MOVIE REVIEW: “Santa Claus Conquers The Martians” (1964)

[THIS REVIEW WAS ORIGINALLY POSTED ON A DIFFERENT WEBSITE IN 2010]

Merry Christmas.

I have a strange affinity for this movie. When I was a kid, periodically, our teachers would herd us all into the cafeteria twice a year while we waited for our parents to come and pick us up rather than have us ride the buses like normal. They’d have us watch one of two movies – “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” and a more-or-less-forgotten Disney film called “Melody Time.” (1948) I never quite figured out why they did this, but I suspect it was so that we’d be out from underfoot while our parents were Christmas shopping or whatever, since it always happened on the last day of school before Christmas break. I never really figured out why they had us watch the Disney flick, it must have been tied to something, but I don’t know what, or why. Oh, and now that I think on it, they used to show us the old “Ichabod Crane” Disney cartoon before Halloween. For whatever reason, I must have seen this movie three or four times in as many years.

I didn’t remember too much about it – the only bit I remembered in any detail was the kids mistaking a robot on the horizon for Santa’s workship, and some little green martian kids having no clue what Christmas or presents were. I always looked forward to it. I liked the movie. I was an addlepated kid, evidently. Years later, in high school and college, when the subject of truly horrible films came up, no one could ever believe that I’d seen this film, much less that I’d seen it multiple times, and kinda’ liked it.

PLAY BY PLAY

Right off the bat, we’re treated/tortured with a hopelessly happy-awful song. If you’re a guy like me who doesn’t really like Christmas, and if the cloying faux sentimentality of Old Saint Nick mostly just makes you want to punch someone, you’re gonna’ find this all a little much to bear:

What I find particularly hateful about this is the way these New Yawk children keep calling Santa “Santy” (Which rhymes with women’s underwear.) I don’t know why that sets me off, but it does. It’s cootish, like the way you’d expect people to say his name back when people still called policemen “Bulls” and Teddy Roosevelt was contemplating a third term.

A couple Martian children on Mars are watching a news broadcast from earth about Santa, featuring a man interviewing Santa (Who’s real) at the North pole, in his workshop staffed by three midgets. (There woulda’ been more, I guess, but the Fairlyland Creatures Union Local #207 decided to strike. I made that up, because that would have been interesting. Nothing interesting happens in this film.) On Mars, the children are acting weirdly (for Martians), so Kemar calls a meeting of the Martian Council, and they meet up in the spooky valley to get advice from the 800-year-old wizard of overacting, who chews the scenery for a bit in this odd sequence:

Sorry for the MST3k bit, it was the only clip I could find. The Martian council decide ‘hey, screw all our governmental duties, let’s head to earth and kidnap a mythical being!’ This they then do. Now, the Martians have cloaking device technology, but they just don’t bother to turn it on until Earth (Read: The United States) has already noticed them. Then they turn it on, but nothing happens. A quick inspection of the “Radar Box” shows that the malfunction was caused by Dropo, Kemar’s idiot butler, who stowed away inside a piece of equipment. We’re given a couple minutes of stock footage of the US Armed Forces scrambling as if for nuclear attack to check out the UFO. Then the Cloak kicks in, and Dr. Werner von Green (heavy sigh) says it was probably just a meteor or something.

Cut to: two blandly cute kids on earth, one of whom is Pia Zadora. The other one isn’t Pia Zadora, and that’s really all he’s got going for him. The Martians kidnap them, and Voldar – who has a fake mustache – attempts to be mean to them, but Kemar is an enlightened despot who forbids such things. The two of them go off to do Martian things, while Dropo takes the kids on a tour of the control room. The bosses are coming back, so he stashes the kids in the Radar Box, and leaves. The Martians discuss their nefarious plan to kidnap Santa. Once the ship lands at The North Pole (Magnetic or Geographic? This is just one of the many thorny theological quandaries this film refuses to tackle), the kids disable the Cloaking Device, escape the ship and run away. Kemar and Krew head off to bag Santa, while Voldar heads off to kill the kids, or maybe just beat them up real bad, which always cheers him up when he’s sitting around being depressed by how unconvincing his mustache is. (I made that up, because that would have been interesting. Nothing interesting happens in this film.) The kids are hidden in a cave, but before Voldar can kill them or give them a stern talking to, or whatever it is he has planned, a man in a polar bear costume shows up and scares him away. (Just for clarity’s sake, he’s not *supposed* to be a man in a polar bear suit. I think he’s supposed to be a real polar bear, but I have a sharper eye than most, and I spotted it. Those of you less experienced that I may have a harder time with this.)

