The Motion Picture:
'Santa Claus Conquers the Martians' (1964), directed by Nicholas Webster
Also Known As...
There don't seem to be any alternate titles for this extraordinary motion picture. When your title is 'Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,' you don't need any stinkin' alternate titles.
Featuring the Talented...
John Call as Santa Claus, Leonard Hicks, Bill McCutcheon and Pia Zadora as the Martians he conquers and Victor Stiles and Donna Conforti as the two annoying kids along for the ride. Oh, and Gene Lindsey as the Worst. Polar Bear. Ever.
What Is It?
A science fiction family movie comprised entirely of cardboard, stock footage, green face paint and military surplus that follows a strangely apathetic Santa Claus and two dull children as they're whisked away to Mars to teach the Martian children the meaning of Christmas. Despite the dark implications of the title, very little conquering actually occurs.
First: this song happens to us.
Martian children aren't eating. They aren't sleeping. They spend their days watching television transmissions from Earth, where a wacky reporter is paying a visit to the North Pole to interview the one and only Santa Claus. After a visit with an ancient (and seemingly constipated) oracle, the martian leader Kimar decides to travel to Earth, abduct Santa Claus and force him to bring joy to all of the Martian children. After the lovably incompetent (i.e., annoying) Dropo causes their spaceship to be seen, the United States military responds with a stunning display of stock footage.
Eventually, the martians kidnap two children named Billy and Betty, locate the North Pole, face down a man in polar bear costume and with the help of their warrior robot Torg, invade Santa's workshop and steal the man away at ray-gunpoint. On the space journey back, the traitorous Voldar, who thinks bringing Christmas joy to Mars will result in a society of weaklings, tries to murder Santa and the kids by throwing them out the airlock. He fails, gets arrested and escapes offscreen. On Mars, Santa proves to be a hit and with the help of a brand new Martian machine, begins manufacturing toys for all of the green little girls and boys (although the machine only has production slots for balls, bats, doll, cars, trains and tools, so if you want a book or a pogo stick, you're f*cked).
Voldar attempts to kill Santa one more time, but is defeated by the combined force of toy guns, wind-up soldiers, bubbles and Santa's nightmare-inducing cackle in a montage that would make David Lynch crack a smile. Everyone agrees that Dropo would make a great new Santa for Mars and with absolutely no resistance, Santa Claus and the human kids depart for Earth with "just enough time to get back by Christmas Eve." Have the elves been working while he's been gone? Will there be enough toys ready when he gets back? Will Christmas actually happen? None of these questions are answered, let alone addressed.
Then that song happens again. Merry Christmas.
Shocking Acts of Violence!
Ray-guns, ray-guns, ray-guns! Ray-guns everywhere! Strangely, not a single ray-gun if fired during the course of the movie even though it would be the quickest solution to a myriad of problems. The closest we get to violence via alien technology is the sequence where the robot Torg uses a freeze ray on Santa's elves and Mrs. Claus. Santa, thinking they've been killed, gives a reaction so pained and realistic that it feels out of touch with the film's otherwise whimsical and lightweight tone. Also of special note is the scene where Kimar battles the mutinous Voldar in hand-to-hand combat, mainly because it's the one scene in the movie where the camera is taken off the tripod and goes handheld, all the better to capture the choking and punching and hitting, choreography that looks like it was torn out of the original 'Star Trek' fighting handbook.
Sexual Deviancy and Mindless Perversity!
'Santa Claus Conquer the Martians' is clean as a whistle when it comes to naughty bits and innuendo (after all, it is a film intended for children), but I'd be a fool not to make note of Leila Martin's Martian mother Momar, who does a fairly good job keeping the red planet sexy with her slightly form-fitting alien housewife uniform. Yowza!
Is There a Robot?
Oh, yes. There's a robot. His name is Torg and he's a nasty piece of work, an eight foot tall monstrosity that looks ready to murder Billy and Betty until he's commanded to stop. What separates him from the glut of other b-movie robots is his strange, unexpected demise. In the film's best scene, he leads the invasion of Santa's workshop, prompting Santa to call him the biggest toy he's ever seen. Struck with the sudden realization that he's just a "toy," Torg shuts himself down and is left behind, a lifeless husk on the North Pole. This is the only movie in existence to feature Santa Claus defeating a bloodthirsty robot by giving it an existential crisis.
Just How Cheap Does It Look?
Like so many bargain bin movies thrown together in the 1950s and 1960s, 'Santa Claus Conquers the Martians' is shot almost entirely in wide master shots to save expensive film that would only be wasted on pesky close-ups and to hide the fact that most of the sets probably only have two walls. This does more to make the film look cheap than the extended montage of military stock footage and the sets made out of cardboard, tape, tears and a prayer -- at least films like 'Starcrash' make up for their lousy production qualities by going all-out with cinematic scope.
"I'm against it! Our children are fine the way they are! I don't want any Santa Claus bringing them toys and games. They'll start playing and laughing and running underfoot and become a nuisance!"
Betty: "What is that sticking out of your head?
Kimar: "Those are our antennae."
Betty: "Are you a television set?"
Voldar: "STUPID QUESTION!"
Girmar: "Bomar, What is a doll?"
Bomar: "I don't know, Girmar. What is tender love and care?"
