Christmas movies that intersect with our genre have never quite resonated with me. Being Jewish, I didn't grow up with Santa or holiday trees, and while I certainly enjoy seasonal classics like Miracle on 34th Street and It's a Wonderful Life, it was never personal. So when, in my early days as a film critic, people were up in arms over Silent Night, Deadly Night, with its serial killer in a Santa outfit, I wondered what the fuss was about—
Part of it may simply be the sheer number of Christmas movies. For every film as delightful as Elf there's dozens of examples of holiday treacle. There's the saccharine Santa Clause series. There are the numerous versions of A Christmas Carol, which hit its nadir with Scrooged. I can't imagine who enjoys the bizarre One Magic Christmas, whose message seems to be "believe in Santa or you'll never see your family again." Then there's the truly nightmarish The Polar Express, where the pseudo-realistic animation makes it seem as if the film is populated by soulless homunculi. As for the dysfunctional family "comedies" like the odious Christmas with the Kranks, which takes place in an alternate universe where people are punished for not decorating their houses for the holiday, don't get me started.
In terms of pure science fiction the pickings are especially slim. This brings us to the beloved 1964 turkey, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. From its warlike title, to the casting of a young Pia Zadora as a Martian child, this is a movie that has long been celebrated as one of the worst films ever made. It was savaged by the folks at Mystery Science Theater 3000, and was nominated for a Golden Turkey Award as "the Most Insufferable Kiddie Movie Ever Made." (The authors of Son of Golden Turkey Awards opted to give the award to Pinocchio in Outer Space, a painful bit of 1965 animation we'll have to set aside for another day.)
Now it would be easy to pile on this low budget film, which is in the pantheon of bad movies along with Plan 9 from Outer Space and Robot Monster. However, as I prepared to do so with glee, I thought of my friend and colleague Mark R. Leeper, who has been reviewing films on the Internet since 1984 and whose fanzine reached its 1500th weekly issue this summer. Mark refuses to sneer and mock bad movies no matter how excruciating they are, believing they should be judged as attempts by people working within the constraints of their limited budgets and limited talent to do the best they can. If they fail, they fail, but they're entitled to be treated on their own terms. So let's take Santa Claus Conquers the Martians at face value and see what we find.
Since the film has fallen into public domain, it is readily available not only on video but on the Internet. (Unlike, say 2001: A Space Odyssey or Lawrence of Arabia, this loses nothing seeing it on the small screen.) The story begins on Mars, which seems like a truly dreary place. Their meals, with a surprisingly American menu, reduce everything to pill form. Everyone dresses almost identically, complete with helmets with antenna and odd tubing that seems to run between their ears and their cerebrums.
Kimar (Leonard Hicks), who is King of the Martians, notices that his children Bomar (Chris Month) and Girmar (Pia Zadora) have lost their appetite and seem to spend all their time watching Earth television. It seems beyond the ability of Kimar and his wife Momar (Leila Martin) to question their bland diet, but their concern over their offspring's obsession with Earth broadcasts has as easy solution: take the TV set out of their room. Instead, Kimar and the other Martian leaders go to consult with Chochem (Carl Don). Chochem is a wise old sage—
Soon Kimar and his crew are off to Earth to kidnap Santa Claus (John Call), the jolly old elf who will bring joy and laughter, not to mention toys, to the children of Mars. Along on the trip is the evil Voldar (Vincent Beck), who thinks Kimar has gotten soft, and Dropo (Bill McCutcheon), a buffoon who not only provides the supposed comic relief, but also seems to refute everything we've told about how the Martians are so serious and driven. How oafish is he? If a remake was being planned, the casting director would be shouting, "Get me Rob Schneider!"
When they get to Earth they find a Santa on every street corner and end up asking two Earth children—
The film is as absurd and poorly executed as even this somewhat sympathetic summary indicates, so why has it continued to hold a place in the public imagination for nearly fifty years? The idea that parents may be putting too much pressure on their kids still resonates today. We may not yet be pumping information into infant brains, but there are expectant couples already selecting the proper in utero music for their forthcoming offspring, and stocking up on "educational" toys and videos for infants not even at the toddler stage. As for older kids, ask your children or grandchildren or nieces and nephews how much homework they're getting these days. Better yet, ask them how much unstructured, free playtime they have. Time spent at dance classes, little league teams, etc. doesn't count.
As for Santa, he doesn't really "conquer" the Martians so much as jolly them along into letting their children relax and be kids. Except for an odd moment when he rattles off the names of his reindeer and wonders if "Nixon" is one of them, Santa's attempts at humor are largely in character, so that youngsters will not be disillusioned or frightened by the goings-on as they might be if they stumble across a rerun of Silent Night, Deadly Night. Uncritical youngsters may find it silly, but they'll look beyond the cheapjack special effects to enjoy the adventure of going to Mars with Santa and teaching Martian kids to have fun.
Does that redeem the film? Not in the slightest. Anyone over the age of 7 or 8 will quickly realize we're in the presence of a great holiday turkey here, certainly no later than Dropo's first appearance. That's why the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version, readily available on DVD, provides a context for the rest of us. With all due respect to those who wince at such mocking, the film may have a worthy theme, but it is so badly thought out and so cheaply produced that it invites such treatment. In the end, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians proves that the road to Mars, as well as Hell, may be paved with good intentions.