Written by Glenville Mareth
Directed by Nicholas Webster
Starring John Call, Leonard Hicks, Vincent Beck, Bill McCutcheon, Victor Stiles, Donna Conforti
Premiere November 14, 1964
RT 81 min.
Home Video Cobra Entertainment LLC (DVD)
Classic Horrors rating = 4 (out of 10)Yes, it’s commonly considered one of the worst movies ever made; however, at risk of losing all credibility, I don’t think Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) is as bad as all that! Perhaps I should clarify… the story and the screenplay are no worse than any number of children’s holiday tales. It’s the filmmaking execution that lands the movie in the bottom 100 (#83) of the Internet Movie Database and creates fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000.
I’ll even go as far to say that the story itself is charming and clever. From the beginning, two things are apparent: it is definitely made for children and the humor definitely caters to the target audience. For example, the call letters of the television station are KID-TV. At the North Pole, where it is (ha, ha) 91 degrees below zero and people eat only (ha, ha) frozen food, Santa (John Call) has a hard time remembering all the reindeer names, calling one of them (ha, ha), “Nixon.”
Meanwhile, on the planet Mars, the children sit in front of video screens all day watching “silly Earth shows” and haven’t been able to sleep without the use of “sleep spray.” Kimar (Leonard Hicks), father and leader, goes to the forest to meet with council members. Ah, it’s the middle of “Septober,” close to Christmas time on Earth. An elder says, “I’ve seen this coming for centuries. We don’t have childhoods. We never learned to have fun, now they’re rebelling.”
“We need a Santa Claus on Mars,” he continues. “Where will we get one? There’s only one… on Earth.” It’s a desperate situation, but Earth has had him long enough. “Prepare spaceship #1!” How about that for a set-up? It’s ridiculous, sure, but absolutely not any more ridiculous than, as I wrote in the first paragraph, any number of children’s holiday tales. If you can accept the concept, you can probably accept how the rest of the story unfolds.
When the spaceship arrives on Earth, the travellers are astonished at all the buildings above ground. How are they going to find Santa Claus among millions of people, especially when there are bell-ringers on every street corner? All right, this is a plot hole. On Mars, they watched a news report from the North Pole; they should know where to find Santa. Instead, though, they abduct two children to lead them to “that roly-poly man.”
The weakest part of the movie takes place at the North Pole. Story-wise, let’s jump ahead to the point that Billy Forster (Victor Stiles), Betty Forster (Donna Conforti) and Santa are taken to Mars. Production-wise, we’ll return to this part of the movie, for sure! On Mars, Santa has the kids (and adults) laughing in no time.
He’s a little despondent, though. As both Earth children and Martian children collect toys that roll off a conveyor belt by the second, Santa sighs, “That’s automation for you.” His finger is tired from pushing buttons as Betty reads items from wish lists in this mechanized workshop. Billy and Betty are despondent, as well; they’re homesick. Why, they’re behaving like the Martian children used to behave!
Not all Martians are celebrating the season. The villain, Voldar (Vincent Beck), doesn’t want good cheer to be spread. He plots with a couple other bad guys. “We cannot eliminate Santa Claus, but we can discredit him… make him a laughing stock.” They break into the workshop and alter the machinery so that it produces abominations like dolls with teddy bear heads and baseball bat/tennis racket hybrids, all of which allows Santa to say, “This never happened when we made toys by hand.”
Add to all this a case of mistaken identity when Dropo (Bill McCutchoen), “the laziest man on Mars,” wants to be like Santa. He doesn’t have the right midsection, but when food pills take too long for him to get fat, he finds that a pillow will do quite nicely. It’s a little obvious to us what is going to happen, but the characters in, again, any number of children’s holiday tales don’t catch on as fast. There wouldn’t be a movie if they did, would there?
With its – spoiler – happy ending, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians reads, at the very least, like a perfectly acceptable one-hour television special or animated movie. However, when adapting it as a full length, live action motion picture with zero-budget, it’s easy to lose sight of what it could have been. Why, that would require a sense of wonder and imagination. How dare we ask for that at Christmas!
I almost think if it were re-edited to cut the aforementioned scene at the North Pole, it might have succeeded. Here, we learn why the Martian spaceship hasn’t been seen until now and we meet Torg, a cardboard robot meant to frighten Santa, but which only causes him to ask, “Where did you come from? You’re the biggest toy I’ve ever seen.” Both are impressive special effects compared to the polar bear that traps the children in a cave. (Remember that it’s 91 degrees below zero? Betty casually mentions that she’s cold.)
The sets are atrocious. The Martian forest is obviously a room containing tarp-covered furniture. No fog machine can disguise that! The costumes are amateur. It pains me to say that they were designed by Ramsey Mostoller, who dressed the cast of Dark Shadows for five years beginning in 1966. The climax deflates the production value even further into weekday afternoon local TV kids’ fare.
As a character in the movie says, “All this trouble over a fat little man in a red suit!” Maybe I’m full of Christmas spirit, but I really enjoyed my first time viewing of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Sure, I could have produced a version with similar quality in my back yard with a Super 8 camera when I was in grade school. But you know what? It would have been a heckuva lot of fun. I’ll strike the “heckuva” from my experience watching this movie, but I did indeed have fun.