SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS (1964)

  • Director: Nicholas Webster
  • Writer: Story by Glenville Mareth, Screenplay by Paul L. Jacobson
  • Starring: John Call, Leonard Hicks, Vincent Beck, Bill McCutcheon, Victor Stiles, Donna Conforti, Leila Martin, Doris Rich, Chris Month, and Pia Zadora
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Hoopla (library app) and The Film Detective, free streaming (with ads) on Tubi, stream with Subscription on Amazon Prime, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV.

We have thus far in this space refrained, for the most part, in indulging in my love of terrible movies, but in the interests of variety I thought it worthwhile to include this exercise in misplaced 1960s optimism in our Holiday Virtual Film Festival. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians has a reputation to uphold as one of the very worst movies of all time. It is a long-time staple of dollar DVD bins and Mystery Science Theater 3000, and was included in the Medved Brothers’ The 50 Worst Films of All Time as early as 1984. I first saw it in college at the behest of some fellow scholars whose experience may have been enhanced through the use of illicit substances (I abstained Mom, I swear!). Yet, while I fully admit that this is hardly a high-quality effort, this movie makes me so happy. I have trouble thinking of it as “terrible” or “bad.” And had I seen this movie when I was a kid, I like to think I would have loved it unironically.

As may have been suggested to you by the title, this movie mish-mashes two different kinds of normally unrelated kitsch, Santa Claus silliness and low budget mid-20th Century Science Fiction. It involves a plot by the technocratic, sterile Martian civilization to kidnap Santa Claus (John Call, who the New York-based producers found playing a bit part in Oliver! on Broadway), in an effort to relieve a general malaise suffered by their children. There is no question in this movie of Santa’s reality, and the movie even opens with Santa and Mrs. Claus being interviewed on a TV news broadcast live from the North Pole. The kidnapping plot eventually ropes in two children (Victor Stiles and Donna Conforti) who are consistently portrayed as smarter than any adult in the movie, and who the Martians decide to also kidnap for reasons that I remain fuzzy on. Santa turns out to have a positive influence on the Martians, who all start laughing and singing “Jingle Bells.” This state of affairs is deemed unacceptable by the most bellicose of the Martians (Vincent Beck), whose schemes to send Mars “back to normal” drive the plot of the second half of the movie, such as it is. But in the end he is defeated, and the Martian King (Leonard Hicks) realizes that the Martians are now sufficiently imbued with the spirit of Christmas to let Santa and the kids go back to Earth, just in time for Christmas Eve.

Look, this is the sort of movie where a bunch of guys wearing green face paint and ridiculous costumes made out of cardboard and aluminum foil point literal toy guns (this movie had a product placement deal with a toy company) at kids and yell at them to take them Santa Claus or they’ll blast them. It includes a bit where the Martians send a robot to capture Santa Claus, which hilariously picks up one of the elves but fails to actually capture Santa himself because, “He’s treating it like a toy, so it’s only a toy now!” I have seen and loved every extant episode of Doctor Who, I’m used to guys in rubber suits, but this movie features a polar bear that is just a dude in a cheap-o polar bear costume that looks like it might have been left over in someone’s closet from Halloween and/or a furry convention. Every once in a while we get a burst of “Swingin’ 60s” score that seems delightfully incongruous to us today, but I’m sure at the time was the result of an attempt by an un-hip adult to figure out “what the kids are listening to these days” in 1964. 

All of these pyschedelia play off against a weird staginess throughout this movie, likely a result of the director, producer, and actors all coming from the New York theater world (most of the movie was shot in a rented former airplane hanger out on Long Island) with basically no actual movie experience between them. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was the lone effort to a wannabe producer named Paul L. Jacobson, who had worked in video production and decided that the children’s market was under-served at the time. It tanked at the box office, but before long entered the public domain and gained a second life as a cult-classic that cheesy late night movie shows (including Elvira) could play in the Holiday season without owing anybody anything. Two bits of trivia: one of the two Martian children (we only get two) is played by an 11-year-old Pia Zadora, in her movie debut. She went on to become the only person to win both a Golden Globe and a Razzie for the same role, and now reportedly lives in Las Vegas, where she’s married to a member of the local police department. Also, this is thought to be the first appearance in a movie or TV show by Mrs. Claus (played here by Doris Rich), only a few months before the Rankin/Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer appeared on TV. Before this Saint Nick was just a swinging bachelor.

I don’t think the movie would have been quite so reviled by contemporary critics if it hadn’t been so determined to aim itself exclusively toward kids (one reviewer said theaters showing the movie should have a sign on the door reading “No Admittance Over Age 16”). Most modern kids’ movies make at least some effort to throw a wink and a nod to parents, but there’s none here, with maybe one exception where Santa mistakenly calls one of his reindeer “Nixon.” This is most readily seen in the bizarre comic relief character Dropo (literal Tony-winner Bill McCutcheon). Mugging is not a broad enough word to describe that performance, but this was an era where Howdy Doody was popular (a show that shared several crew members on this movie), and that seems to be about the level they were going for. There was a time not so long ago that there was a plan to give this movie a big-budget remake with Jim Carrey in the Dropo role. We should all probably be thankful that this never actually came to fruition.

There isn’t a lot of cutting analysis I can do of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, except to repeat that I love it unreservedly. If you’re looking for something different to watch with the kids this holiday season, I actually do recommend it. It’s lots and lots of fun.

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