"Here's another UFO Bulletin: The Defense Department has just announced that the unidentified flying object suddenly disappeared from our radar screens. They believe the object has either disintegrated in space, or it may be a space ship from another planet which has the ability to nullify all radar beams."
"What is a Christmas?"
'Santa Claus Conquers the Martians' is an infamously terrible film and thanks to Mystery Science Theater 3000, one of the most watched and beloved/mocked B-movies of all time. It's all in the title, really. Just look at it. Really look at it:
'Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.'
It's a title that conjures a thousand images and tells you exactly what kind of movie you're getting into. It's a science fiction movie. It's a Christmas movie. It's probably really, really stupid.
And yeah, it is stupid. And it's terrible. While it's not a chore to sit through like so many of its low-budget brethren (it's an almost shockingly brisk 81 minutes), there is absolutely no artistic merit here. None. Zip. Nada. I'm the kind of guy who will launch an elaborate defense of 'Starcrash,' who admires the audaciousness of 'Warriors of the Wasteland' and believes that Edward D. Wood Jr. is a genuine auteur, but not even I can recommend 'Santa Claus Conquers the Martians' as a film ready to be analyzed by a serious critical eye. Those looking to heckle a movie will find nothing better: sets that look ready to topple over at any moment, inconsistent Martian make-up, stilted child performances, that awful theme song and, again, that title -- that terrible, amazing, awful, beautiful title.
But the goal of Adventures in B-Movie Land is not to make fun of these movies. That's easy and it's been done a thousand times, especially with a "classic" like this one. When you sit down and really look at 'Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,' when you avoid simply pointing and laughing (a really difficult task that requires some measure of effort), when you ignore just about everything that makes this movie bad, you'll see that it's actually really well acted.
With a few exceptions, the actors in this film are taking the whole thing completely seriously and acting like their lives depend on it. And who knows -- maybe they did? Most of the cast wouldn't go on to do to much more after this film (and those that did were relegated low budget junk and/or television guest appearances), so it's easy to imagine these people seeing their role in this low budget family movie as their big break, their chance to shine. The notoriously unreliable IMDB trivia page makes note that much of the cast were taken from Broadway shows and it's easy to imagine a group of veteran actors, good enough to be understudies and supporting players but not leads, seeing this as the first step toward a bigger career, a Hollywood career. There's an underlying sense of tragedy here ... to give a performance all you've got, only to end up in a movie that's routinely listed as one of the worst films ever made.
That tragedy applies to a lot of B-movies. So many enthusiastic people (talented isn't quite the right word) with good intentions gave it their all in Hollywood, only to find themselves broke and alone, their legacy cloaked in the sardonic laughter of a later generation. Sorry to be a downer, but think about Ed Wood dying of a heart attack at 54 on his friend's couch because he was a chronic drinker and couldn't afford his own place. These are people who didn't even get temporary fame, they skipped straight ahead to the chewed up and spit out phase of their careers.
But back to the acting. John Call's Santa Claus is actually an interesting take on an iconic character. He's generous and kind for sure, but he's also mischievous and crafty, knowing how to escape sticky situations and remaining perfectly calm when his life is on the line (which is about three or four times during the course of the film). His sadness at being torn from his home and forced to essentially operate a toy factory instead of building gifts with his hands is strangely touching when you focus in on the performance and ignore everything else in the frame.
Leonard Hicks as Kimar, leader of the Martians, has the voice and look of a B-movie leading man, the type of guy who should've been wearing jumpsuits, landing on alien planets, shooting beasties with a laser gun and rescuing scantily clad ladies from mad scientists. It's not great acting (hell, it probably barely qualifies as passable acting), but it's the type of acting that would have fit in perfectly with classier genre films like 'Forbidden Planet.'
For my money, the best performance in the film would have to be Vincent Beck's work as Voldar, the e-e-evil, war-prone Martian who wants Santa dead. Like Call and Hicks, Beck performs like he believes every word that comes out of his mouth, lending a bizarre honesty to mind-numbing dialogue and inane situations. I'm trying to picture Beck on set: here is a burly guy with an amazing moustache who looks like he should be drinking straight whiskey on a boat in the middle of a lake surrounded by ladies while working on a novel about anguished lumberjacks, but nope -- he's squeezing into green tights to play an evil martian in a cheap children's film.
However, the best example would be Bill McCutcheon's comic relief character, the bumbling Dropo, a character who couldn't be less funny if he walked through the film spouting statistics about the Holocaust. However, McCutcheon never once seems embarassed to be there. He never half-asses it. He commits to the character. He dives in head first and entrusts himself to the the movie. Watching him, it's clearly evident that McCutcheon had the capacity to be funny and in the right project with the right director and the right script, he could have been a great comedic sidekick, a Don Knotts type.
And the final tragedy strikes: by trying so hard, by being so earnest and straight-faced with their performances, they only add to the film's lack of self awareness, making the whole thing easier to mock.
Hey, don't feel bad if you want to put this on, pass out the beers and have a good laugh at the film's expense. It's an awful film and it's earned your derision. However, take one moment, somewhere between the scene where Dropo sabotages the "radio box" that is actually a footlocker with machine parts painted on it and the scene where Santa teaches a Martian soldier a joke that ends with the punchline "Martian mallow," and raise your glass in toast to these actors. People are still watching them nearly fifty years after the fact. They've earned your respect.
(The entire film is available for streaming on Hulu. You have no excuses. Watch it right now.)
Warriors of the Wasteland