Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
Woof, this is a horrendously bad one on every level, yet another movie with a title so wickedly cool that it couldn't possibly live up to it (spoiler alert: it doesn't). This film is schizophrenic to the extreme, half traditional serious alien invasion movie and half comic opera silliness insulting to anyone with an intelligence higher than a gerbil and another half public service announcement against drug use. It's definitely a b-movie, chock full of Martians with porn star mustaches, eye-gougingly bad child actors, stock footage fighter jets, and a cardboard and tin foil robot straight out of Mrs. Thompson's preschool art class. The acting is all over the map as well, with some guys who really, really think they're doing Shakespeare at Carnegie and others who would think Jar Jar Binks' performance was "understated". Any movie with both toy-building elves and child-murdering aliens is worthy of scorn and pity. Did I mention that half the cast seems to have been stoned on LSD?
This will be another joint review, with Pam and I sharing the horror and the misery, because I cannot imagine going into this dark abyss alone. Pam will take the first stab at the painful task of deconstructing the visual onslaught that is Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and I fear for her safety. Heart of oak, my brave friend, heart of oak.
I'll be strong for the sake of MMT, Nate. I have to admit, I was the one who suggested reviewing this movie. I've never seen it, but I could tell by the title it was prime MMT fodder, and I wanted to watch it to see just how horrendously awful it is. The opening credits give me a hint that this may not be a quality production, as "custume designer" is among the list of people mentioned.
You will rue the day, Mr. Call, I assure you...
We start out with two oddly-dressed children watching a TV show with a reporter interviewing Santa in Santa's workshop. I'm not going to describe the interview, because it's exactly what you'd expect: Santa all jolly and twinkly, Mrs. Claus motherly and a little flustered at being on TV, and the elves all working away in the background, making toys. We do, however, get a glimpse of things to come, when the reporter comments negatively on an odd-looking doll one of the elves just made. It's a figure wearing a gray jumpsuit, and it has two antennae sticking out of its head, a lot like the two kids we saw a few minutes ago. As a matter of fact, I would have thought a present like that was pretty cool when I was young enough to believe in Santa, so I think the reporter is being a little harsh.
Santa mugs for the camera.
The elf must have been psychic, as we'll see in a minute. We switch to a set furnished Lost in Space-style, where a man in a gray jumpsuit pokes another man wearing a gray jumpsuit, who seems to have passed out on the floor. Either I'm being unjust or the second man is a quick thinker, because he tells the other man, who seems to be his boss, that he was "just practicing" because he hasn't been able to sleep at night. Actually, I think I was right when I assumed he'd passed out on the floor, if that's the best explanation he can come up with. Both men have accessorized their jumpsuits with what may be miniature vacuum cleaners, stylishly worn on their heads.
From the dialogue between the two men, it appears that we're in a home of some kind on Mars. First Man is the Fatherly-Martian, Mom-Martian has gone out to do some shopping, and Funny-Martian is some kind of servant. Martian-Son and Martian-Daughter are the children we saw earlier. They also wear gray jumpsuits and have vacuum cleaners on their heads, and they are sitting as stiffly as Prussian soldiers in front of the TV set, still engrossed in the Earth TV show about Santa Claus. The little girl is played by someone who is probably the most famous actor in the cast, none other than Pia Zadora. Sadly, this may also be the best part she ever had.
Pia Zadora grew up nicely.
Fatherly-Martian is disturbed that they're wasting their time on such trash and orders them to bed. "Bed" is a very uncomfortable-looking thin slab with no covers at all, suspended from the ceiling like a hammock, and I don't blame the kids if they'd rather watch TV than try to sleep. In fact, these alien sets are all sparse in the extreme. The Rocky Jones sets, and even the Plan 9 sets, are extravagant in comparison.
That can't be comfortable.
Mom-Martian, proof that no woman, regardless of species, looks good in an ATC flight helmet spray painted green and splashed with glitter with a copper plumbing joint sticking out of it.
Worried about his children, Fatherly-Martian consults a wise elder, who, in token of his wiseness and elderhood, comes equipped with the standard long white hair, long white beard, stooped posture, and gnarled wooden staff. Remarkably, he has no vacuum cleaner on his head. After spending way too much time croaking out words of wisdom, Grandpa-Martian finally gets to the point: Martian children need Santa Claus. Odd that he would even know who Santa Claus was, but maybe Earth TV shows are universally popular on Mars. His mission done, he disappears in a puff of smoke. No, really. No clue if this is a universal Martian ability, or if it's the old man's specialty.
Hey, it's Tim the Enchanter!
Fatherly-Martian discusses this with his friends, who are not enthusiastic about the idea of bringing Santa Claus to Mars. One man, Grouchy-Martian, who has a really bad porn-star moustache, feels that having his children running around the house playing and laughing will be utterly unbearable. Father prevails, however, and a spaceship is dispatched to Earth.
Chatting with Grouchy-Martian (L).
The spaceship's control room isn't too bad. It's clear they didn't build the set any bigger than they absolutely had to, but the central control console looks fairly convincing, and if it's made of cardboard painted metallic gray, which is a possibility, at least it doesn't wobble. The various switches and dials on the control console are pure 1960s-era Earth technology, but if Earth TV shows are as universally watched on Mars as they appear to be, perhaps they've influenced Martian spaceship design. Grouchy-Martian, he of the porn-star moustache, looks through his viewscreen at Earth and makes some disparaging remarks about Earth cities and how easy it would be to destroy them with a "Q-ray." However, Fatherly-Martian keeps them on task, as a good leader should, with the reminder that they're not there to destroy anything, all they want is Santa Claus.
Set later borrowed by George Lucas for the Emperor's throne room in Return of the Jedi.
Grouchy-Martian brings up a point I was wondering about, which is, How are they going to find Santa Claus among the millions of people on Earth? However, luck is with them. They spot one, then two, then hundreds of Santas through their viewscreens, and they conclude that with so many Santas on Earth, they can take one and he'll never be missed. They now prepare to land and go git 'em a Santa Claus.
SantaVision, now with extra Santas!
Unlike in so many science fiction movies about alien invasions, their presence doesn't go unnoticed. A TV announcer with a surprising resemblance to Darrin Stephens on Bewitched gives the news that an unidentified object has been spotted, and the Air Force is on the alert. (This man looks so much like Dick York that I checked IMDb to see if he had a bit part in the movie, but he isn't listed as being in the cast, and on second viewing, the actor's voice doesn't sound like Dick York's.) We switch now to some Air Force office, and since Nate knows a lot more about that military stuff than I do, I'll turn the review over to him.
Dick Sargent was a way-better Darrin Stephens.
Thanks, Pam, though I don't think the director knew much more about the Air Force than "Hey, this stock footage is public domain and free, let's use it!". The only real notable aspect of this movie's oh-so-cliched library footage segment of the puny humans trying to catch the uber-advanced Martian invaders is how long it lasts. It goes on for several minutes longer than you would have thought necessary to show us that the Earthies are powerless to detect and destroy the Martians, almost like they were deliberately trying to pad out the running time.
Wow, computers sucked in the Sixties.
So the Martian spaceship, which looks like a Pepsi bottle on fire, lands somewhere on the East Coast. The retro rockets are fired, the gravity doohickies are disemfribulachted, and it lands backwards on stilts as a proper b-movie spaceship should. As the ship is invisible with their anti-radar force-field up, the US military writes the whole thing off as Venus reflecting off some swamp gas or something and goes back to looking for Commies.
Nice blowtorch engine exhaust.
Now, it's cold, it's late, and it's 1964, so it's really no surprise that we see two young children out alone in the woods playing without adult supervision, probably with Red Ryder bb guns and Junior Camper hatchets and stuff. I wouldn't let my kids wander around alone, even in my peaceful little Amish town, but I won't pass judgment on these kids' parents (but I am calling CPS...). And, yes, sadly, this will be the type of movie that has more children than adults, and, yes, even more sadly, you will want to powerdrill out your eye sockets after watching these hack child actors butcher their lines for the next hour.
The Martian away team encounters the children and interrogates them about Santa's whereabouts. Once it's determined that their target Santa, the one true Santa, resides at the North Pole, they make to leave. But they are concerned that these two scamps will beeline to the nearest ham radio set and alert Santa to the Martians' plans, because that's just what children do. Grouchy-Martian wants to kill them on the spot (top shelf idea), but Fatherly-Martian decides to just kidnap them (oh, hey, that's much better).
