DVD Review Of Santa Claus Conquers The Martians

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/22/07


  When is sweetness that thing that rescues the tart from bitterness, and when is it the thing that makes the already sweet sweeten to vomitus? I pondered this whilst rewatching the 1964 color film ‘classic’ Santa Claus Conquers The Martians. This little film routinely shows up on many folks’ Worst Films Ever Made lists, along with such abominations as Plan 9 From Outer Space, Robot Monster and The Beast From Yucca Flats. Yet, while there truly is no ‘more’ to this film vs. the others, in terms of depth, acting, writing, cinematography, etc., there is one big difference between this film and the others: this is the only one of those films, and a half dozen more notorious ‘so bad they’re good’ films, which was made and targeted specifically for children. The others were failures of a mature vision (so to speak), whereas this film is the failure of an immature vision; a sort of failed Elf- the Will Ferrell hit of a few years back. For that reason, it is far more difficult to pin down what exactly is the result of mere ineptitude and incredible stolidity (not to mention cheapness, for the film was not made in Hollywood, but at the ‘Michael Myerberg Studios’ on Long Island, New York; which was, in reality, an abandoned Air Force hangar- if legend is to be believed) and what is the result of cynical adults simply not ‘getting’ bygone children’s entertainment fare. Think of Santa Claus Conquers The Martians as the 1960s answer to that current piece of PC PBS swill, Barney The Dinosaur. Of course, this is an instance where I am openly pondering intent (although, with such a title, what sort of serious intent could this film have?), but because that’s perhaps the lone thing that might take a rational being more than an instant to decide their opinion on.

  The film was directed by one Nicholas Webster, who went on to a mildly successful Hollywood career as a television director, and was written by two- Paul L. Jacobon and Glenville Mareth, who did not. The film’s only other claim to fame- aside from its artistic ignominy, is that it featured the film debut of Pia Zadora- the legendarily bad future softcore porno star who won a 1982 Golden Globe Award for Butterfly, purchased by her decades older billionaire husband. Zadora stars as a Martian girl called Girmar (Get it?: Girl Martian- Girmar).

  Here is an in depth (ok, a cursory) look at the film’s narrative, such as it is: The kids of Mars are dull, lazy, and trained from birth by electronic devices to have a full store of knowledge by the time they are able to toddle (sort of like children now, who at three or four, are Internet savvy….and increasingly autistic). Worse, they are zoned out by watching mindless Earth television shows (the revenge of Newt Minnow!). The King of Mars, Kimar (Leonard Hicks), is perplexed, and asks his wife, Momar (Leila Martin, aka Mom Martian) about what’s ailing their two kids, Girmar (see above) and Bomar (Christopher Month: ok, let’s see….Boy Martian?). They divine that the kids are not having fun, so Kimar rallies the top leaders of Mars to visit an 800 year old sage, Chochem (Carl Don), in a Martian forest (which lacks trees), and he tells them the legend of Santa Claus, and how Mars needs a Santa Claus. I swear, Yoda from Star Wars was patterned after Don’s seminal performance here.

  The rest of Kimar’s posse of Martian leaders thus agree to go to Earth and bring Santa (John Call) to Mars to make toys for their children instead. All except Voldar (Vincent Beck), Mars’ answer to The Grinch, who opposes Kimar every step of the way. He is a villain straight out of a silent film or bad cartoon, and the costumes the Martians wear are ill fitting tights with helmets and antennae- sort of like The Great Gazoo, from The Flintstones tv cartoon. Anyway, the Martians kidnap Santa Claus, but only after getting directions from a brother and sister, Billy (Victor Stiles) and Betty Foster (Donna Conforti), from America, who point them to the North Pole. Once there, the kids, assisted by Kimar’s manservant- a goofy Martian named Dropo (Bill McCutcheon), derided as ‘the laziest man on Mars,’ escape the Martian spacecraft, encounter a polar bear and the Martians’ robot, Torg (an obvious play off of the robot Gort, from The Day The Earth Stood Still)- two pathetically bad looking creatures, before they are recovered. Santa turns the robot into a harmless toy, but after the Martians freeze some elves and Mrs. Claus, Santa gives in.