The kids go looking for Santa’s worship and we come to the one scene in this movie that I remember clearly in which Pia Zadora says she sees the windows all lit up in the distance. These turn out to be the glowing eyes of a hokey robot that grabs the kids while they stand around like idiots, rather than running away because the set is too small for them to run anyway. Voldar tells the robot to kill them or hug them to death or something, but Kemar has the robot programmed to only obey him, so no dice.

From there, the plot lumbers over to Santa’s Worship, where the Robot is supposed to grab the old fat dude (who also has a fake mustache, *and* a fake beard), but immediately shuts down and becomes a toy when in his presence. Kemar and Voldar bust in and grab the guy, and in the process we learn that Mrs. Claus (Who’s actually named “Mary Christmas” – she’s a liberated chick who kept her maiden name, y’see. I made that up, because that would have been interesting. Nothing interesting happens in this film.) is a bit of a harpie, evidently.

So on to the ship everyone goes, and – zang – off to Mars. Of course the Cloak isn’t working, so we see stock footage of the armed forces going to kick the Martian’s green butts yet again, and then a quick interview with Werner von Green (Who also has a fake mustache) telling how they’re launching astronauts to rescue Santa and the two kids. How they’ve figured out Santa and two kids are gone is really anyone’s guess, the authorities just seem to instantly know this kind of thing, which implies a kind of Orwellian police state, but obviously that can’t be what they were going for because that would have been interesting. Nothing interesting happens in this film. We see a lot of stock footage of a rocket launching, and one of the Martians says they’re being followed, but of course nothing comes of this.

Meanwhile, Voldar attempts to off Santa and the kids in the airlock, but if a fat tub of geriatric guts like Santa can fit through a chimney, he sure as shooting can fit through an air vent. It’s kinda’ like that X-files episode with the guy who can throw his entire body out of joint to crawl through tiny spaces, and then he eats people. Remember that? Not that that happens in this film because that would be interesting, and as you may have already recognized, there’s a bit of a thematic motif in this film which prevents anything interesting from happening.

So on Mars, Kemar takes Santa and the kids to meet his kids, and a whole lot of fake laughter ensues. No one talks, mind you, they just laugh for something like three minutes, because nothing pads out a film like pointless mirth. Really there’s a whole heck of a lot of pointless fake laughter in this film.

[PLEASE NOTE: The original clip I linked to is no longer on YouTube. Sorry]

The particular scene in question takes place at about 1:12 in the clip. It’s disquieting. Seriously, just listen to that montage – maybe play it on a loop – and it’s impossible to imagine yourself walking around inside your house doing anything apart from sinking knives in the walls for no good reason. This is exactly the kind of thing that the Punk movement was rebelling against, and, I suspect, exactly the kind of thing the hippie movement secretly wanted more of, then got all pissy and self-indulgent when they realized they couldn’t have it, so they just took drugs and had lots of sex and caught crabs instead. I assume. It’s hard to really understand what filthy hippies want.

Soooooooooooooooooooo anyway, as best I can figure, they decide to have a Martian Christmas, and they set up an automated toy factory staffed by child labor, rather than midgets because Mars evidently has fairly lax laws on the subject. Voldar, meanwhile, for no adequately explained reason, is hiding in a fake looking cave outside of town. Evidently he’s an outcast, on the run, turned out by polite society, though I’m not sure why. I presume it had something to do with him trying to murder three people – one of them mythical, the other one Pia Zadora, who might also be mythical – but I really don’t know. The copy I was watching was kind of sketchy and had clearly been re-spliced a couple times. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a scene missing. Or maybe I just nodded off there for a minute. That wouldn’t surprise me much, either.

