I guess I can thank Joel Hodgson and his two robot friends, Tom Servo and Crow. If it wasn’t for those three smartasses from Mystery Science Theater 3000, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians would have remained a forgotten footnote in my movie-watching career, a film that I always had intentions of seeing but never did, sharing space on a never-ending checklist with other movies I had planned on one day watching. I knew that Nicholas Webster’s 1964 holiday film was considered bad, but from my skewed perspective, a bad movie is one that isn’t a glorious living mess like Santa Claus is, but instead one that is inert. A modern day example of a wonderful disaster is Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, a film that will have a late night showing this Friday at the Terrace Theater. Yes, the dialogue is bad, the acting is overwrought, and the Skinemax-esque sex scenes are too awkward to be erotic, but it is far from a showcase of boring mediocrity the way your standard mildly amusing, unengaging Matthew McConaughey/Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle is.
The same can be said of the Santa Claus Conquers the Martians train wreck, which will also be playing at the Terrace this Friday. When it isn’t busy being your basic goofball kiddie flick, it’s busy providing nightmare fuel for the very audience it was intended for. Even the film’s opening credits are an assault on the senses; the animated sequence of Santa pushing credits in and out of the frame while some overly excited kids yell the film’s theme, “Hooray for Santy Claus,” is reason enough for legalizing ‘shrooms. When they finish, we fade to a couple of Martian kids watching Earth programs. At this point you may be wondering, “Why are Martian kids watching programs broadcast from Earth? Don’t they have programs of their own they could watch?” Apparently not.
If you haven’t seen the film, you might be wondering what these Martian kids look like. Scary? Adorable? How about pretty damn goofy. The youths are 1960s child actors decked out with green faces, green tights, and green antennae-topped bowl-like contraptions covering their domes. Their mouths hang open in amazement as they take a gander at the jolly fat guy puffing a pipe on the boob-tube. This leads their Martian father to come up with the perfect plan: Kidnap Santa Claus so Mars can have a Christmas of its very own. That’s your plot, ladies and germs. Unfortunately, the title suggests that Santa will lay waste to some Martians, but he doesn’t ever kick any alien ass. At most, he gives the extraterrestrials a stern talking to. There. I’ve just told you the film’s conclusion and, at the same time, haven’t spoiled anything for you.
While not the best of the bad movies out there, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians does have a lion’s share of B-movie goodness. Like the characters: Dropo, the mentally challenged Martian who is buddy-buddy with the Earth kids, or Chochem, the gaseous wise old fella who grimaces whenever a puff of smoke rises behind him. My personal favorite would be Voldar, a pissy Martian who has no love for Earth or jolly old St. Nick. Some scenes make vain attempts at suspense, like one involving some kids, an igloo, and a polar bear, while others, like the one with the aforementioned Chochem weeping over the lack of Christmas on Mars, make a play for the heartstrings.
Webster’s work here rarely hits anything other than unintentional creepiness. When multiple scenes are soundtracked by pianos trickling in the background while the film’s cast of characters laugh for an uncomfortably long period of time, you better lose Frank Capra’s number and give Tim Burton a call instead.
Though there is a certain joy in pointing and laughing at the cardboard robots and stilted line reads of “bad” films like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, these very flaws are also endearing, because they lend themselves a certain tangible humanity that many of the big mediocre productions can’t attain no matter how hard they try. Hooray for Santy Claus.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians plays on Dec. 2 at the Terrace Theater (1956 Maybank Hwy.) as part of the Santa’s Cool Holiday Film Festival. Visit terracetheater.org for more.