Eek, nice child molester grin there.
So they take the kids back to their spaceship and turn them over to Funny-Martian, who has come along to provide the jokes, man. Funny-Martian is our movie's comic relief, a vaudevillian physical actor who is both flamboyantly gay and strung out on cocaine (yes, he's Robin Williams and Jar Jar Binks all rolled into one). Unsurprisingly, Funny-Martian takes the kids up onto the command bridge and unwittingly tells them all about the various critical systems that are needed to keep the Earthlings from detecting them. This is a comedy, remember?
It's like Sesame Street in space.
The kids hide in the fantastically named Radar Box when the other Martians arrive, which isn't hard to do as the Radar Box is just that, a wooden crate with "Radar Box" stenciled on the side, just sitting there in the corner of the command bridge. Later the kids escape, and because children in general are destructive little brats with no sense of personal property or social mores, the boy disables the anti-radar thingie by yanking out random wires (couldn't he have just flipped the "off" switch instead, what a little jerk).
Stay in there, twerps.
So they reach the North Pole and land on a sound stage covered with mounds of fake Styrofoam snow and eerie mood-lighting. The Martians form up a landing party and head off to Santa's workshop to do their dastardly deed. The two kids also make good their escape from the ship and wander off alone into the howling wilderness of the Arctic to warn Santa (Grouchy-Martian was right, they should have just shot them). Along the way they have to seek shelter from a rampaging Polar bear, realized Anguilius-like by a stuntman in a fur suit crawling around on all fours. I wish I was making that up.
I made a better Polar bear costume in three minutes.
The kids are soon caught by the Martian's lumbering killer Robot, which is the most laughable collection of cardboard, spray paint, hot glue, and aluminum foil that's been filmed. I can put up with the Captain Planet spaceship, I can stand the green painted Martian tights, I can even take Opie Taylor and his sister mangling the English language, but once I saw that lame Robot, the wheels just came off this movie for me.
And I made a better Robot in two!
Once again, Grouchy-Martian wants to kill the kids right then and there (he wants to kill everything, it's his nature) and he and Fatherly-Martian have it out over who has the final say. While he's the leader of his people, Fatherly-Martian's hold on power seems tenuous at best and his refusal to take a hard line with Grouchy-Martian only serves to weaken his position of authority in the eyes of his subordinates. If there is anything we've learned from a thousand years of human history it's that strong men only stay in power if they are willing to use the sword. Genghis Khan did not become Genghis Khan by being nice and conciliatory to his lieutenants.
Show some spine, seriously.
So they find Santa's workshop and send in the Robot to rough up the elvish bodyguards. Santa, being something of a dumbass, thinks it's a fabulous new toy and is more delighted than terrified. Their Robot failing to wreck havoc as intended, the Martians barge in and start zapping everyone with their Freez-o Ray Guns (Dr. Horrible would be so proud). Oddly, instead of just using a cut-still for the Freeze Ray effect, the director has the actors stand very still, which, as you can imagine, doesn't work at all. Santa is hauled away, though he doesn't exactly seem too upset about it. Maybe the stress of the Christmas rush was getting to him, he wouldn't be the first high-powered executive to secretly wish someone would kidnap him before that big shareholder meeting. Anyway, now back to Pam for part three of this lovely movie and may God have mercy on her soul.
Perhaps they should invest in some Dobermans.
Mrs. Claus gets frozen, and Santa's actually pretty happy for the peace and quiet.
Thanks, Nate. Santa is led away by the Martians, a fact which somehow becomes known to the world at large. I guess once Mrs. Santa and the elves revived, they called the police. Earth authorities are not taking the loss of Santa lying down. The UN is debating what to do, but it appears that the United States has already decided: Wernher von "Green," who is in charge of the American space program, announces that an experimental rocket ship will be launched as soon as possible to go to Mars and retrieve Santa. The filmmakers throw in some stock footage of a rocket launch, and it's off to Mars to get Santa back! Nothing is said about the children, so it seems that nobody knows the Martians have them, or maybe that nobody has even missed them, which wouldn't be surprising if their parents let them wander around in the woods alone.
Never to be seen again.
Meanwhile, on the Martian spaceship, Santa is taking the whole situation very well and in fact is telling jokes to his captors. The way they laugh at a very feeble joke ("What's soft and round and you put it on a stick and you toast it in a fire? And it's green?" "A Martianmallow!") suggests that Santa may also be passing around a bottle of something stronger than milk. (And how do they even know what a marshmallow is? Is this confection something both Earth and Mars have developed independently?) Santa is also telling jokes to the two children, who are named Billy and Betty Foster. As the camera scans across Santa's cell, we see something very odd, an old-fashioned china pitcher and washbasin. Are we to believe that this is the best the Martians can do for washing facilities?
"Say, kids, let me tell you about the time I was in a Turkish prison..."
The children seem much less amused by his jokes than the Martians. The children's mood is not improved by Droppo, the Funny-Martian, who shows up with their dinner. Dinner consists of three pills apiece, soup, beef stew, and chocolate ice cream, a fact which does nothing to make either the children or Santa look forward to living on Mars. By the way, Droppo sounds as though he's wearing false teeth that don't fit right. Those pills probably don't supply enough calcium.
Odious comic relief...
In the control room of the Martian spaceship, things are getting tense. One of the Martians notices that there's a spaceship following them, which Fatherly-Martian confidently but wrongly says is impossible, because they have their radar shields up. Grouchy-Martian solves the puzzle almost immediately, when he opens the Radar Box (labeled as such in plain English, the way a lot of the other equipment is) and sees the dangling wires Billy pulled loose earlier. The Radar Box seems to have an awful lot of unused space in it, which would be a poor design for something installed on a spaceship where there's very limited room, but I guess it's not my place to tell the Martians how to design their equipment.
Random crewman with werewolf hands.
Fatherly-Martian takes the news of Billy's sabotage with surprising calmness, but Grouchy-Martian storms off to the cell where Santa and the children are locked up. With the phoniest smile since the Grinch talked to Cindy Lou Who, Grouchy-Martian offers to take them on a tour of the ship. However, there's really only one place he wants to show them: the airlock. And he wants to show them how it works. With him on the outside and them on the inside. And he proceeds to do so.
"But that's unsafe without protective gear!"
Now back in the control room, Grouchy-Martian brags to Fatherly-Martian that he got rid of Santa and the kids for good. Fatherly-Martian seems to believe in personally administering immediate punishment for disobeying orders, and he and Grouchy-Martian begin trading punches. Or sort of, because the sound of fists hitting flesh apparently wasn't foleyed in. Fatherly-Martian does get the better of Grouchy-Martian, but no sooner is Grouchy-Martian pinned against the control console (which seems like a bad idea as far as what it's likely to do to the spaceship), who should walk in but Santa and the two kids! How can this be, ask the two Martians? Remember, Santa can climb the smallest of chimneys, so escaping through an air duct in the airlock was simplicity itself. (He refuses to explain how the kids got out.) Belying the ruthlessness he's shown so far, Grouchy-Martian faints dead away.
Go for the hose! Pull out his hose!
The spaceship, and Santa and the kids, make it safely back to Mars, with Grouchy-Martian locked up in the brig. Once they land, two of the Martian crewmembers go to the brig to get Grouchy-Martian, only to find he's tied up Droppo and escaped. How he managed this is not stated, since the ship has literally only been on the ground for less than a minute, so either he can move faster than Santa climbing up an air duct or he bailed out before the ship landed and somehow managed to survive.
I'm disturbed by the bulges.
Now on Mars, Fatherly-Martian takes Betty, Billy, and Santa to his own home, where we meet Mom-Martian and see Brother and Sister Martian again. We learn that touching foreheads is the way Martians show affection, and that Martian children currently spend 110% of the time studying. By an amazing coincidence, Brother Martian and Sister Martian are the same ages as Billy and Betty. The Martin children are pleased to meet Santa and their Earth counterparts, and for no apparent reason all five dissolve into laughter. Well, I say for no apparent reason, but the real reason may be how the Martian children look. I think they were actually wearing green makeup, but the print has faded to the point where you can't really tell, and now they just look like they've been sleeping in a coal bin (which might be more comfortable than their beds, at that). In fact, a lot of the laughter we've seen in the movie may in reality have been unscripted, since it's hard to keep a straight face when you're looking at somebody wearing a vacuum cleaner on his head.
