pick up after suffering temporary amnesia after falling down and bonking your head and thinking you’re Santa Claus, but he’s supposed to be a fundamentally good dude on the wrong path, not a complete sociopath violently divorced from reality.
As an actor, Hogan tries harder in Santa with Muscles than he ever has before. He consequently fails harder than he ever has before as well. Santa with Muscles first asks Hogan to engage in broad comic self-deprecation as a wealthy, powerful mass of muscles desperately in love with himself.
Unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger, the man Hogan and his people clearly modeled his film career after (Santa with Muscles is very cynically and transparently an attempt to reproduce the Yuletide magic of the Austrian Oak's all-time holiday classic Jingle All Da Vey), Hogan is not a smart, savvy natural-born movie star with a flair for self-deprecation and self-parody. He has no apparent sense of humor so his idea of comic self-parody involves shouting all his lines in a voice more effeminate than the one he usually employs.
When this out of control multi-millionaire has to find a place to hide from the fuzz—who are only pursuing him because he fired a gun at them—he decks into a nearby mall, helps himself to a narratively convenient Santa costume just sitting around, and then experiences a fall so sharp and painful that it induces temporary amnesia and since he’s wearing a Santa costume, he naturally assumes that he is the popular fictional Yuletide gift-giver.
The amnesia-riddled multi-millionaire is being manipulated by shady, piece of shit degenerate “elf” and scuzzy con man Lenny (Don Stark), who steals Blake’s wallet but, in what is not at all an insultingly stupid plot point in a film overflowing with them, he cannot steal money from an ATM because it is fingerprint-activated. So this low-rent character out of Bad Santa clings to the muscle-bound dullard in hopes of helping himself to some of his vast fortune.
At the mall, Blake, sees a sign soliciting money for the imperiled orphanage from the movie’s opening and instinctively senses that he must go there and help its inhabitants. Gosh, what are the odds that that little girl’s letter to Santa would be answered so quickly, and by a dude dressed up like Santa?
After getting bonked on the head and suffering from Amnesia, Hogan delivers his lines in a confused monotone he mistakes for fractured innocence. In this instance, the clothes make the man, and like Harrison Ford in Regarding Henry, he discovers that nothing makes you appreciate what’s really important in life quite like some head trauma.
Hogan is doing comedy! Is he funny? Oh God no, but it’s a little like the old line about a dog driving a car; you’re not grading it sharply, you’re just astonished that it’s happening at all.
Santa with Muscles is indeed funny, but the laughs are one hundred percent unintentional. This is, after all, a Christmas movie that boldly chooses to forego literally anything that might mark it as a Christmas movie other than the whole Santa thing. Love white christmases full of snow? Too bad, because Santa With Muscles is full of sunshine, not snow. How about carolers? They’re great for Christmas flavor, right? Consequently, there are no carolers because there are also no Christmas carols being sung. The movie is so utterly devoid of Christmas flavor that the only way we know it’s Christmastime at all is because characters keep talking about how many days there until Christmas, or remarking about how it’s totally Christmas.
As Santa With Muscles lurches drunkenly into its third act, Blake gets bonked on the head yet again and instantly remembers that he’s totally a rich dude and not a fictional mythological character. But how can this incredibly rich, childless man possibly assist a bunch of impoverished, fatherless orphans?
Santa with Muscles begins crazy and just gets getting crazier and crazier until it’s veered unmistakably into science-fiction/fantasy/acid trip territory with the introduction of magical crystals in the catacombs underneath the orphanage and an ending involving a massive building mysteriously disappearing.
In keeping with its bizarre commitment to doing way too much when very little is called for, Santa with Muscles even introduces an elaborate backstory where Blake and Ebner lived in the orphanage Blake ends up saving, and were best friends before Blake was adopted and Ebner was not, leaving him filled with rage.
Santa with Muscles feels like a cartoon come to life. But it’s not a good, Looney Tunes cartoon. Instead if feels like the live-action version of a special that would be put out by a failing Canadian production company whose output consists entirely of The Snorks’ Kwanzaa Party.
I’m really glad you guys chose Santa with Muscles. I enjoyed damn near every terrible minute of it, and if you choose to do a drunken double feature of Mr. Nanny and Santa With Muscles, I think you’ll have a blast. Also, you should invite me to join you.
I had to start Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place to have an excuse to watch and then write about Santa With Muscles. It was totally worth it.
Support Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace