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Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

*heavy sigh* It’s Christmas, and my family has no plans. This will never do.

In need of some festive project, I decided to pursue one of those rare holiday films worth writing about that I haven’t seen yet (the unriffed version, anyway). Better yet, I could make a sort of extension to my birthday project this year, covering a film that’s easily one of the all-time “so-bad-its-good” greats. I’m of course referring to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

This film was the brainchild of producer Peter Jacobson, who had made his fortune as a unit director on “Howdy Doody.” After coming up with the story for his movie, he raised $200,000 from private investors to form his Jalor Productions shingle and get the movie made. This would be Jacobson’s only film, and Jalor was never heard from again.

I assume that Jacobson recruited Glenville Mareth to help write the screenplay, since Mareth is the credited writer. Unfortunately, since I can find no other proof that Mareth ever existed, it’s entirely possible that Jacobson wrote the screenplay under an alias for some reason. However, I do know that the film was directed by Nicholas Webster, whose only “feature film” accomplishment at the time was a stage play recording of Gone Are the Days! This might explain why so much of the cast for Santa Claus Conquers the Martians came from the stage.

The movie was distributed by the Embassy Pictures Corporation, which would later go on to release such classics as The GraduateEscape from New York, and This is Spinal Tap before various corporate dealings rendered it defunct. The film was shot in four days at Michael Myerberg Studios (formerly a wartime hangar) in Long Island. The studio was turned into a nightclub only two years after Santa Claus Conquers the Martians debuted in 1964.

After bombing at the box office and getting thrashed by critics, the film quietly faded into obscurity and public domain status until the 1980s. This is when Harry Medved wrote about the movie in his book, “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because this was the very same book that eventually reintroduced the world to Plan 9 From Outer Space. Then “Mystery Science Theater 3000” picked up the film for one of their all-time greatest episodes in 1991, and the rest is history.

The plot is as simple as it is bullshit. The film establishes its Martians as a warlike and scientifically advanced race that’s forgotten what it’s like to have fun. This is especially harmful to the children of Mars, who’ve somehow been able to intercept TV transmissions from Earth. See, because this is Christmastime, the Martian boys and girls have become enchanted with the idea of Santa Claus (here played by John Call) and all the joy he brings to human younglings at this time of year.

Deciding to give the children what they need, the Martian chieftain Kimar (played by Leonard Hicks, who was born in Medford, of all places) decides to take a company to Earth so they can find Santa and bring him to Mars. For assistance in finding the jolly old elf, the Martians kidnap a couple of human kids (Billy and Betty, respectively played by Victor Stiles and Donna Conforti).

So Santa goes to Mars and sets up an automated workshop, with assistance from his new young friends. Help is also provided by Kimar’s children, named Bomar (Chris Month) and Girmar (Pia Zadora in her film debut). There’s also Dropo, a bumbling comic relief Martian character played by Bill McCutcheon, who joins in to try and spread some holiday cheer.

Last but not least is the warlike Voldar, played by Vincent Beck. He’s the villain of the piece, eager to destroy Christmas and keep Mars free of meaningless toys and games. To the film’s credit, this is one of those rare times when a two-dimensional villain who hates Christmas with a fiery passion actually works. Voldar is simply trying to uphold the status quo, which is much more interesting and credible than some dickhead who hates Christmas for no discernible reason. It also helps that the film doesn’t try to force some kind of transparent bullshit redemptive arc into it. Voldar isn’t a knock-off of Scrooge or the Grinch who eventually learns the true meaning of Christmas. Guy’s a straight-up villain and he’s made to pay for it, but his defeat is carried out in a way that celebrates the joy of Christmas and the importance of enjoying one’s youth.

It’s just a damn pity that the whole thing was carried out so poorly. Beck is made to deliver his lines in the most over-the-top way possible, and it’s clear that he genuinely hates every moment he’s on set. As for the big climactic showdown, it’s shot, edited, and choreographed in such a way that it looks completely wretched. Therein lies the problem with this film.

I get what the filmmakers were going for on paper. The goal was to make a light-hearted bit of science fantasy that the whole family could enjoy. The notion of celebrating Christmas by taking it to people who’ve never heard of the holiday is a solid premise that could have (and has, I’m sure) been done better elsewhere. In fact, since the film was made and released at the height of the Space Race, playing into a childlike fascination with space travel makes all kinds of sense.

