When two Martian children (Pia Zadora and Chris Month) become fixated on Earth TV broadcasts about Santa Claus (John Call), the planet’s leaders, who fear his influence on the culture, kidnap him and bring him there to build toys for the children. A Christmas classic to Bad Movie lovers everywhere, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is a ridiculously inept, relatively low-budget clunker whose clunkiness provides some amusement. Kino’s corrected Blu-ray features a transfer of the uncut version of the film from a 16mm TV print with a smattering of unrelated ephemeral films as supplement.
Studio: Kino (originally distributed by Embassy Pictures)
Length: 81 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 (MAR)
Languages: English Mono
Film Release Date: November 14, 1964
Disc Release Date: October 30, 2012
Review Date: October 19, 2012 (updated December 21, 2012 to reflect corrected pressing)
Hooray for Santy Claus!”
2.5/5 (add a point for camp value)
Two of the most significant events to influence post-WWII American culture were the space race with the Soviet Union and the rise of a little box known as television. The growing interest in worlds beyond our own led Hollywood—as well as the growing pool of low-budget filmmakers with no alliances to any studio—to churn out science fiction movies with what seemed like the same frequency with which they used to churn out westerns. Meanwhile, the novelty and popularity of television made social critics fear its effects on future generations. In 1964, the same year Marshall McLuhan declared, “the medium is the message,” Joseph E. Levine, whose Embassy Pictures first brought Federico Fellini’s 8½ to American movie theaters, produced Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, a film that tried to combine those elements with a Christmas theme. What it is almost defies explanation, but here goes:
Opening with a kiddie-rock jingle that will worm its way into your memory if you let it, the story starts when two Martians, Bomar (Chris Month) and Girmar (Pia Zadora) become obsessed with the Earth broadcasts of KID TV they receive. This station has managed to send a reporter (Ned Wertimer) to the North Pole to interview Santa Claus (John Call). How a small station not affiliated with a network could afford a North Pole correspondent is anyone’s guess. When the children’s clumsy sitter Dropo (Bill McCutcheon) tells their parents, Momar (Leila Martin) and Kimar (Leonard Hicks), how captivated their children are with Santa, the Martian elders fear his negative influence on their tightly controlled culture. Martians, who have the convenient ability to breathe oxygen, are fed pills instead of food and are educated through machines that implant knowledge directly into their brains. Such a culture allows little room for creativity, imagination or freedom. When Chochem (Carl Don), the oldest and wisest of the Martians—which isn’t saying much—explains to them about Santa Claus, whom he had known about for centuries yet said nothing, they decide to look for a Santa Claus figure of their own to get the little Martians away from the boob tube. With so many different Santas to choose from, whether in department stores or on street corners, the Martians can’t figure out which one is the real one. Rather than ask Chochem, or even Bomar and Girmar, where Santa actually lives, they kidnap two children, Billy (Victor Stiles) and Betty (Donna Conforti), who tell them where the real Santa lives. The Martians kidnap Santa and force him to make toys for Martian children, and chaos ensues.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians had spent most of its life languishing in the obscurity of UHF TV station movie shows until 1991, when Mystery Science Theater 3000 showcased it in order to lampoon it. While the IMDb, where this film has appeared on the Bottom 100 List for years, is not the last word on financial matters related to individual films, it claims the film cost $200,000 to make. In comparison, Ed Wood’s magnum opus Plan 9 From Outer Space, made a few years earlier, was said to have cost $60,000, while the average cost of a Hollywood film in 1964 was around $4,000,000). But as sloppy as Ed Wood’s movies are, he had his own unique primitivistic style. Nicholas Webster’s direction is mostly artless, save for an opening shot that pans from the TV to the glassy-eyed Martian children. Exactly where did that money go?
It certainly didn’t go towards getting the sets not to look stagy and fake. And it couldn’t possibly have gone towards make-up that would make the Martians look like something other than guacamole-covered humans clad in leotards and tights. And the special effects budget was only enough to buy a spaceship that looked like a hair curler with push pins attached
The money certainly didn’t go towards hiring anyone who could have given the script any scientific accuracy. Huge chunks of the film take place in the North Pole, yet the people there are not exactly wearing what I would call “not-freeze-to-death” clothing. Despite its furtive attempts at a mild satire of the commonly held fear that television was going to turn people in to drooling, mindless zombies, screenwriter Glenville Mareth treats the audience as if that ship has sailed already. Its satire falls flat because its understanding of the Spirit of Christmas is limited to mass media images of Santa Claus. Worse, the plot is stupid with a capital “S,” and it gets progressively stupider in every scene until it makes Jaws: The Revenge resemble a widescreen David Lean epic with a Robert Bolt screenplay. Occasionally, that stupidity provides a few laughs, but they’re few and far between. By the last act, it degenerates into a tiresome mish-mash. Its climactic battle between Martians and toys bears more than a little resemblance to Walt Disney’s version of Babes in Toyland, and may have had at least an indirect influence on Toys, Barry Levinson’s 1992 fiasco.
Filmed on soundstages in New York, many of the actors come from Broadway, but their performances fluctuate between stiffness and mannered theatricality. John Call provides no more or less than the required Christmas cheer as Santa Claus, but the children cannot act at all; Donna Conforti is more wooden than Pinocchio, while 1980s B-minus-movie queen Pia Zadora isn’t much better in her film debut. She’s not the only one who would go onto bigger and better things, though with all due respect, there was nowhere to go but up. Bill McCutcheon, who played Uncle Wally on Sesame Street in the 1980s, plays Dropo, the buffoonish “comic relief” character that ends up saving the day, like a man possessed. Fans of The Jeffersons may get a kick out of seeing Ned “Ralph the Doorman” Wertimer out of his doorman’s uniform and in a fur parka interviewing Santa Claus. At least they put effort into their performances.
Yet underneath all that, there are some perceptive observations about the effects of mass media and the growth of machine-made toys at the expense of handmade ones. Furthermore, the film’s unintentional laughs will have you laughing loudly and heartily.
The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, which can’t possibly be the OAR; by that time, only television and movies shot in 16mm used that ratio. However, after Kino recalled and replaced the old version of the disc, which was missing 12 minutes of the film, they stated their transfer came from a 16mm TV print. Luckily, they were able to make it look palatable The color is warm and saturated, though fleshtones veer to an unnatural shade of orange sometimes; where does one get a tan in the North Pole? Highlights are overblown, while shadows are fairly deep. The print’s age and frequency of use is equally apparent, as Kino has left in the dirt and scratches.
Presented in a mono 2.0 LPCM track, it’s an accurate representation of a problematic source: the print’s optical track. Dialogue and music are compressed and boxy, and pops and hisses are sometimes audible.
All material is 1080p and 16x9 unless otherwise noted.
—Santa’s Cool Holiday Film Festival (46:21, 4x3): A ragtag assortment of rare Christmas shorts and ephemera, most of which revolve around Santa Claus, ranging from two Max Fleischer cartoons (Christmas Comes But Once a Year and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer), Howdy Doody’s Christmas, a Harriet Nelson Kodak commercial, several movie theater snipes wishing patrons a Merry Christmas (one with Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop), and a Christmas Seals ad bringing Abbott and Costello together for the only time in film history. This feature could benefit greatly from the option to watch each one individually.
—Trailer (1:57): A trailer for a modern re-release paired with several other Christmas shorts.
—Stills Gallery: 8 production shots.
Clumsy, wooden and ridiculous, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians mines more laughs out of its limited budget and talent pool than its attempts at satirizing TV culture and the machine age. The film’s main bonus feature, 46 minutes of rare Christmas shorts, is not exactly relevant to the film and lacks an option for individual viewing, but I applaud Kino for responding to consumer complaints about the disc when it was released in October.