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  • nickkarner

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)


As someone who gorges on bad movies for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and an occasional afternoon tea, I was chomping at the bit when I found out a movie called The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made (2004) existed. I popped that sucker in and...it was terrible. How could a “documentary” about bad movies be so awful? How is that even possible? If you’ve ever wandered a convenience store like Walgreens or CVS, you may have encountered ‘the rack.’ Sure, there might be some ‘real’ movies there, but mostly what you’ll find are DVDS in very thin cases, some of which claim to be documentaries about fantastic subjects. Hell, it’s only five bucks, why not? It’s only later you’ll see through their clever and deceptive ruse. The “documentary” is nothing but trailer clips and a narrator tying everything together! Why? Because it’s incredibly cheap. I’ve been roped in by my fair share of these abominations because I’m always interested in the history of Hollywood. Since these “movies” have very little value, they’re quickly discarded, but this one keeps rearing its ugly little head and spreading like a virulent plague. First, a director I would shoot for posted about it and I wrote a way-too-long reply about how bad it was. Then an online filmmaking group I’m a part of provided links. Worst of all, my own father found it on one of those free Roku channels which offer garbage prints of public domain fare. If so many people are interested, maybe it’s not so bad? Am I wrong? No. No, I am not.

The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made is a bewildering countdown "movie" with no rhyme or reason, consisting of a narrator whom you wish laryngitis-upon and nothing but trailer clips. Occasionally, if a movie is clearly public domain, there’s a bit more meat and some more footage, but most have so little that the doc simply repeats the same bits and pieces. If you don’t have the money to realize a project like this, I get it. The most insulting and infuriating part about the movie is the writing. It’s simply wrong. That’s all there is to it. The “facts” are wrong more than half the time. Not only some of the behind-the-scenes info, but basic information about the movies and their content are literally incorrect. The narrator describes things that either never happen or presents the footage in a way that’s entirely inaccurate to what’s going on in the film. Sure, these movies are bad, but why kick a man when he’s down? Just report what makes them bad! There’s no need to make things up. By the way, if you want a real laugh, read the director’s IMDB page. It’s a hoot.

One of the most egregious examples of false reporting comes in the segment for Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964). Sure, the premise is simple enough and there are a hundred hilarious things to make fun of in this bad movie classic, but the doc decides to ignore all of that and make a false claim. A very simple scene where a reporter speaks to Santa (John Call, an understudy for Mr. Bumble in Oliver!, which I can definitely see) and Mrs. Claus (Doris Rich) is presented as a surreal fourth-wall break that has no business being in the movie. That’s simply not true and is indicative of the rest of this bargain-basement direct-to-video tripe. That’s not to say Santa Claus Conquers the Martians has a lavish budget and impressive production design. In fact, it’s stunningly cheap, but at least it tries to tell a story and not outright lie about what it is.

It was the 60’s and the space race was in full swing. The bright, shiny U.S. of A versus the cold, grey Soviet Union. Space travel was the hot new thing. In a plot that's obliquely similar but the reverse of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), we discover that the children of Mars, apparently consisting of only Bomar (Chris Month, which one, December?) and Girmar (a pre-infamy Pia Zadora) are very unhappy. Something has to be done, so the Martian King Kimar (Leonard Hicks) plots to kidnap Santa Claus and force him to spread joy to all of the children of Mars. And this is the hero of the movie! To its credit, Santa has a better plot than Mars Needs Moms (2011).

Opening with a fabulously cheesy (and cost effective) credit sequence, that includes the infamous ‘custume’ credit, we’re also treated to an ear worm which refuses to exit my headspace. In fact, the instrumental version of “Hooray for Santa Claus” plays throughout the film, guaranteeing you’ll be humming this little ditty to your grave. Bomar and Kimar stare at their “video set,” which is just a weird TV, like zombies. They’re constantly watching Earth programming, but in this movie, Earth is pronounced “Urth.” This latest bit of Urth-based claptrap is a visit to Santa’s Workshop in the North Pole. Much later, the leaders of Mars have great difficulty in locating Santa, proving that they’re an advanced race of idiots who can’t take five seconds to do a little research. Santa can barely remember the names of his reindeer so it’s clear he lets his crew of elf slaves do the dirty work, which includes the elf Winky, who seems super pissed off. Knowing what we know now, I can’t help but think that as a young Zadora gazed at Santa, whose business is clearly booming, she thought, “I bet I could give my career a boost by sleeping with him.”