In theory, this premise might have been made into something very special. In practice, however, the filmmakers were hopelessly out of their depth. You can blame it on the shoestring budget and the special effects of the day, and I’m sure those were both factors, but come on. This project was shepherded by a producer who only ever made this one film, a director and cast whose experience was primarily stage-based, and a screenwriter who has never been heard from before or since. Clearly, no one in this cast or crew had the experience, intelligence, or talent that might have salvaged this picture.

To wit: The film’s basic premise involves aliens making first contact. The movie might have easily sidestepped this, coming up with some kind of technobabble invisibility gadget for their ship. And they do, but it doesn’t work at first. Also, the Martians take Santa without any kind of stealth, so of course everyone eventually learns that the Martians are behind everything. This is just one of the many, many plot holes in this movie: We see that the Martians are clearly worried about keeping a low profile and making sure Earth’s authorities don’t catch up with them, yet their big play to kidnap Santa means crashing through the North Pole workshop with all the grace and subtlety of the Kool-Aid Man. WTF?

Anyway, the news of a Martian invasion means that the Earth’s military forces naturally get involved, which is chaos on a scale that these filmmakers couldn’t possibly hope to deliver. Leaving aside the tonal dissonance of Cold War-era global disasters in a lighthearted kids’ flick, the best these filmmakers could do was deliver several news bulletins from the exact same newscaster. Even better, these bulletins were delivered with stock footage that’s clearly recognizable from Dr. Strangelove, which debuted earlier that same year.

Even better, the Martians capture two Earth children. Sure, this would presumably lead to concerned parents and local police activity back home, but we didn’t need to see that. Just show the children being homesick and let it go at that. But no, this film has more news bulletins announcing Betty and Billy’s disappearance, and they’re delivered by the exact same newscaster. This begs the question of what this guy’s beat is.

On a similar note, we’re shown that the planet’s military forces get whipped into even more of a frenzy after Santa gets taken. “After all,” reasons a scientist, “who wouldn’t give everything to bring Santa back to our children?” This raises the interesting question of whether the United States and the USSR might have set aside their differences to save this universally beloved figure, eventually paving the way for world peace. Or at the very least, it might have set up some massive Earth/Mars conflict for the climax.

But instead, this story thread goes absolutely nowhere. As soon as we get to Mars, no mention is made about what efforts are being taken to get Santa back, or how the military reacts when Santa returns. Come to think of it, there’s nothing about Billy and Betty’s parents, either; they’re just mentioned once and that’s it. So basically, the whole “world news” angle serves absolutely no point except to prove how comically out of their depth the filmmakers were.

Still, if I had to pick one synecdoche for the film — a single aspect about this movie that represents the whole for better and for worse — it would have to be Torg. What is Torg, you ask? Well, Torg is this terrifying robot that the Martians brought along on their quest to find and capture Santa. The Martians spend several minutes establishing Torg as an unstoppable beast of a machine, capable of finding and destroying just about anything. And when we finally see Torg, it looks like this.

Gaze upon it, gentle readers. Take a good hard look at this terrifying deathbot of cardboard with his fearsome coffee-can visage. Ladies and gentlemen, that one prop is what sets this movie squarely in the same class as Plan 9. The film desperately wants us to be scared of something that any grade-schooler could make on a budget of $20. And yes, I realize that this is supposed to be a light-hearted kids’ film, but then why put the robot assassin in the film at all? Either give us something to be scared of or don’t. Shit or get off the pot.

Oh, and on a similar note, the movie also treats us to this polar bear. No, really, that’s a polar bear. Or at least, that’s what the filmmakers really desperately want us to believe and what they hopelessly fail to sell.

Getting back to my earlier point, I get what the movie was going for with regards to its portrayal of Santa Claus. The filmmakers were obviously trying to make him into an eternally optimistic character who spreads laughter and joy wherever he goes. Yet once again, the delivery misses its mark spectacularly. To wit: When we see Santa and four children break spontaneously into hysterical laughter for no reason, it doesn’t look whimsical so much as it looks fucking weird. Also, it would’ve helped if Santa had told a single funny joke in the entire running time (“Martian-mallow?” Really?). Still, at least John Call is so damn committed to playing his part with all the warmth and good cheer he can muster. Either that or he’s blind stinking drunk, it’s kinda hard to tell.