So Voldar decides they can’t just kill Santa (For no explained reason), instead they sneak into the toy factory and sabotage it. While there, Dropo walks in dressed like Santa because Dropo is an idiot. Voldar’s an idiot too, and doesn’t realize it’s not Santa, despite the fact that he’s green and has the same kind of stupid helmet everyone else on Mars wears.

Santa discovers the machine has been sabotaged, meanwhile Voldar tells Kemar that Santa (It’s actually Dropo, don’t be frightened kids. Whereas everyone loves Santa, pretty much everyone wants to see Dropo get hurt.) is a hostage, and will be released if Kemar accedes to his demands. Voldar’s demands, that is, not Santa’s. Or Dropo’s. Of course Kemar’s the closest thing to a non-idiot on Mars, and he just beats the crap out of the two of them, shoves ’em in a closet, and begins to interrogate them. The bad guy get the drop on him, however, and beat the crap out of him, and escape the closet…but can they escape the hall it’s attached to? Seriously, they just stand around for like ten minutes in a six-by-six set, it’s claustrophobic *AND* visually uninteresting.

Back in the fake cave of fakeness, Dropo acts out of character and figures a way to escape, and makes his way back to the city or…house…or…really wherever it is that the “Action” is taking place. Voldar attacks the kids, but they hold him off using toys, after which Kemar comes to and arrests the guy. He’s crying, and his fake mustache is all soggy and even faker-looking.

Santa decides that Dropo would make a good Martian Santa, and then heads back to Earth with Pia Zadora and the kid who isn’t Pia Zadora.

Cue closing credits, annnnnnnd the end. What? Oh? Still running a bit short? Ok…uhm…run the lyrics to the song after the credits, as if it’s a singalong…………annnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnd…

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

Despite all my snark, this is a perfectly tolerable kids movie. The SF trappings are probably intended as mild parody of the crappy SF TV shows of the 50s, and frankly things aren’t terribly much faker than episodes of “Tom Corbet, Space Cadet” and “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger.” I mean, how else are we to make sense of the clearly-joking “Food Pills” stuff? Yeah, it’s a belabored running gag that isn’t remotely funny, but clearly it’s *supposed* to be funny, clearly they’re making fun of the tired old food-pill trope that had been showing up in literary SF for a generation, and in film SF for a decade or so. (For instance, it figures prominently in “Conquest of Space.”

Production values are worlds higher than “Forbidden Zone,” which is the yardstick I use for these things, and bear in mind that this is a film that’s intended for really young kids. I *loved* this movie in first and second grade, and probably third as well. All my little friends loved it, too, and I don’t remember anyone talking trash about it back in the day. It’s perfectly acceptable for kids in the same way that Barney the Purple Dinosaur and Romper Room are entirely acceptable for kids. They see and experience things differently than we do, so it’s kind of disingenuous to complain about the movie because it doesn’t have gore and knife fights and gory knife fights and a heavy metal soundtrack and whatnot because obviously those things aren’t age appropriate.

Unlike most of the people who run SF fansites, I have no real pretension. I’m an idiot, and I admit that freely. Rather than try to hide my mistakes, I draw attention to them, fess up, and move on. Case in point: I wrote this whole review assuming the little blonde girl was Pia Zadora. In fact, she’s not. She’s Donna Confortini, who never did anything in film apart form this movie. Pa Zadora is “Girmar,” the little Martian girl. Wow! What a huge mistake to make! Now, a lesser man than me would go through the review and fix that, trying to cover his tracks, but not me: I’m just honest and lazy enough to leave it the way I wrote it. Pia would have been about 10 when this movie was made. Despite being a bit old for that sort of thing by then, Pia would go on to have a minor career playing a sex kitten in movies that were essentially cheap sexed-up uncredited remakes of other movies: “Butterfly” (1982) was a slutty version of “Lolita” (1961), and “The Lonely Lady” (1983) was an even more slutty version of “The Oscar” (1966).

From an adult perspective, Dropo is the absolute worst kind of character in a film – a guy who’s not even remotely funny, but whom we’re *told* is a scream. We’re subjected to a lot of pointless mugging of the camera. He’s really so bad that I feel kind of embarrassed for him, I kind of don’t want to give his real name or talk about his career. He seems kind of vulnerable. “Voldar” was played by character actor Vincent Beck, who was on a jillion shows in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Apart from that, really no one in this movie ever went on to do anything of note.