"Pull my finger."
It seems that against all odds, Grouchy-Martian did manage to survive. He's now hiding in a cave, and it seems he hasn't given up on disposing of Santa and the two Earth children. A sympathizer arrives with the news that Fatherly-Martian has built Santa a factory where he can make toys for all the good little Martian children. (For some reason the sympathizer is allowed to look directly into the camera as he delivers his report.) Grouchy-Martian is horrified by the news that the children of Mars will now have toys, and, like Roosevelt responding to the attack on Pearl Harbor, vows to stop this evil in its tracks.
He's quite unhappy.
We now get a quick look at Santa's factory, which consists of a control board and a conveyor belt. All the toys are made by machine, with Santa's task only to push the correct button. Santa considers himself a fine craftsman and isn't happy about having to use machines, but since the Martians didn't think to bring any elves along, Santa probably has no choice. After we see a few toys being produced, Santa decides to call it a day and heads for the Fatherly-Martian residence. Now it's Nate's turn again, and for his sake I hope things pick up between now and the end of the movie. It's been a real snoozefest so far, unless you happen to harbor a deep fondness for lame jokes.
Apparently there's also a slot marked "artillery".
Thanks, Pam, and, no, it won't get any better. In fact, it can only get worse as Mom-Martian gets her Martha Stewart on and makes Santa a spare suit. Why? Just so that Funny-Martian, who has something of a man-crush on Santa, can put it on and parade around going "ho ho ho!". It's at this moment that Grouchy-Martian and his followers swoop in and kidnap him, as they think he's the "real" Santa, despite the obvious Martian vacuum cleaner headgear and pasty green skin (not a lot of brain cells in that bunch).
Can they not take off their hats?
The next morning Funny-Martian turns up missing, but no one is really that worried about him. Maybe they are all secretly hoping he wandered out into the woods and got killed by a MarsCat. Santa and the kidlets go to the workshop and crank it up. But something's wrong, the machine only produces horrifically twisted mutant dolls, as if the screaming, sweat-soaked nightmares of children everywhere were made real and formed of stitched cloth and imp's wings.
"The Old Ones have returned!"
The kids call Fatherly-Martian on their waist radio (yes, ok, ok, to talk to an adult a child has to tweak a knob on his groin...) and he comes and determines the machine has been sabotaged. Fatherly-Martian thinks that Grouchy-Martian is to blame (bingo) and they then realize that Funny-Martian must have taken the suit and been kidnapped in Santa's place (wow, amazingly accurate leap of logic there). Santa then fixes the machine with a screwdriver and magical pixie dust. While he's in there maybe he could make a button for "Sony Playstation 3" for all those non-Amish kids who don't particularly like wooden trains or frilly dolls?
Santa's electrical engineering degree finally comes in handy, his parents would be proud.
Grouchy-Martian and a lackey (who might be Jamie Farr) show up now, claiming to be holding Santa hostage and making pointed demands for his release (mainly deporting the Earth children and outlawing Christmas on Mars). Of course, the "real" Santa is here and the rebel plot is foiled. After locking the offenders in a store room, Fatherly-Martian orders a couple of guys to search the caves along the transverse canal for Funny-Martian. It's about here that it occurred to me that the entire population of Mars is around, like, a dozen dudes and just one chick. It's like the Smurfs' village, except Papa Smurf and Smurfette's children have special needs and watch too much foreign television.
Seriously, is that Jamie Farr?
Meanwhile, Funny-Martian makes a daring escape from the cave by switching the red 60 watt light bulb for the white 60 watt light bulb on the "nuclear curtain" controller. Why are you laughing? I'm serious, he switches the light bulbs and the nuclear curtain turns off, allowing him to escape with ease. What? Oh, like you just know how a Martian nuclear curtain works, yeah?
That's not an energy-efficient bulb.