The alien children’s mother Momar (Lelia Martin, who would have a bit part in Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To) has brought home some delicious food pills for the kids. Hamburger, buttered asparagus, chocolate layer-cake, and mashed potatoes, which would be fine if the pills weren’t BRIGHT RED! We also meet the film’s comic relief Dropo, played by Tony-winner Bill McCutcheon, whose name seems to indicate a Marx Brothers-level ability to make us laugh but the laughs do not come. McCutcheon would have a distinguished career on Broadway and even carve out some credits as a New York-based actor in films and television, most notably as Uncle Wally on Sesame Street, but his performance here proves he should’ve stayed on stage. Many of the actors involved were theatre actors, explaining the ‘big’ performances.

There’s a delicate balance to be had with acting in a children’s film. It can’t be too real or else it could frighten or confuse a young one, but in the worst of these movies, the performances are so broad, so over-the-top, that they’re an embarrassment. I once filmed a video for a museum where an actor, dressed as a historical figure, would greet the guests and tell them a bit about himself. He was a trained actor and was appropriately subtle for the camera, but the museum representative said it needed to be big for the younger patrons. By the end, it was absolutely ridiculous to watch, but it’s what the rep wanted. Momar tells Kimar that he must do something about the children, to which I expected him to yell, “Get off my back, woman!”

The leaders, who include our mustachioed villain Voldar (Vincent Beck, another Broadway veteran whose credits include Bells are Ringing and standby work in the original Gypsy, along with a small but vital role in William Lustig's Vigilante), decide to consult with the ancient one, Chochem (Carl Don, longtime Broadway actor). I know plenty of Jewish friends who celebrate Christmas, but it’s still pretty amusing that Chochem is a Yiddish/Hebrew word meaning "sage.” He knows all and, surrounded by a rock formation that looks like the Aggro Crag from Nickelodeon’s GUTS, tells them the children have the minds of adults thanks to an ‘electronic teaching machine’ being literally pumped into their skulls since birth and they need to experience a real childhood. They need Santa Claus to bring them fun and laughter. I don’t know about fun, but laughter? My God, will there be laughter. Allowing no follow-up questions, Chochem disappears into a cloud of smoke. Despite the protests of Voldar, who thinks this is all bullshit, they set off for ‘Urth’ in a fabulously wooden (or is it cardboard?) rocket ship set.

The plot may be dumb, but it’s not a bad idea. With a real budget, this could work. In the early 2000’s there was even talk of a remake, but it was dropped. Here, with little to no money, the writers (the only writing credits ever for scripter Glenville Mareth and producer Paul L. Jacobson) resort to wonderful techno-babble to make up for the lack of special effects. They could destroy ‘Urth’ with their ‘Q-Ray' if so desired but instead they’ll use their ‘Magna Scope’ to find Santa. Unfortunately, there are so many Salvation Army Santas that they end up kidnapping two kids, Billy and Betty (Victor Stiles and Donna Conforti), who are sweet but really quite awful screen actors that inadvertently fuck everything up by telling them where to find the real Santa.

It’s quite pointless for the Martians to abduct the kids since they get what they wanted, but what’s even more amazing is that a TV news anchor is able to report their kidnapping with a surprising amount of accuracy, as if it were just posted on Twitter. The ship lands at the North Pole and Billy and Betty somehow manage to get out first even though they were following the Martians out of the control deck. The movie is only 81 minutes, but the runtime is padded out by silly stock footage (some of which appeared in Dr. Strangelove) and scenes that take way too long to play out, like Billy dismantling the Martian’s radar equipment, which prevents the aliens from being detected. The kids encounter a very funny ‘polar bear,’ whose bear mask is set in a permanent grin, then the Martians bring out the big guns. The giant robot Torg, who is no Gort, I’ll say that much, goes after them. It nabs the kiddies and Voldar straight up tells it to crush them with his squishy tube arms. Kimar has programmed Torg to only obey him, so no dice. Voldar is an asshole, but he’s often proven right about his suspicions that these ‘Urth’ children will fuck things up.

In a rather satisfying moment, Torg smashes through the workshop door and shoves some non-plussed elves out of the way. Santa has some kind of unseen power and renders Torg motionless, turning the robot into an oversized toy. It’s kind of cool to see the Martians dumbfounded by this weird bearded man’s strange abilities. Voldar, prick that he is, freezes Mrs. Claus and the elves (who can’t quite stay still) and Santa's captured. There’s some more stock footage and a lead scientist Von Green (again played by Carl Don) calls out the aliens as Martian monkeys (?) and says the military is set to take these green bastards down. This never amounts to much as it’s doubtful they had the budget for a space battle, but it leads to a great Voldar line. When Kimar assumes the ‘Urthlings’ have a secret device to track them, Voldar announces they do have a “secret device. His name is Billy Foster!” I just find him stating the kid’s full name very funny.

Santa, who is either a moron or high as fuck, makes light of the situation while the kids sulk. Voldar decides to get rid of them once and for all, even though Billy and Betty see through this, and he leads them to the air lock. Non-actor Billy is saddled with a shit-ton of dialogue about how an air lock works. Voldar tries to blast them out to a chilly space grave, but Santa escapes with the children by using his considerable chimney maneuvering skills. There’s an epic fight between Kimar and Voldar. Santa and the kids re-appear followed by a long and very uncomfortable stretch of fake laughter. Voldar will go on trial for his treasonous acts but he escapes when they land back on Mars.

The movie does have an innate sweetness, so it’s hard (but not THAT hard) to be cruel to it, especially when the ‘Urth’ kids meet the Martian children. However, it certainly doesn’t help when Santa comes in without saying a word and merely starts to laugh. A lot. The kids laugh. A lot. This phony forced-laughter only increases, to the point that you expect Santa to pull out a machete and chop their little heads off or at least have a stroke. All good, though. A powerful toy-making machine is constructed, which could be operated by anyone, and the kids are put to work. The ‘Hooray for Santa Claus’ music plays whenever the machine is working. You think it’s just the soundtrack, but when it shuts down, the music stops. You’d think that would be annoying after a while, and it is! They have to constantly rush back and forth, catching the toys off a conveyer belt in laundry baskets. It looks like very tiring work. Why are they the only ones who have to do this? The ‘Urth’ children are depressed, probably because they’re not getting that sweet, sweet moon money or at least that red cash from Total Recall, but Momar believes it’s because they’re homesick. There’s a genuine line flub when Kimar jumps on Betty’s line then repeats himself. Either they could only do one take or this was the best one they got. If it’s the latter, I’d hate to see the bad takes.

Meanwhile, Voldar and his compadres Stobo (Al Nesor) and Shem (Josep Elic, Bancini from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) plot to kidnap Santa and halt the toy production. Unfortunately, Dropo dresses himself in Santa’s new outfit and gorges himself on food pills. They mistake him for the real thing and take him to a cave, where the threat of a ‘nuclear veil’ prevents him from escaping. This 'veil’ is literally invisible and is represented merely by the cave entrance and two red and white bulbs. Dropo switches the bulbs and then runs off. It’s an oddly-written scene because the way it should play out is Dropo threatens to run and Shim says he’ll be destroyed. Shim pushes a button to make the veil even more powerful or something when he’s really disabling it, allowing Dropo to escape. Instead, Dropo runs and Shim just tries messing with the bulbs.

Voldar sabotages the toy machine, which doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. He fights Kimar in a storage closet (Mars has a storage closet?) and then plans on attacking Santa. The kids attack him with various toys. He’s defeated, even though he could just blast all of them with the freeze ray, and is led off crying. Santa suggests Dropo be the ‘Santa of Mars’ and he and the children can finally leave. Wondering whether they’ll ever see each other again? I’d assume the sequel would have been Santa Claus Conquers Venus, where Santa conquers a fuckton of chicks. There’s an awkwardly timed “Yay!” from the kids and Santa, then they just walk out the door, meaning Santa could have left anytime he wanted. We’re treated to an awful shot of a “ship” in space and then a sing-along to “Hooray for Santa Claus,” which includes the line “He's fat and round, but jumpin’ jiminy, he can climb down any chiminy!”

The movie was distributed by Joseph E. Levine, a producer whose filmography has always fascinated me. He has dubious credits that include The Spy with the Cold Nose, What? (Roman Polanski’s forgotten romp through Carlo Ponti’s villa) and the hysterical The Oscar, but he also presented or executive produced great films like The Ruling Class, Carnal Knowledge, A Bridge Too Far, The Graduate, Magic, The Lion in Winter, Two Women, and The Night Porter.

Director Nicholas Webster was a film cutter at MGM and mainly worked in television throughout his career. He occasionally dipped his toe into features, including another Mars-themed piece Mission Mars from1965, not to be confused with DePalma’s Mission to Mars), Gone are the Days! (1963), an Ossie Davis-Ruby Dee vehicle, and No Longer Alone (1976), a lame duck religious film of dubious reputation. His direction here isn't very lively, mainly consisting of scenes playing out in masters and two-shots, but there are a few unexpected push-in's that give the film some energy. The one thing that would have made it practically unwatchable is if it were shot in black and white. Though the film’s color processing is smudgy and slightly sickening, the scenes with the Martians are helped greatly by the garish greens and reds.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is a very poor film, but its heart seems to be in the right place. As a parent, I couldn’t help but wonder how my child would react to it. Would she see it as the unbelievably amateurish crapfest it is? Or would she be won over by its weird charm? If I were a harsher man, perhaps I’d have taken Voldar’s position. If that were the case, I’d say it’s appropriate to end with his classic speech: “What has happened to the great warriors of our planet? Mars used to be the planet of war! Mark my words, Kimar - your softness will destroy us! Santa Claus, toys, games, laughing children!” Martian-mellows indeed.

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