Speaking of which, let’s discuss Dropo. He’s annoying. He’s unfunny. He’s so stupid and useless it’s a wonder why anyone keeps him around. I mean, I get Dropo’s role in the overall plot, and it was sort of clever having a Martian who could eventually take the role of Mars’ Santa Claus. But leaving Dropo in charge makes about as much sense as giving Ernest P. Worrell the keys to the North Pole. Even less, actually.

That said, I will give credit to Bill McCutcheon, one of the precious few actors who has a full understanding of what movie he’s in. McCutcheon is emblematic of the film’s lofty goals, trying to play an alien that young kids could sympathize and laugh with. McCutcheon makes for a wonderful clown, if only he had better material to work with.

Speaking of the Martians, this is one of the aspects where the film’s shoestring budget is most keenly felt. I can tell that the Martians are supposed to be cyborgs by nature, with machinery built into them during infancy, but the execution looks pathetic. The green jumpsuits with their bizarre nametags look comically bad. Their helmets and antennae look laughably primitive. And don’t even get me started on their green makeup, which looks like (and probably was) finger paint. The getup is laughable for all the wrong reasons. I assume that the filmmakers wanted the Martians to look just scary enough without terrifying any kids. That’s a delicate line to toe, and the result was nowhere near it. This is more in the area of “so amateurish that even children would know better and laugh at it.”

As for Billy and Betty, it’s probably just as well that Victor Stiles and Donna Conforti never went on to do anything else. Though I’ve certainly seen worse child actors, and Lord knows there’s enough blame to share with the script, neither one of them showed much in the way of talent. The moment when Stiles steps on one of Kimar’s lines is a great case in point. Come to think of it, Billy and Betty are much like Kimar and his family: They’re all stock characters who are played by way of stock performances. And given crap for dialogue.

I really can’t stress enough how incompetent the script and direction are. Everything about this movie looks cheap and completely inept. I’m sure you’ve already guessed as much, based on Torg and that polar bear, but the Kimar/Voldar fight scene on the ship is another great example. They’re clearly fighting in the ship’s cockpit, even though it’s meant to be a different room entirely. In trying to disguise the fact, the fight scene is made hopelessly incomprehensible by the camerawork and editing.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is a textbook example of a “so bad it’s good film.” This project has a ludicrous premise and there’s clearly a ton of ambition that went into it, yet the whole thing is sunk by an overwhelming lack of talent. Aside from maybe one or two actors — and whoever wrote that sadistically catchy theme song — it’s patently obvious that nobody involved with this had any idea what they were doing.

Yet this film is unique among its campy peers in that it wasn’t necessarily unsalvageable. A more talented crew could have patched up or glossed over some plot holes, added more effective humor, and spruced up the production to create a much more effective (though still quite weird) holiday romp. As it is, however, this entirely incompetent film still has a goofy sort of charm that plays nicely into the ridiculous premise.

So what became of the cast and crew? Well, the film’s most notorious alumna is Pia Zadora, who somehow won a Golden Globe award and two Golden Raspberry awards for her role in 1981’s Butterfly. Rumor has it that Zadora only got the Golden Globe because her dad paid someone off. In any case, Zadora continued racking up infamy as a godawful actress until she tried for a music career and found considerable success in Europe. She eventually moved to Las Vegas in 2010, where she was arrested on charges of domestic battery and coercion last June.

The film’s other most notable alumnus is Bill McCutcheon, who worked as a respectable character actor in TV and cinema until his death in 2002. Most notably, McCutcheon appeared in the 1989 film adaptation of Steel Magnolias, and played Uncle Wally on “Sesame Street” for an impressive 7 years.

Director Nicholas Webster returned to Mars in 1968 for a more adult and high-budget film called Mission Mars, though he primarily worked in television before dying in 2006. John Call died only nine years after this movie’s release, but not before appearing briefly in a Sean Connery film called The Anderson Tapes. Leonard Hicks died seven years after the movie came out, and it doesn’t look like he was able to do much of anything in the meantime. Vincent Beck primarily dealt with TV roles while trying to live down his performance as Voldar. He was finally getting his movie career back on straight, just before he died in 1984.

I don’t think there’s really anything more to say except to wish you all a very merry Christmas.

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