Monday, November 26, 2012

Holiday Watch: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

editor's note:  This review appears in a different format at the Texas Public Radio website.  We were provided a review copy of Kino Lorber's BluRay release of the film, for which we are tremendously grateful.  

While the Lifetime and Hallmark networks will duke it out for weeks ahead of Christmas, airing competing schmaltzy movies in which divorcees find love under the mistletoe, there has long been a tradition of quickly and cheaply produced Christmas movies intended for the kiddies. These movies usually assume that no adult will even attempt to watch the flick, and so all bets are off when it comes to bothering with appealing to anyone with more than two digits in their age.

To better understand the pleasantly cynical take on making some green during your White Christmas, it is not hard to imagine an entrepreneur sitting on his cot, looking up at the ceiling and trying to make two things kids like go together into one entirely new package. In our case, the space race is on, and, heck, who doesn’t like Santa?

Prestige film distribution house Kino Lorber has recently given the 1964 camp classic,
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), the BluRay treatment, thus proving that Kino has its heart in the right place and isn’t afraid to engage in a little schadenfreude.

The movie probably circulated for years to certain audiences before the mid-80’s, when two things occurred: (1) The film was listed as one of the worst films of all time and (2) bit player in the film, Pia Zadora, had grown up and become notorious in Hollywood for leveraging her husband’s wealth into a film career* and a Golden Globe. The two events came together to renew interest in the movie, and, against all odds, here in 2012 we enjoy the fruits of someone’s labor from almost 50 years gone by.

Pia Zadora, center, plots her future exploits as a walking punchline

Thanks to the efforts of the MST3K crowd and the cinephile’s sport of basking in bad movies,
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians has enjoyed a second life as an object of perennial holiday viewing. The movie works as a time capsule of mid-60’s America and a glittering example of low-budget, poorly executed filmmaking with that sort of moxie you only get in movie-making when someone clearly believes they’ve got this formula cracked, and, so clearly, they do not.

This writer actually recalls stumbling across a VHS copy of this movie during its initial home video wide release circa 1986, and made my pals in middle school sit through a screening of the film. Nobody left happy. I’ve seen the movie at least twice more in the past twenty years, but usually while making merry, so it was interesting to sit back and let the movie unspool under the cruel taint of sobriety.

It seems that Martians have made great strides in funneling information and education to their children, but in the process, they’ve become a cold and unhappy species. Their cold, barren lives not tragic enough, they also watch TV programs from Earth and have recently become conscious of this Santa Claus fellow. The misfortune of accident of birthplace vis-a-vis their Santa-less state drives the children of Mars into an existential funk which worries the iffy governing body of Mars. Thus, the be-helmeted leader of the Martians, Kimar, hatches a plan to save the kids of his planet by coming to Earth and stealing our Santa. And indeed, he does.

Along the way, they meet two apple-cheeked Earth-kids who come back to Mars with Kimar & Co., get attacked by a guy in an unconvincing polar bear suit, get manhandled by a guy in an unconvincing robot suit, and get repeatedly threatened by a Martian sub-chief with an iffy mustache.

Santa arrives on Mars, is given a toy-making factory, and conquers the locals with the power of laughter and (insert positive emotion here). Of course there’s a small bit of toy-based, but mostly justified, violence.

Before getting too down on the plot,
SCtM is aimed at some idea of a kiddie audience, and it’s no more nor less goofy than Disney’s scourge of Santa Paws-related films. And kids, apparently, do not get a little nauseous seeing grown men in make-up the color of baby poop, helmets with coat hanger wire antennae, and snug, snug green body stockings that let it all hang out.

Legitimate acting, everybuddy

You have to give the actors a lot of credit here. One assumes they were waking up every day and heading off to the studio with the hopes that
SCtM would be a stepping stone to launching them to the big time, baby-poo make-up and all. Sadly, only the actors hidden behind the polar bear and robot masks escape with their dignity intact. 

Unlike some movies where the plot makes no sense, this movie basically fits together. It simply has the pacing, direction and charm of a highway safety film from the same era, with just as much inclusion of stock footage (we get jets scrambled! Official guys looking official in many settings! And MORE...!). It’s difficult to say exactly what went wrong, as so much clearly didn’t really work, but the incompetency isn’t as mind-boggling as, say,
Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny or the ultimate in unforgivable and cynical holiday cash-in, the Hulk Hogan/ Ed Begley Jr. vehicle, Santa with Muscles.

What will haunt you in your waking dreams will be the shrill and repetitive theme song, “Hooray for Santa Claus!”, which I regret typing even now as it has released an ear-worm which seems to be leading to a positively Lovecraftian madness.

Kino’s presentation of the film in BluRay preserves the faulty quality of the film itself, its muddled colors, flatly lit sets, frankly grotesque make-up, and the poor quality of film stock used. It’s all part of the package, and attempts to do more than clear up muddy audio would be a service to the gestalt of the package. Bonus features include a reel of holiday greetings from theaters, a trailer and stills from the movie. There is not Pia Zadora bonus interview, which, honestly, I’d love to see.

This one gets filed on the shelf beside other misfires from
Plan 9 from Outerspace and modern cult-classic, Birdemic. Nobody will mistake this for classic filmmaking, but for aficionados of cinema-terrible, it’s the Rosetta Stone for that specific breed of bad movie, the Christmas-Kiddie-Film Cash-In.

*Zadora’s story is well worth Googling. There’s a fascinating movie that somebody needs to make about the performer/ singer/ gold-digger. I’m now desperately curious to see
Butterfly and The Lonely Lady.


J.S. said...

But was the film entertaining?

The League said...

It depends how you mean.

J.S. said...

It seems like I tried to watch this movie once. Or maybe I just had a bad dream that ran along similar lines. If I did watch it, there's a good chance that you forced me to.

The League said...

I think I tried to make you watch it when we were in high school and you rebelled.