I've been a film buff since childhood, and I love writing about and reviewing my favorites.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
Starring: John Call, Bill McCutcheon, Victor Stiles, Leonard Hicks, Donna Conforti, Pia Zadora
Directed by: Nicholas Webster
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is "required" viewing for true bad movie aficionados. This nearly-forgotten low-budget kids' film was rescued from public-domain oblivion in the early 1990s by the movie-mocking experts at Mystery Science Theater 3000, and since then it's become something of a schlocky holiday perennial. SCCTM may not quite be an annual tradition like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or A Charlie Brown Christmas just yet, but give it time...
In spite of its near-legendary rep, I had never experienced SCCTM till a few years ago when I found it on DVD (digitally remastered, even!) at my local dollar store. How could I possibly resist? Eighty-one minutes later, I had finally checked this kitsch classic off of my cinematic bucket list, and I was in perfect accord with the many reviews and articles that I had read about it. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is indeed the Perfect Storm of holiday crap-tacularity.
Even if you measure it against the low standards of other low-budget movies aimed at kids, Santa Claus... is still hellishly bad. The story is ridiculous, the dialogue is wooden, the acting is terrible, the costumes are ugly, the sets are cheap. The one thing the film has going for it is John Call's Santa Claus, since he appears to be the only person in the film with any sort of acting ability. As for the rest of the movie? Oy!
SCCTM opens with some cheap but charming animated credits, set to a Satanically catchy tune called "Hooray for Santa Claus," which is pronounced "Santy." Be warned, once you hear this song, you will be unable to get it out of your head for days afterward.
We then get our first look at Mars. Martians are humanoid creatures with green makeup on their faces, wearing green jumpsuits and helmets with what appears to be random plumbing parts sticking out of them. The brooding Martian leader "Kimar" (an apparent mashup of the words "King" and "Martian") has noticed that his children "Bomar" ("Boy Martian") and "Girmar" ("Girl Martian") don't seem happy. He soon learns that rest of the children on Mars are similarly affected. All they do is sit around moping in front of their "video devices," watching broadcasts from Earth, with blank expressions on their faces. Soooo... in other words, they're exactly like Earth kids!
(Fun fact: "Girmar" is played by 10-year-old Pia Zadora, who would grow up and star in numerous early '80s B-Movies in which she was frequently nude. Her performance in the 1981 bomb Butterfly earned her a Golden Raspberry Award for "Worst New Actress." Sad as it sounds, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was probably the peak of her acting career.)
Kimar and his council leaders consult the planet's Yoda-like wise man Chochem, who tells them that the children of Mars are miserable because they have forgotten how to have fun. After learning about Santa via video screen, Kimar rounds up a posse consisting of the klutzy comic relief character "Dropo" and the grumpy "Voldar" (who came up with these character names?) to head to Earth and snatch the Big Red Guy, so they can put him to work cranking out toys to make Martian kids smile again. Yes, this is the entire plot.
Once they land on Earth, the Martian search party encounters Billy and Betty, two typically clean-cut early '60s American kids straight out of Central Casting. To avoid being discovered, the Martians take the kids along to Santa's workshop. Naturally, Billy and Betty try to escape and warn Santa about the evil plot, so they get chased around the snowy North Pole landscape for a while by a hilarious man in a polar bear suit before they're recaptured by the Martians' robot. The robot eventually tags and bags Santa, and everyone is taken back to Mars.
On the Red Planet, Santa is provided with an automated toy workshop and is told to get to work. Since he's a jolly old elf, Santa complies, and Mars' children quickly learn to laugh and smile again thanks to a steady supply of scooters, dolls, and baseball bats. This change in the youth does not sit well with the old-school Voldar, who wants Mars to return to its position as "a planet of war!" Fortunately, his plans to interrupt the Martian toy operation are foiled by Santa and his young Earthling helpers, who shoot a lot of bubbles and rubber balls at him. Once the bad guy has been foiled, Kimar realizes the error of his ways and allows Santa and the children to return to Earth. Before he leaves, Saint Nick appoints Dropo to take over as Mars' official new Santa, and as everyone smiles and laughs, "Hooray for Santy Claus" is played again, signaling the merciful end.
...hey, wait a minute! Santa never actually "conquers" anything in this movie! What kind of B.S. is that? I want my dollar back!!
I can't help but wonder how children reacted to this movie in 1964. Was SCCTM a box office hit? Somehow I doubt it. I bet a lot of kids begged their Mom and Dad to leave before the movie was half over. Modern-day children will probably find SCCTM so plodding and slow moving that they'll ask you to switch to SpongeBob within minutes. When I first brought this DVD home I thought my kids (who were about 4 and 8 at the time) might get a few laughs out of SCCTM, but after viewing it I decided not to bother showing it to them, because making your kids watch a movie this bad could be considered an act of child abuse!
Legend has it that Jerry Zucker of Airplane! fame was interested in directing a remake of SCCTM at one time, which would've starred Jim Carrey (!) as Dropo. The project got hung up in Development Hell and nothing ever came of it, but rumors of a remake still circulate from time to time. For my money, if there was ever a movie that was begging to be remade by Tim Burton (or possibly Rob Zombie), this is it!
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians belongs on your DVD shelf right next to Silent Night, Deadly Night to make the perfect Holiday Double Feature from Hell. Every bad-movie enthusiast needs to see this movie at least once before they die. Hooray for Santy Claus, indeed!
"Hooray for Santy Claus!"
© 2017 Keith Abt
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on July 19, 2017:
Hi Jodah - Very cool! Thanks for the perspective on what it was like to "be there" when this was released back in the day.
John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on July 19, 2017:
Keith, you may find this hard to believe but I saw this movie when it was first released. After that I would have watched it at least four more times as it played on TV almost every Christmas for some years.
I know it seems like a load of crap now, but back in the day I thought it was a fun movie. It wasn't in the same class as Miracle on 34th Street (which also played every Christmas) but it served a purpose and kids were easier entertained in those days. Thanks for bringing back the memories.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on May 10, 2017:
Oh that's good to know Keith, I'll watch it for sure. Thanks!
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on May 10, 2017:
Hi coffeequeen - glad you liked the piece - since the film is in the Public Domain it's widely available for free viewing from many sources, including YouTube. Have fun.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on May 10, 2017:
I've not heard of this film before. After watching the trailer, I really want to watch it now! I watch a lot of low budget bad films! And usually enjoy them. =)
Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on April 16, 2017:
This film and Santa And The Ice Cream Bunny stand out in my mind as classic Christmas camp. I, like you, have never seen either of these skewered by MST3K or Riff Trax, but these films don't really need the commentary. It will be fun for some viewers to create their own sarcastic commentary. I hope Hollywood will leave these alone, as I suspect they will not capture the camp factor and spend way too much in the process.
Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on April 15, 2017:
Hi, T.D.F -- if you love bad sci-fi, then you're gonna have a blast with this one!
Jill Spencer from United States on April 15, 2017:
Fantastic, Keith! I have not seen this one but can't wait after reading your article and watching the trailer. The music alone reels me in. My husband and I both love really, really bad sci fi films.