December 22, 2011 by abbyo
Awesomely terrible films are at their best when they are epically failed attempts to cash in on a popular concept. Sometimes, it’s a failure attributed to one particular area, like the script (see “Theodore Rex”) or the acting (see “Double Team”). But in the best of cases, the stench of failure spreads to every corner of the movie. It’s not just the script or the acting or the budget. It’s the script and the acting and the budget. This is how you get movies like “Hercules in New York,” “Gymkata” and today’s entry, the 1964 yuletide debacle “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.”
In theory, I could see how the movie might make for an attractive pitch. Everyone loves Santa, and the 1960s were the height of the space race, so, at the time, everyone loved space, too. Put the two together, and you’ve got a bona fide hit. It seems like the kind of idea that wouldn’t be totally out of place in today’s movie culture. It could even make for a decent Pixar short. But despite the seemingly fool-proof setup, the fact is that everything in “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” is mind-bogglingly awful, from the opening credits to the end of the film.
The plot’s fairly simple. Martian children exist in a constant state of ennui because they have no Santa to give them presents. The Martian high council decides to kidnap Santa to bring joy and gifts to their alien offspring. They also take hostage a pair of earthling children whose primary interest is getting Santa back to Earth in time for Christmas. Visually speaking, the movie resembles an 80-minute Flaming Lips video, but quality-wise it’s squarely in the “Hercules in New York” category—minus any quality acting or “catch a rising star” moments, but with an added dose of weird. It features obviously amateur filmmaking and sets, a tragically comic character, and a bear costume that’s easily worse than “Hercules’” escaped man-in-a-bear-suit.
In order to accurately describe the sets and effects of “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” I’ll first have you recall the early run of “Doctor Who.” The original run—the one with William Hartnell. Got it? Good. Now think about how it would look if you took away three quarters of the budget. That’s roughly the production quality we’re talking here. Flimsy sets, costumes that could’ve been designed by an enterprising mom on Halloween, and inconsistent makeup that makes the Martians look alternately like they’re wearing blackface, or they’re afflicted with an unfortunate form of facial fungus. Check it out:
The two major effects set pieces, the ones really designed to instill awe, are similarly bad. At one point, the two Earth children, Billy and Betty, attempt to escape the Martians at the North Pole and warn Santa of the impending danger. They encounter a polar bear. It looks like this:
Also, the Martians use a robot called Torg to take Santa hostage. Torg only shows up in one scene, which is unfortunate, because he’s actually kind of cool looking. This is Torg:
Like “Hercules in New York,” “Santa Claus” also features a hapless character whose bizarre antics hint at deeper troubles within, troubles that require a bit of analysis. In “Hercules,” that character was Pretzie, the lonely, charmingly alcoholic pretzel vendor. The Pretzie of “Santa Claus” is Dropo, a klutzy stooge and personal servant to the leader of the Martian Council, Kimar. But while Pretzie’s pathetic nature gave “Hercules” some intriguing pathos, Dropo’s story is where “Santa Claus” takes a hard left turn into weirdsville. Dropo loves his master. He loves children. He also worships Santa to a disturbing degree, eventually becoming his successor on the Red Planet. Before the Martians kidnap Santa, Dropo is nothing more than a source for an easy joke. He mixes up orders. He trips over things, and shows up in places where he shouldn’t be.
But once Santa sets up shop in Kimar’s house, Dropo starts getting creepy. He stops behaving like a coherent character, and turns into a crude imitation of the jolly old elf. He struts around the workshop, laughing like Santa, putting on his spare coat and pants, desperately trying to gain weight to make them fit. Dropo has lost any kind of identity in the face of Santa. He has found his reason for being, and that reason is Claus. It’s like a Children’s Sci-Fi holiday special version of “Single White Female.” In fact, I’m surprised Dropo doesn’t go the full Jennifer Jason Leigh and try to murder Santa.
Generally speaking, “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” is actually kind of a creepy movie. It wouldn’t take much to turn it into a freaky, psychedelic nightmare. Frankly, between the robot, the polar bear, and Dropo’s obsessive behavior, the movie’s already riding that line pretty hard. Due to scads of poor choices, and a lack of appropriate filmmaking technology, the filmmakers took a potentially entertaining gimmick and made it into an unintentional bad acid trip. I wouldn’t watch this movie late at night on Christmas Eve—the resulting dreams might be more than you could handle.
Note: This movie is available online in from multiple sources. Netflix has the original, as does YouTube. However, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode featuring this movie is also available on YouTube. As a fan, I’d recommend this is the version you check out. Not one of MST3K’s best, but still lots of fun.