  He then kyboshes Voldar’s plans to kill him and the kids, but does not seem to realize that the Martians intend to keep him on Mars forever. He is a bit ‘slow,’ and some of the worst/best moments of the film occur when Santa laughs at inappropriate times, and looks at the children just a bit too long- think of a young priest with younger altar boys. Even worse is when he first meets Bomar and Girmar, and they turn from morose to jovial, guffawing like buck-toothed idiots, almost instantly. Voldar, meanwhile, has been jailed for treason (the attempt on Santa’s life and other petty crimes), but escapes to a cave with two idiotic co-conspirators who, likewise, want to rid the planet of joy and Santa, and return Mars to its glory as the ‘Planet Of War.’

  Voldar tries to kidnap Santa, but apparently cannot recognize it is Dropo in a Santa suit, trying to fatten up by eating Martian pills labeled ‘chocolate ice cream’ and ‘cake.’ Eventually, Voldar is caught, Santa saves the day, Dropo is installed as Mars’ own Santa, and the old elf and the Earth kids return to Earth, all because Kimar and company learns the lesson that kidnapping, even for a good cause, is a bad thing, for it can cause manic depression in children. Well, nor manic depression, but excessive politeness as a form of Stockholm Syndrome.

  As for the technical stuff? The screenplay is horrendous, even accounting for its puerile audience. The special effects are sub-Plan 9 (see references to the polar bear and robot). And the acting is wooden (all the children), altered state (Call as Santa, McCutcheon as Dropo), forgettable (Momar and the other Martians), or over the top (Beck as Voldar). The lone exception to this is the performance by Hicks as Kimar. He actually seems to be really into his character, and his philosophic earnestness has an almost, yes, Classical or Shakespearean quality to it. Had the others acted as earnestly as Hicks does, the film would have been even better in that the contrast between the good and bad aspects would have been greater, and thus the film would have been funnier and campier than it is. But, perhaps Hicks simply did not get the memo that the film was a kids’ flick. And this fact lends Santa Claus Conquers The Martians a negative element that Robot Monster and Plan 9 From Outer Space lack- tedium. Granted, the tedium is not enough to make this film boring, but just enough to make it not spectacularly ‘so bad it’s good.’

  That said, let me take on another legendary quality of this film, its opening and closing theme song: Hooray For Santa Claus- which is spelled out, almost Mitch Miller style, at the film’s end. It’s a bad, but catchy, jingle that has a group of out of key children singing (rather, shouting) the titular huzzah for St. Nick, even though they pronounce his first name as ‘Santy,’ despite the spelling as S-A-N-T-A. Apparently the singers went to the same school as the screenwriters. Also notable is that the song’s writer, Milton DeLugg, later went on to conduct the band for Chuck Barris’s The Gong Show.

  I probably first saw this film when I was five or six, less than a decade after its release, and it has stuck with me through the years- despite its flaws, which attests to the fact that it has power, from whatever source. Of course, the same can be said of herpes, but enough of that line of reasoning. The DVD version I saw was on one of those cheapo 50 pack DVDs, thus there were no special features, and the public domain version of this film is about at the level of a 20 year old VHS tape- i.e.- in some reels the Martian’s look like they’re wearing green skin makeup- due to desaturation; in others gray, pink or black (my wife initially thought Girmar and Bomar were black kids!); and in some others there appears to be no makeup. The music, aside from the theme song, is virtually nonexistent. The film is also notable for some of the stock footage it uses of U.S. military planes scrambling to intercept the Martian flying saucer (although, in honesty, the craft looks more like a bad erector set than Plan 9-like pie tins). Usually, such films recycle old war footage from Korea or World War Two, but this film takes some of the same stock footage of airplanes refueling in mid-flight as was used in the opening credits of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Srangelove (Or How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love The Bomb), which was released earlier that same year.

  The film also slips in some none too sly political references, such as Santa forgetting a reindeer’s name, and calling him Nixon, then literally winking at the camera, or having the tv reporter who first informs the world of Santa’s kidnapping, interview Werner Von Breen (not Braun), head of NASA- or the film’s equivalent. Small moments like this almost make up for the ineptitude of good intentions, as does the casting of Ned Wertimer as the tv reporter who goes to the North Pole to interview Santa, for Wertimer would later go on to star in a small role as Ralph the doorman on the tv show The Jeffersons.

  But, reread the above; I wrote almost. Despite my personal affection for this winsome little horrorshow, I cannot give it an enthusiastic Ebertian thumbs up, the way I can for some of the aforementioned classic baddies. Instead, let my thumb quiver in the middle. Decide for yourself if that’s a recommendation or a deleted scene of Dropo just after indulging a flatulence fetish.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]


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