Schlock Value: Santa Claus Conquers The Martians
In 1964, the Space Race was in full swing and interest in space travel had reached a fever pitch. Every kid in America wanted to grow up to be an astronaut. This, of course, resulted in countless movies and TV shows about space exploration, alien invaders, robots, rayguns, you name it. Kids also love Santa Claus, so it was only natural that someone would try bringing the two together. November 1964 saw the release of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, a low-budget science-fiction adventure film directed by Nicholas Webster. The film was critically panned after its release, and is now considered by many to be one of the worst films ever made (currently sitting at #74 on IMDb’s Bottom 100 list). It remained relatively obscure until 1991, when it was featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and has since gained a cult following, reaching 'so-bad-it’s-good' status. For this week's Schlock Value, I take a look at Santa Claus Conquers the Martians to see if it is, in fact, so bad it’s good.
At the time of its release, science-fiction (like horror) was strictly for the kids, and, judging by the marketing, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was certainly no exception. The poster, in vibrant red and green ink, features Santa, plenty of Martians, a rocketship, a robot, and a plethora of copy dripping with cheese: “Santa Brings Christmas Fun to Mars!,” “Science-Fun-Fiction at it’s height!,” “In Space-Blazing color!” The trailer, with its peppy 60s pop music and slapstick hijinks, also does little to sell the titular conflict between St. Nick and the little green men. In fact, we see the Martian leader fighting to DEFEND Santa. It’s already pretty clear, without even having to watch the movie, that those expecting to see St. Nick dole out an old-fashioned holiday ass-kicking are probably going to be disappointed.
The movie begins on Mars. Two Martian children, complete with green face paint and helmets made of assorted household items, are stoically watching a news report from Planet Earth where a reporter at the North Pole is interviewing Santa Claus. We learn that these two children are Bomar and Girmar, the son and daughter of the Martian leader, Kimar. Concerned that his children are spending too much time watching Earth programs, Kimar consults an old Martian sage, who tells him that Martian children are being stifled by the rigid Martian society that raises children from infancy with education channeled into their brains, not allowing for any sort of individuality or independent thought. He suggests that Mars needs Santa Claus to allow the children to have some fun. So Kirmar assembles his team, including Dropo, a dopey fool, and the sinister-looking, moustachioed Voldar, and they travel to Earth, intending to kidnap Santa and bring him back to Mars. Upon reaching Earth, however, Kimar discovers that distinguishing the real Santa from all the fake Santas is more difficult than he anticipated. So he kidnaps two Earth children, Billy and Betty, who lead him to the North Pole, where they storm Santa’s workshop, armed with freeze rays and a robot, and successfully capture Santa.
Back on Mars, Kimar’s plan works out perfectly: his kids are upbeat, happy, and full of life again, Dropo fully embraces the new holiday tradition, and Santa, to his credit, takes his new life of indentured servitude in stride. And Kimar, despite having orchestrated this holiday coup, could not be a more gracious host. Voldar, on the other hand, is not so pleased. You see, he was against this whole thing from the start, fearing that all this Santa business would only corrupt the Martian children, turning them into “blithering idiots.” Preferring to maintain the status quo, he repeatedly attempts to kill Santa and the Earth children. When his attempts fail, he has his assistants sabotage Santa’s new Martian workshop, and take Santa hostage. What they don’t realize is that they’ve accidentally nabbed Dropo, disguised in his Santa suit (for some reason, his bright green face and Martian helmet don’t give him away). At this point, it’s up to Kimar, Santa and the Earth kids to save the day. Hijinks ensue, and in the end, Voldar is arrested, Santa, Billy and Betty return to Earth, and Dropo takes over as the new Martian Santa Claus.
It’s really no surprise to me that this flick bombed on release. Simply put, it’s just not any good. You may be thinking, “It's just a kids movie. How bad could it be? Besides, it's not even that long.” But I'm here to tell you it's pretty damn awful, and possibly the longest 81 minutes of my life. With a budget of about $200,000 (slightly more than the average cost of an episode of Star Trek), I really have to wonder where the money went. The film looks like it was shot in someone’s garage with plywood sets, hand-me-down costumes and cheap face paint. The plot is so incredibly thin that they had to stuff it with a bunch of stock footage and other nonsense (including a scene where Billy and Betty encounter what might be the most obvious man in a polar bear costume I've ever seen) just to get it to a feature length. And the jokes are so bad they don't even reach dad joke levels of sophistication. The actors, many of whom came from Broadway, are about as wooden as all get out. Plus, the combination of horrible dialogue and worse direction clearly doesn't do them any favors. If there's one thing I can say I truly enjoyed about this film, it's the theme song, "Hooray for Santa Claus," which bookends the film. Sung by a chorus of children, it's a delightfully silly, but catchy, little number that's perfect for your next holiday mixtape.
The fact that Santa Claus Conquers the Martians fails on just about every level is a real shame. With a hell of a lot of fine tuning, it could have been a decent half-hour made-for-TV Christmas special, but instead we got the cinematic equivalent of a fruitcake: a festive little holiday treat that looks fun on the surface, but in reality is a half-assed, hastily thrown together pile of nonsense that belongs in the garbage. There are plenty of so-bad-they’re-good Christmas movies out there, but this one ain't one of them. If, for some reason, you're still feeling compelled to seek this one out, try to find the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version. You'll be better off.