Showing once again that he's a pretty pansy leader, glass-jawed Fatherly-Martian allows himself to be knocked out cold by Grouchy-Martian, who then runs out to confront Santa once again in an epic duel to the death for the future of Mars. You know, stop, think about it, what's Grouchy-Martian doing? He's rising up to defend his society and heritage, and his children, against what he rightfully sees as the corrosive and harmful influence of an intrusive foreign culture, taking to the streets, as it were, to violently protest the autocratic leadership as, in his opinion, it has sold out his nation and people by bringing outside influences into the country against the will of the people. Remember that even Fatherly-Martian used to be staunchly nationalist and anti-Santa before his week mind was swayed by Tim the Enchanter, he was even very worried about the cancerous effect Earth culture was having on his own children. Perhaps Grouchy-Martian's methods are severe, though Fatherly-Martian is more of a dictator than an elected representative and so he probably has little official recourse, but he's not seeking to aggrandize himself in any way or to usurp power. Grouchy-Martian's stated aims, made clear by his demands, show that he's more interested in maintaining Martian culture and society, he never once demands that Fatherly-Martian step down from power, only change his policies on foreigners. That, my friends, makes Grouchy-Martian more of a freedom fighter than a rebel, joining the ranks of history's other great men willing to stand up for what they believe in, even if it means laying down the plow and lifting up the sword. What better motivation can a man have for standing resolutely before the tanks in the square than his children and his children's children? I think we need a no-fly-zone over Mars to help Grouchy-Martian and his followers have a better chance to make a difference.
He has to go, the Solar Community demands it!
Anyway, Santa and the four kids ambush and attack Grouchy-Martian as he attempts to defend his nation against Santa's rapacious foreign influence, pelting him from above with a torrent of bombs and missiles (albeit made of bubbles and plastic foam). Fatherly-Martian then arrives on scene, and since Grouchy-Martian's upstart rebellion is already nearly crushed under the deadly-ish firepower of the Earthlings, he can step in and reaffirm his totalitarian powers. Grouchy-Martian is then led off to prison, at the point of a gun, no less, surely to never see the light of day again, despite protests from the Martian Union and appeals to the Intergalactic Court of Martian Rights. A sad day for freedom, I say, a sad day indeed.
Where is Sarkozy now!?!
The stinger is imperialist Santa saying goodbye to his Martian hosts, leaving back for Earth now that he's infected Martian culture with the insidious evils of materialism and capitalism, not to mention forcing on an indigenous population a foreign holiday tradition that reeks of pagan religious ceremony. It's no wonder that the Martians keep trying to invade Earth and wipe us out (see every movie made since 1964), they have good reason to, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, indeed.
"I'll have a Wal-mart on every street corner in a year, you niave saps."
Ok, the movie is over now, you can sound the All Clear. Tell the women and children they can come up from the bomb shelters, the worst is over. There's going to be a lot of exploded brains to clean up after this one, and a lot of therapy bills to pay, but I'm confident that we as a species can find a way to get past the silly horror that was Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. It might take an across-the-board reconciliation with the cast and crew, and surely centuries of emotional healing, but we are resilient, we can overcome this, we can be whole once again. Just be thankful there was never a sequel...
Pam, any final thoughts?
I'm trying to figure out the caliber of the people who made this movie. Were they completely incompetent, or were they decent filmmakers who were assigned to a project they didn't care anything about? Or, as I deduce from Nate's analysis of Grouchy-Martian's motivation, was it in fact a plea for the viewers to stand up for what they believed in and fight for their country's independence, with the filmmakers cleverly disguising it as a bottom-of-the barrel children's movie? Nah, they were probably just idiots.
I want to say this is a terrible movie, but I have to consider the audience it was made for, which was probably children a little younger than the ones in the movie. When I was that age, the lame jokes would have seemed pretty funny to me, and I wouldn't have noticed the abrupt swings in characterization between serious alien invaders and comic-book villains. The robot wouldn't have seemed that cheesy. I probably would have felt sorry for the plight of the Martian children, and I would have been hoping Santa could help them. Is this movie really that much worse than Lost in Space, which was popular during this period? From the standpoint of making something the target audience would like, the movie isn't a total failure. Mind you, this is not to say I recommend this movie to anybody much over the age of eight or nine. And parents, rent it for your kids if you want, but for the sake of your own peace of mind, stay out of the room while they're watching it.
This has nothing to do with the movie, but it's important. For the love of God, Nate, you've got to get rid of that killer robot you created! I can tell he's about to go and stomp Indianapolis!
Written in April 2011 by Nathan Decker and Pam Burda.
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that's between you and the vengeful wrath of your personal god...