Welcome to “Bad Movie Night,” a biweekly feature in which we sift through the remains of bad movies of all stripes: the obscure and hilarious, the bloated and beautiful, the popular and painful. This week, in a bit of Christmas anti-cheer, we look at one of the very worst holiday movies of all time: the 1964 aliens-invade-the-North-Pole flick Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
There are few tried-and-true barometers for movie badness, but the cinematic hazing of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment is a pretty reliable one. It’s tough to find much of anything from their ten-season run that qualifies, under any reasonable standards, as “good”; some of it’s enjoyably kitschy and some of it is so terrible that flips into a kind of slack-jawed amazement, but they didn’t get many movies straight-up wrong, partially because of their rather high standards of badness. They didn’t just throw anything that seemed like garbage on their air – there was a full review process, and over the course of each episode’s writing and production, they viewed each film several times, to maximize its points of ridicule.
Not just any movie was bad enough to get the MST “riff” treatment. But only one movie was bad enough to get the “riff” treatment three different times.
That film was Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Nicholas Webster’s 1964 sci-fi family holiday comedy, released on November 14, 1964 and was marketed, fairly profitably, to families desperate for yuletide entertainment. Huckster-ish producer Joseph E. Levine re-released it for a few Christmases thereafter, but in the 1970s and 1980s – aided in no small part by its public domain status, meaning anyone could show it on television or release it on video, at no licensing cost – it became something of a fave among connoisseurs of bad cinema. Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss included in in their seminal volume The 50 Worst Films of All Time; it began appearing on low-rent videos and late-night TV showings, given a bit of a boost by the odd early-‘80s pseudo-celebrity of Pia Zadora, who appears in it as a Martian child (more on that here).
But as with Manos: The Hands of Fate, The Beast of Yucca Flats, and The Horror of Party Beach, it was Mystery Science Theater 3000 that introduced Santa Claus Conquers the Martians to a new generation of terrible cinema aficionados. Joel Hodgson and the ‘bots took it on late in their third season, when the show was really firing on all cylinders, in what become a perennial holiday rerun for the series. But then, 17 years later, MST3K creator/then-host Hodgson tackled Santa Claus Conquers the Martians again, on an episode of Cinematic Titanic, the direct-to-video bad-movie series he wrote and starred in with four other MST3K alums. Not to be outdone, the show’s three other writer/stars – now working as Rifftrax – used SCCtM for their own 2013 live event, beamed into movie theaters across the country.
Just so we’re clear here – neither Cinematic Titanic nor Rifftrax reused any of the jokes from the MST3K episode, or from each other’s takes. That’s just how bad this movie is: you can come up with three completely different, full-length commentaries ridiculing it.
And it’s not one of those that starts strong and goes awry; they go right into the toilet from the opening credits, a bit of cheapo animation scored to an insufferable recording of a children’s chorus singing “Hurray for Santy Claus!” From there, we meet Gimar and Bomar, two Martian children who spend their days dead-eyed in front of the television, watching “Earth programs” (I hear ya, kids). Their station of choice appears to be “KID-TV,” which is showcasing one hell of an exclusive: a live interview with Santa Claus, played by a Broadway actor named John Call, who seems to have spent much of the shoot intoxicated, and who can blame him. (In one of our first glimpses of the level of “comedy” in Glenville Mareth’s screenplay, he can’t remember the names of his reindeer, his list petering out with “Prancer and Vixen and Nixon and all the rest of ‘em.”)
Their Mars is represented by cheapo cardboard “space-age” sets, populated by Martians (with super-alien names like “Voldar,” “Bomar,” “Momar,” and “Kimar”) in ridiculous costumes, their faces smeared with green make-up. They eat all their food in pill form (so futuristic!). Most of the planet seems to live in a haze of depression, and it’s not hard to see why – the “comic relief” is provided by a goofball alien named Dropo (Bill McCutcheon), who is like a cross between Rob Schneider, Curly Joe DeRita, and Carrot Top, but somehow even less funny.
The child’s father/leader-of-some-sort, Kimar, desperate to understand his children’s sadness (have they been watching The Big Bang Theory? Fox News? Trump transition team coverage?), seeks the advise of a really old Martian dude, who creaks out the plot: Mars needs a Santa. So with a full crew, including a mustachioed villain who hates everything and sneers a lot, they head off to Earth. Their UFO is immediately spotted, prompting a furious flurry of military stock footage (the movie runs a scant 80 minutes, and boy can you feel them padding to get there in this section); they manage to disappear off the radar, kidnap a couple of scamp kids, and force Santa to come to Mars, at gunpoint. It’s a fun family holiday movie!
There’s much to hate about Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: the fluffed cues, blown lines, and children’s theater acting; costumes that aspire for children’s theater (upon arrival at the North Pole, the Earth kids are chased by guys in a polar bear suit and cardboard “robot” gear that’d get laughed off any respectable porch on Halloween night); the semi-Surrealist toys vs Martians vs Santa vs bubbles climax, which was apparently scored by a jack-in-the-box from hell; and Dropo, oh Dropo, perhaps the most loathsome character to ever appear in a major motion picture, and yes, I’m including Jon Doe from Seven.
But what’s most striking about it – and what seems to have fueled so much mocking fodder from its multiple riffers – is the sheer joylessness of the enterprise. There’s no warmth to the movie, no good cheer or happiness, and (at risk of bathing in bathos), ne’er a hint of what makes the season special. Christmas is only considered through the lens of Santa Claus, Professional Toymaker; he’s brought to their planet to manufacture goods, and once he’s done that, he’s basically sent on his way, without even the lip-service to the Real Meaning of Christmas that even the shittiest holiday movies manage to work up.
In other words, it’s a capitalist Christmas movie, and small wonder; according to Medved and Dreyfuss, producer Paul L. Jacobson made the film because “There is a great void when it comes to Christmas films for children… Except for the Disneys, there’s very little in film houses during the season that the kids and recognize and claim as their own.” In other words, it was an exploitation film, as nakedly such as any Bruce Lee lookalike vehicle or Halloween rip-off, and Jacobson knew that regardless of quality, there was a potentially desperate audience that could he could re-hook, Christmas season after Christmas season. And if you think he was wrong, I’d like to sell you these DVDs of Fred Claus, Deck the Halls, Four Christmases, Christmas with the Kranks, and Jingle All The Way.