This Looks Terrible: Santa's Summer House (2012)

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Welcome, readers, to the latest installment in This Looks Terrible! It’s the column where I masochistically subject myself to impossibly terrible-looking entertainment to discern whether it is, in fact, as dire as it appears. 

This entry is a bit of departure in that I did not know the movie existed until about ten minutes before I started watching it. I woke up this morning again in a bit of a mood that made it tough to figure out what I wanted to do with the day or write about. I really should attack my stack of Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 nominees with renewed vigor but when I started looking for dire-looking Christmas movies to pair with the upcoming Kurt Russell Netflix Christmas joint I discovered the existence of something called Santa’s Summer Home. 

My excitement mounted when I discovered that despite being credited to one “Mary Crawford”, Santa’s Summer Home is actually the work of David DeCoteau, the mad genius and prolific schlockmeister best known, in bad movie circles at least, as the director of the all-time cult classic A Talking Cat!?! 

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Needless to say, that was an exciting discovery. I was even more excited to discover that the film was written by my online pal and all around swell guy Andrew Helm, who achieved instant cult status by writing the screenplay for A Talking Cat!?! That Stan Lee guy was pretty great, but did he ever come up with anything half as inspired as Duffy the magical cat or off-season beach Santa Claus? Well, yes, obviously but that doesn’t make Duffy or Summer Santa any less remarkable. 

When it comes to dodgy-looking, low-budget kid’s films available for streaming on Amazon Prime what I invariably want is that A Talking Cat!?! feeling and I figure since DeCoteau and Helm are the director and writer of A Talking Cat!?! then Santa’s Summer House must have it in spades. 

There were other elements that made Santa’s Summer House look transcendently silly. As a b-movie mad kid who grew up on Cynthia Rothrock vehicles I was morbidly fascinated by the prospect of a robotic martial artist who punched and kicked her way through any number of interchangeable direct-to-video action movies in the 1990s playing, of all things, a sassy, wisecracking, twinkly-eyed Mrs. Claus. 

Action stars tend to fall into one of two categories. There are martial artists like Rothrock who become movie stars because they’re really good at beating the shit out of people and are attractive enough to make it in movies. These are people like Chuck Norris and Rothrock, or to name two other members of Santa’s Summer House’s perversely misused cast, Gary Daniels and Daniel Bernhardt. 

Then there are people who become movie stars because they’re reasonably good at fighting but more importantly they are charismatic and funny, good-looking and talented. Rothrock, Daniels and Bernhardt are most assuredly not those kinds of action stars. They’re moderately famous for their ass-kicking skills and nothing else so there’s something exquisitely misguided and perverse about casting three 1990s b-rate action heroes in a family film for small children in which the only “action” onscreen is a croquet sequence that lasts several lifetimes. 

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Yes, these wonderfully warped cult filmmakers assembled three titans of direct-to-video action for a movie with no action in it whatsoever, just a lot of life lessons and emotional growth. Even more perversely, they’ve succeeded in making a Christmas movie largely devoid of the trappings of the genre. 

For starters, Santa’s Summer House is a Christmas movie that does not take place on Christmas. Or even during the Christmas season. Nope, as the title suggests, this is a Yuletide lark that takes place solidly in the Summer off the coast of California. In Santa’s Summer House, there’s no Christmas, no presents under the trees, no Christmas trees, for that matter, or snow, or caroling or flying sleighs or reindeer, or any, you know, Christmas stuff. There is, however, a scene of Santa Claus in a jacuzzi, which is not something you see in most Christmas movies. And croquet! This is as long on hot croquet action as it is short on Christmas.

If it weren’t for the smooth jazz renditions of public domain Christmas carols or the use of Christmas themed clip art (candy canes, Santa hats, sacks of toys and what have you) as star wipe-style transitions, it would be easy to forget that Santa’s Summer House was even a Christmas movie. 

At least “Santa” has a beard. Oh wait.

At least “Santa” has a beard. Oh wait.

Santa’s Summer House follows the heartwarming adventures of six folks who are thrown together one sunny non-Christmas when their van driver gets lost in a fog—a magical fog—and instead of taking his passengers to a resort they end up at a McMansion that looks suspiciously like the sprawling, soulless home where A Talking Cat?!? took place, possibly because they were filmed in the same place where DeCoteau shot A Talking Cat?!? and also number of the softcore gay erotica films he’s also known for. 

The tourists are a diverse lot. There’s Dean (Gary Daniels), a business guy with a head full of numbers and statistics and whatnot. He’s married to fellow workaholic Sadie (five time would kickboxing champion Kathy Long), who is similarly afflicted with a tragic case of caring about money too goddamn much.

In Santa’s Summer House the kids are alright but the adults, with the exception of Santa and Mrs. Claus, are assholes. Hard-driving Constance (Jessica Morris) devotes all of her time and energy into running a successful catering business (shades of A Talking Cat!?!) and using bullying, insults and guilt trips to try to convince orphan Molly (Rachel Rosenstein) to abandon her dreams of being a photographer so that she can devote herself obsessively to helping her realize her own dream of being a successful business lady.

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Santa’s Summer House earnestly inquires, “How about instead of burying our noses in our work all the time and being all ‘Business, business, business!’ we were drinking hot chocolate, wearing Santa hats and instead were all “Christmas, Christmas, Christmas!” 

When these business-obsessed lost souls show up at Santa’s summer home, Mrs. Claus, or “Nanna” as she’s otherwise known, gives them cookies and invites them all to spend the non-holiday at their home as their guests. 

Mrs. Claus drops so many hints about the true nature of her and her husband’s identity that I kind of just wished that she’d come out with it and just say, “Hey, you might actually know my husband or at least be familiar with his work: he’s Santa Claus. Does that ring a bell at all? Fat guy? Jolly? Elf sweatshop? Flying reindeer? Works one day a year? He’s kind of a big deal.”

She does not say that, however, possibly because in this wonderfully off-brand Christmas classic Christmas is habitually clad in Hawaiian shirts and there is not a reindeer or an elf to be found, just a whole lot of establishing shots of beaches and a score that lays on the Christmas cheer with a dump truck. 

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Yes, Santa’s Summer House spends an awful lot of time delaying the revelation that Pop is Santa considering that Mrs. Claus gives the van driver a business card listing her name as “Mrs. Claus” on it and Santa’s home is filled with pictures of him doing Santa shit.

Mr. Claus, or “Pop” as he’s otherwise known, is similarly enigmatic when it comes to dropping clues about his business, like when he tells his guests that he’s involved in “Distribution” but also knows a thing or two about corporate branding. 

Portraying the role of Mrs. Claus requires Rothrock to be sassy and sarcastic, warm and maternal, a larger than life mythological figure. Rothrock, god bless her, is capable of conveying none of those qualities. She’s deliciously, delightfully over her head delivering canned witticisms and warmth in a robotic monotone.  

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Christopher Mitchum, Robert Mitchum’s son, fares much better as the film’s norm core, beach and television-loving Santa Claus. He plays the avuncular gift giver with a twinkle in his eyes, a booming laugh and a surplus of out of season Christmas cheer. 

Like A Talking Cat!?!, Santa’s Summer House somehow manages to be a movie where absolutely nothing happens and a whole lot of crazy, magical shit occurs. The movie’s two big set pieces involve a game of croquet that lasts so long Santa’s Summer House might actually have more croquet footage than actual feature-length documentaries about croquet, and a night of “White Elephant” that adds to the vague air of Christmas by implementing gift-giving into the proceedings. 

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Like Duffy in A Talking Cat!?!, Pop, or Santa as he is sometimes known, solves everyone’s problems for them. He accomplishes this by getting the glowering, work-obsessed adults to reconnect with the less-terrible, less-obnoxious children they once were and also by convincing poor Molly that she is a talented photographer who should follow her dreams, and not a selfish monster who is urinating on the graves of her dead parents by not helping them posthumously realize their dreams to have a successful catering company. 

Santa’s Summer House is endlessly padded and surreally lazy. The opening credits, for example, are pretty much just a screensaver-like shot of a snowy tableau yet the movie flew by all the same. I love the weird world Helm and DeCoteau have created with these films. There’s just something about that singular combination of incompetent, gimmicky, weirdly wholesome and just plain weird that I found weirdly hypnotic, even captivating.

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If you dug A Talking Cat!?! then I think you will most assuredly dig what I came to think of as A Summer Santa!?! It’s the perfect Yuletide companion piece to one of the most enjoyable terrible movies ever made. If you’re morbidly curious about any aspect of the film and you have Amazon Prime then you have nothing to lose but eighty five minutes of your life by watching it and let’s be honest, you weren’t going to do anything productive with that time anyway, so why not treat yourself to something transcendently bad in the best possible way? 

I make my living through crowd-funding so why not make like Santa and stick a few bucks in my online stocking over at  http://patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace