One doesn’t normally associate Christmas with Martians. Of course, if this was a logical society one wouldn’t associate the birth of Jesus with talking snowmen and flying reindeer, but that’s another sociological issue of which this column is not concerned.
And yet, Martians have secured a place in the annual Christmas madness. Forty years ago, “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” slid down the chimneys and into the projectors of theaters across America. Four decades later, the film is still a source of wonder – basically, people wondering how such a crazy movie ever got made.
“Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” is a fairly simple tale. The kids on Mars are bored beyond belief and they spend too much time watching TV broadcasts from the Earth. No, the local cable company isn’t paying for the Earth shows â€“ those darn Martians are stealing the programs! Any way, the children of the Martian ruler Kimar begin shouting and crying that they want Santa Claus. The Martians fly to Earth, kidnap two Earth kids and force them to guide them to the North Pole. At Santa’s HQ, the Martians and their cardboard robot spirit away Ol’ Saint Nick while leaving Mrs. Claus and the elves stunned with a few ray gun blasts. Santa and the Earth kids find themselves on Mars, where a new workshop is set up so Santa can make toys for the Martian kids. A bad Martian named Volgar tries repeatedly to eliminate Santa, but a good Martian named Dropo has a Santa festish and saves the day. As a reward, Dropo gets to wear his own Santa costume. The Martian kids are too stupid to tell the difference between Dropo and Santa, so the Earth bunch are sent back to their planet in time for Christmas while Dropo takes on a new role as the green Santa of Mars.
It is easy to knock this film, but in a way it is not fair to criticize it too much. After all, the film was never meant to be experienced by adults (although there is one adult joke, when Santa identifies one of his reindeer with the name Nixon). “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” was originally designed for the kiddie matinee circuit and was not meant to be consumed by adults. Way back in the days when neighborhoods actually had movie theaters, parents would deposit their children at the cinema on Saturday and Sunday afternoon while they did their shopping. These theaters would play films designed for the very young: cartoons, silly comedies, nature documentaries, and harmless action films.
Thus, it is not hard to conceive that the kids in the mid-60s were not going to question the notion of Martians being depicted by men in green greasepaint who wore capes, leotards and helmets with antenna that looked like bent wire hangers. Or that these Martians flew in paper plate spaceships and used robots that resembled cardboard boxes glued together and painted silver.
If the film sounds cheaply made, that’s because it was. The film was shot in an abandoned airport hangar in Long Island, NY, for a mere $200,000. To save on their budget, the producers made liberal use of stock footage of U.S. Air Force jets as part of the sequence when the Earth attempted to fend off the Martian invasion. The same footage was actually used that year by Stanley Kubrick for the opening scenes of “Dr. Strangelove” – but it is uncertain whether Kubrick ever saw “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” (perhaps this film inspired “2001”?).
“Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” was picked up for release by Embassy Pictures and reportedly did wonderful box office as an annual holiday release for the kiddie matinee crowd. After that juvenile circuit faded from practice, the film vanished as well. It probably would’ve been completely forgotten had it not been for two unlikely events: the flick was cited in the best-selling 1978 book “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time” and it was cited again in 1981 when it was discovered that heavily-publicized starlet Pia Zadora played one of the Martian children. The film became the darling of the lovers of so-bad-they’re-good movies.
Another discovery helped bring the film to new audiences: there was no copyright registration on the title. Being in the public domain, “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” was heavily bootlegged during the early days of the home video market. The bootlegging was frequently careless, and some video copies were missing footage. The film gained yet another lease on life when the merry men of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” devoted a holiday episode to dissing Santa’s trip to Mars. A DVD of that episode was recently released, just in time for Christmas.
But what about the film itself? Is it really as bad as some folks insist? Personally, I don’t think it is. This is not a great film, by any stretch. The music alone is enough to cause the throwing of objects at the screen where it is playing (check out the “Hooray for Santy Claus” theme online in the .wav files at Badmovies.org). And, yes, the special effects and make-up are primitive – even “A Trip to the Moon” had a more sophisticated conception of space travel and extra-terrestrials.
Yet on the other hand, the film has a weird charm to it. The film is silly without being excessively stupid, and the outlandish notion of Santa Claus mingling with Martians is too rich to dismiss. Santa doesn’t conquer the Martians with weapons or belligerence, but rather with kindness and goodwill. It is a sweet message, and perhaps a bit of a boring one. And that’s how I see the film: sweet and a little boring.
But then again, what constitutes Christmas classics? Jimmy Stewart getting his s**t together with the help of a clumsy angel? Charlie Brown watching in horror as Linus gives a Cliff Notes version of the Nativity to the cast and crew of an elementary school pageant? A reindeer with an electric red nose doing a song and dance with an elf who wants to be a dentist? Or 5,000 different versions of “A Christmas Carol”? Hell, Santa and his Martian buddies should be part of the holiday mix. Having Martians in a Christmas movie makes perfect sense to me.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
Discuss The Bootleg Files in Back Talk>>>