Great Bad Movies: "Santa Claus Conquers The Martians" (1964)
"Santa Claus Conquers The Martians" (1964)
Starring: John Call, Bill McCutcheon, Victor Stiles, Leonard Hicks, Donna Conforti, Pia Zadora
Directed by: Nicholas Webster
1964's 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 came across it on DVD (digitally remastered, even!) on the shelf at my local dollar store. How could I possibly resist? 81 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 craptacularity.
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 as Santa Claus, who 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 (which is pronounced "Santy") Claus." Take my word for it, once you hear it, you will be unable to get this song out of your head for days afterwards.
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" (a mashup of "King" and "Martian") has noticed that his children "Bomar" ("Boy Martian") and "Girmar" ("Girl Martian") - as well as the rest of the kids on Mars - don't seem happy. They sit around all day moping in front of "video devices" watching broadcasts from Earth, with blank expressions on their faces. Soooo... in other words, they're exactly like Earth children!
(Fun fact: "Girmar" is played by 10-year-old Pia Zadora, who would grow up to star in numerous early '80s B-Movies in which she was frequently nude. She also won a Golden Raspberry Award for the 1981 bomb Butterfly. 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, assuming that if he cranks out enough toys, it will make Martian kids happy again. Yeah, that's the whole story.
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.
"Hooray For Santy Claus!"
I wonder how kids reacted to this movie in 1964. Was SCCTM a big hit? Somehow I doubt it. I bet a lot of kids begged Mom and Dad to leave the theatre before it was over. Playing this movie for modern-day children would be a waste of time, because it's so plodding and slow moving that the average kid would be screaming to put on Spongebob within fifteen minutes. When I first brought this DVD home I thought my kids (who were about 4 and 8 at the time) might get a kick out of SCCTM, but after I viewed it I decided not to show it to them, because making them watch it might be considered 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 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 re-made by Tim Burton (or possibly Rob Zombie), this is it!
Every bad-movie enthusiast needs to see this movie at least once before they die. 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. Hooray for Santy Claus, indeed!