It’s interesting to me that during the course of the movie, no one ever mentions how all those poor kids back on earth will be shafted because Santa’s trapped on Mars. Also, did the Astronauts get back to Earth? Did they land on Mars nine months later, guns a-blazing and kill everyone they met? What happened next? I think there’s a fine concept for a sequel there that no one ever really explored.

The Martians are, frankly, embarrassing. Guys in green tights and makeup. They all wear motorcycle helmets with the goggles turned upside down so the nose part is pointing up, all spray painted green, with some flexi-pipe on one side, and some TV Rabbit Ears attached. It’s sad, really.

The brief shots of the spaceship in flight are actually kinda’ cool. I found myself wondering if they’d been stolen from some other film.

Ok, I’m tired of typing. Suffice it to say that this is a really, really, really bad film that is bad in the exactly specific kind of way that makes you kind of sad for everyone in the film, you know? They just wanted to make something nice for the kids, and in a lot of ways they succeeded, but the movie is so cheap, so shoddy, so poorly acted, so badly thought out that it’s hard to overlook that.

It’s like when you’re ten and your mom tries to make you a cake for your birthday, only she can’t cook, and ends up with this amorphous disaster, swathed in way too much icing to hide the deformities: Yeah, it’s terrible, but you can’t actually complain to her, can you? I mean, she tried, right? And she already knows she failed – I mean, you saw her crying quietly to herself in the kitchen, right? Would it be any better if you pointed out to her what a bad job she did? No, obviously not. She’s got a hard life, getting harder all the time, and let’s face it, you’re no picnic, kiddo. So you just sit there, pretending the burned, rock-hard flinders drowned in icing are tasty, and that you don’t notice how bad it is, and she just sits there, knowing you know, and feeling bad that you’re having to put the effort into hiding your feelings, which makes her feel worse, and of course you feel bad because (A) you didn’t get a good cake and (B) you don’t even get to feel bad about it because your mom is obviously in a bad way and (C )your every effort to make your mom feel better makes her feel worse in that spooky grownup way that no 10-year-old understands, and (D) the damn bowling game you got is making you upset because everyone at the party is better at it than you, thus everything everyone does makes the both of you feel worse, and you hurt for everyone at pretty much every turn.

This *WHOLE* movie is like that.

I want to hate it, but these people are so inept, so clearly out of their depth that you kind of feel bad for them. I mean, most of them never went on to do anything, and one of them grew up to be Pia Zadora, which is obviously punishment enough. The whole thing just makes me sad on so many different levels. There’s my empathy for the people who made this thing, there’s my nostalgia for the kid I once was, who was so vastly different from the adult I now am that he actually enjoyed this film, and there’s my sadness that I can no longer enjoy it.

As I said at the outset, I’m not a Christmasy kind of guy. I don’t like it. Too much stress, too many out of pocket expenses, too much cloying tripe. It’s been decades since I felt anything other than dread at Christmas, certainly any sense of the sacred was long ago washed out of it by Madison avenue and my own childhood greed. There’s nothing I look forward to about it, I’m just numb.

On that level, this movie is a success, in that normally I feel nothing, but this film makes me sad in a very Christmas kind of way.

This film is in public domain, which means you can legally watch it free online in several locations.

MST3K did it, and I’m told Starship Titanic did a version of it, too. If you’d like another view on this one, which is different from my own, yet strangely similar, check out this one here

And that’s about it. Merry Christmas. Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever. Pass that bottle, would ya? Thanks. Hey, who does a guy have to kill to get a slice of lime around here?

2 thoughts on “MOVIE REVIEW: “Santa Claus Conquers The Martians” (1964)

    1. Yeah, I was surprised by that, too. The site is “Encased in amber,” as R2 said. No new content, no comments, but it’s remaining online as an archive of five years of hard work that sort of came to nothing. I’m just sort of diddling around with my personal site now.

      Good to hear from you again! What have you been up to?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *