‘Santa with Muscles’ (1996): Wolf of Wall Street taps Hulkster for holiday cheer

Lemme tell ya something, brother! Let’s steer this Hulkamania train off the rails!

By Jason Hink

It’s the holidays. My Christmas tree is up (a two-footer atop the living-room bar). I’ve just finished wrapping gifts (poorly) and I’m in the mood for some subversive movie-watching. I turn to my stack of un-watched Blu-rays sitting lonely on the shelf and see snarky Leo DiCaprio’s face staring back at me…The Wolf of Wall Street looks like fun. But damn it—it’s the holidays, and Christmas is just days away! So I scan my un-watched stack one more time for anything—anything—that fits the bill. When, what to my wondering eyes did appear, but a Mill Creek Entertainment Blu-ray of Santa with Muscles, starring Hulk Hogan, and no reindeer.

But that’s not all! In a strange stroke of Christmas magic, it turns out the Wolf of Wall Street himself, Jordan Belfort, co-executive produced Santa with Muscles way back in 1996—one of eight low-budget trashtaculars he produced in the ’90s.

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Long derided and considered one of the worst films ever made by critics obviously not versed in the power and nuance of Hulkamania, Santa with Muscles hit theaters for two weeks in November 1996, grossing just over $220,000—likely enough to cover the cost of Hogan’s (real name Terry Bollea) fake head of hair. Also starring Don Stark, Robin Curtis, Garrett Morris, Aria Curzon, Adam Wylie, a young Mila Kunis, Clint Howard, Steve Valentine, Ed Begley Jr., William Newman, and fellow pro wrestler Ed Leslie (better known as Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake), and directed by John Murlowski (Black Cadillac, Richie Rich’s Christmas Wish), Santa with Muscles is indeed bad…but it’s not without its charms.

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In infomercial-dominated 1996, Blake Thorn (Hogan) is a cocky, conceited millionaire who got rich hawking a line of supplements and fitness gear for bodybuilder freaks. We know he’s cocky and conceited because his face is plastered onto the label of each item he sells, and he treats the staff at his large mansion like crap.

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One day, while playing a dangerous game of testosterone-fueled paintball with the staff that involves Thorn firing projectiles from the cockpit of his pseudo-military vehicle at pursuing police who caught him speeding, he ditches the vehicle, wanders into a shopping mall, throws on a Santa costume he finds in a storage room, then inadvertently knocks himself unconscious. In another part of the mall, parents are growing impatient waiting for Santa to show up, leading the mall manager (Bridget Michele, TV’s Rags to Riches) to offer men dressed up as Santa’s elves $50 to whoever can quickly find a replacement Santa…an offer gleefully snatched up by elf Lenny (Don Stark, TV sitcom That ’70s Show), who happens to find unconscious Thorn dressed in disguise—as Santa! Thorn, of course, can’t remember who he is, and this convenient amnesia allows Lenny to convince Thorn that he really is Santa Claus before sending him out to meet the kids at the mall’s meet-and-greet.

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In a completely separate, unrelated bit of story, evil scientist Ebner Frost (Ed Begley Jr., This is Spinal Tap, Batman Forever, TV drama St. Elsewhere) is attempting to take over various patches of land across the city—including an orphanage—to take ownership of the “magic” crystals buried beneath. Thorn (as Santa), who somehow discovers he has a connection to the endangered orphanage, decides he must take action and stop the evil Dr. Frost or risk the orphaned children losing their home.

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Does that all sound ridiculous? A buncha nonsense? Congratulations—it is! I always thought Hulk Hogan one of the most charismatic personalities to ever walk the earth, but that charisma never quite transferred from the wrestling ring to the screen. 1996 was an interesting year for Hogan. Following his unprecedented run in the 1980s as the face of the World Wrestling Federation (now known as WWE—World Wrestling Entertainment), and of professional wrestling itself, the Hulkster built his reputation as an all-American, Reagan-era superhero that kids could look up to and aspire to be like (Hulk’s commandments: Say your prayers and eat your vitamins!)…and for 10 years (from 1983 to 1993), Hogan ruled the WWF and charmed fans across the country and the world during pro wrestling’s biggest boom period that saw the faux-sport morph from a loosely governed territory system to the national phenomenon it eventually became.

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But by the early ’90s, pro wrestling, and WWF in particular, was being put under a more powerful microscope, and out of it came unfortunate episodes such as the steroid scandal and the promotion’s willingness to soften its stance on “protecting” the business, thereby all but admitting its scripted nature. Also by this time, Hogan’s shtick had worn thin, as had America’s love affair with Reagan’s patriotic-tinged politics. Ousted from the WWF in 1993, Hogan joined rival promotion WCW (World Championship Wrestling), which by then was owned by Ted Turner. Hulk continued to wrestle as the all-American champ, but cynical Clinton-era audiences didn’t much care anymore. So in 1996, just a few months before Santa with Muscles was released, Hogan “turned heel” (pro wrestling slang for becoming a “bad guy”), dyed part of his blonde beard black, and donned all-black duds while re-christening himself “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan.

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In a sense, Hogan’s Santa with Muscles character was at odds with this new “Hollywood” Hogan character people now saw on Turner’s TBS each week on WCW wrestling shows…but it didn’t much matter, considering the little-seen film’s brief theatrical run and subsequent dump to video. Hogan’s line deliveries come off forced at times, and director John Murlowski can’t seem to decide how he wants to present the toupee-wearing, short-haired Hogan. To get a better feel myself, I re-watched Hogan in 1989’s No Holds Barred, in which I thought Hulk came off better, but it’s an unfair comparison—he plays a pro wrestler in that film, mirroring what he does best in real life. In the end, one could say Hogan’s run as an actor was an experiment…a prelude to better pro wrestler-turned-actors like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, proving the WWE learned a thing or two about how to cross-market talent to other forms of entertainment in the 2000s.

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If there’s one standout aspect of Santa with Muscles, it’s the performances of the child actors who make up the group of endangered orphans. In particular, Mila Kunis (Black Swan, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, sitcom That ’70s Show) looks like she knows what she’s doing. She has spunk, attitude, and immediate command of her scenes; you can tell by her performance here that bigger things were in store for her. Aria Curzon and Adam Wylie are also effective as fellow orphans hoping “Santa” can give them a hand.

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However, the adult actors know they’re in a silly bit of hokum, and generally do the best with what they’re given. The bad guys are super silly, but not over-the-top enough to be memorable. Ed Begley Jr. as the evil Dr. Frost is just plain goofy, and his henchmen Dr. Blight (Steve Valentine), Dr. Vial (Kai Ephron), Dr. Flint (Kevin West), and sexy, electrifying (literally!) Dr. Watt (Diane Robin), all play their characters with a cartoony evil-ness reminiscent of the era, maybe inspired by Joel Schumacher’s lighthearted take on villains in Batman Forever (1995).

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Robin Curtis and Garrett Morris are sympathetic in their roles as the adults heading the orphanage while Don Stark (as Thorn’s sidekick elf) and Clint Howard (as a sheriff’s deputy chasing Thorn) are straight-up goofball cliches. Jennifer Paz is quite fun in her small role as TV reporter Helen Chu.

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Overall, Santa with Muscles is pretty bad, but perfect for throwing on as a background Christmas movie while frustratingly wrapping presents (I suck at that), or if you’re drinking with friends and need a holiday-themed “bad movie” to watch.

If you’re an old-school wrestling fan like I am, you’ll get a kick out of watching then 43-year-old Hogan play on the waning days of his tanned, muscular, all-American heyday. And as a cherry on top, you’ll feel good knowing co-executive producer Jordan Belfort was just three years away from pleading guilty to fraud and related stock-market manipulation crimes before becoming (what else?) a motivational speaker.

Merry Christmas, brother!

Santa with Muscles poster

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