Santa Claus Conquers the Martians/Santa Claus Defeats the Aliens (1964) -***½
Those of you who’ve been reading my reviews for a while know that I have a loosely observed tradition of celebrating holidays by reviewing a thematically appropriate slasher movie. Such people have probably been wondering why I have yet to do so for Christmas, which, after all, would be just about the most obvious holiday to subject to such treatment. The answer is that I’d frankly rather attend mass than watch Silent Night, Deadly Night again, and I don’t have much more hope for Christmas Evil or Santa Claws. I had nevertheless begun to feel obligated to review some kind of holiday movie this December, and fortunately, cable TV came to my rescue with one of the most demented Christmas movies of all time, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians/Santa Claus Defeats the Aliens.
Mike Weldon, who ought to know what he’s talking about, has called Santa Claus Conquers the Martians “one of the worst movies of any kind ever made.” I’d say he’s got something there. This movie, which was shot in Long Island on what looks to be a budget of nearly $3.50, might even surpass the notorious Mexican Santa Claus (which has Jolly Old Saint Nick teaming up with Merlin the magician to battle Satan himself) in the key fields of insanity and ineptitude. The madness begins when Chief Kimar (Leonard Hicks), ruler of Mars, notices that his children, Bomar (Chris Month) and Girmar (Pia Zadora— yes, that Pia Zadora), have become sulky and listless. They neither eat nor sleep nor attend properly to their studies; all they want to do, in fact, is watch intercepted television signals from Earth. As Kimar’s wife, Lady Momar (Leila Martin), informs him, it isn’t just their children, either. Kids all over Mars are exhibiting the same strange complex of behaviors, and no one on the planet seems to have any real idea why. With such a crisis on his hands, there is but one thing for Kimar to do. He orders the council leaders of Mars to assemble, and accompany him to the Chair of Chochem, the great Ancient One of Mars.
The 800-year-old wise man knows what’s up. In fact, he’d seen it coming for centuries. The children of Mars have finally succumbed to the strains of their upbringing, which allows no time for laughter or joy or play— for childhood at all, if you want to be blunt about it. The reason the big breakdown is happening now is that, on Earth, it is early December, and all of Earth’s children (apparently the Earth of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians has been magically swept clear of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews) are feeling the anticipation of “the Christmas” and its attendant visit from “the Santa Claus.” It is Chochem the Ancient One’s opinion that, if the children of Mars are to be saved, Mars will need a Santa Claus of its own.
Now not everyone agrees with the Ancient One’s counsel. Council Leader Voldar (Vincent Beck, whose subsequent appearance in The Bamboo Saucer makes him one of the elite few members of this cast whose careers survived Santa Claus Conquers the Martians) believes that laughter and toys and games and childish diversions are the last thing the children of Mars need. Mars was once the Planet of War, Voldar reminds the other council leaders, and its ancient glory will never be regained if its children are allowed to become as soft and frivolous as their counterparts on Earth. But Voldar’s concerns find no second among the council leaders, and Kimar overrules him. Mars needs Santa Claus, and the people of Earth have had him long enough. With Kimar at their head, the council leaders blast off for Earth.
The Martians’ mission hits an unexpected snag when a cursory survey of New York City turns up hundreds of Santa Clauses. Furthermore, their vessel’s radar shield doesn’t seem to be working, and their presence in orbit is detected. The reason for the malfunction? Kimar’s butler, Dropo (Bill McCutcheon), “the laziest man on Mars,” has stowed away inside the cloaking device’s console, and has unplugged several important wires while rolling about in his sleep. And yes, dear readers, you have correctly identified Dropo as this movie’s hateful comic relief. After fixing the radar shield, the Martians land their ship somewhere in America, where they pump a pair of children named Billy (Victor Stiles) and Betty (Donna Conforti) for information regarding the whereabouts of the true Santa Claus. At Voldar’s insistence, the Martians bring the kids with them when they embark for the North Pole; after all, they wouldn’t want Billy and Betty going to the Earthly authorities and giving away Kimar’s plan.
On the way to the pole, Dropo adds “the stupidest man on Mars” to his list of titles by sneaking the Earth children up to the bridge of the spaceship, and explaining to them the functions of all the equipment they see before them. Naturally, this gives Billy and Betty the wherewithal to sabotage the radar shield once they realize what the Martians want with Santa Claus. And the moment the ship makes landfall, the two resourceful kids sneak out with the aim of reaching Santa’s workshop before the aliens, so as to warn him of the looming Green Peril. Kimar, for his part, isn’t taking any chances. After Voldar tells him the humans have escaped, Kimar dispatches his men to hunt them down, and then activates Torg as insurance against the success of the children’s clever gambit. What’s Torg, you ask? Torg, my friends, happens to be the stupidest looking man-in-a-suit robot since the one the Devil Girl from Mars brought with her to Earth in 1954. Like I said, Kimar isn’t taking any chances.
As it turns out, Billy and Betty get lost on the way to Santa’s workshop, and after a narrow escape from a man-in-a-suit polar bear every bit as shitty as Torg, they are recaptured by Voldar. Santa Claus (John Call) thus has no idea what’s coming when Torg smashes his way into the workshop, and starts manhandling his midget elves. But again, the Martians have miscalculated, for what is a robot but an extraordinarily advanced clockwork toy? Santa knows how to deal with toys, and within moments, Torg is just as docile and inoffensive as you could ask for. The Martians are forced to handle the situation the old-fashioned way, and after zapping Mrs. Claus (Doris Rich, with the bluest hair this side of a Japanese thrash band) and several of the elves with their immobilizer guns, they are finally able to pack Santa up and take him to Mars.
This is where Santa Claus begins Conquering the Martians. In true kiddie film fashion, he conquers them not by force of arms, but with great, contagious infusions of the Christmas Spirit. Not only do Bomar and Girmar perk up immediately upon exposure to Santa, even the Martian adults start falling under his spell of joy and cheer. Convinced of his planet’s need for Santa, Kimar orders the construction of a fully mechanized toy factory, capable of meeting all the needs of a world where no such thing has ever existed before. Lady Momar is so grateful that she makes Santa a second suit to the exact specifications of the one he arrived in. Dropo comes to idolize Santa, and begins dressing up in the suit Lady Momar made for him when he isn’t around. In fact, just about the only Martian who isn’t charmed out of his polymer-fiber socks by Pere Noël is Voldar, who hires a team of thugs to help him play Grinch to Mars’s Whoville. They sabotage the toy factory, and even kidnap Santa Claus— or so they think. Really, their prisoner is none other than Dropo, who happened to be hanging out at the toy factory wearing Santa’s spare suit when Voldar and his flunkies showed up. Voldar understandably overplays his hand when he tries to ransom his captive, and he and his boys are soon bested by a combination of the real Santa, the human and Martian children, and a mighty arsenal of toys. Finally, Dropo, who has managed to sneak away from the bully boy Voldar left to guard him (okay, so maybe he’s just the second-stupidest man on Mars), arrives on the scene in his Santa suit, freeing the real Santa to return to Earth along with Billy and Betty.
Man, this movie is great. There’s so much idiotic crap on display in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians that it’s difficult to catch it all in a single viewing. I don’t know how many times I saw this movie before I spotted the pattern in the names of Kimar’s family (a mom named Momar, a boy named Bomar, and a girl named Girmar), for instance, or noticed that the great Ancient One of Mars and the human space expert, Dr. Von Green, were both played by the same fantastically incompetent actor. The Martians’ costumes are unbelievably shoddy and stupid (Betty rightly asks Voldar, “Are you a television set?” when she first sees him), and the sets for the part of the film that takes place on Mars are even more so. This movie has a theme song that any Gamera flick would envy (“You spell it S-A-N-T-A, C-L-A-U-S— Hooray for Santy Claus!”), it has a mid-level star in an embarrassing early role, and it has one of the loopiest scripts in cinema history. It even has a sizable contingent of midget extras and a wildly out-of-place detour through Stock Footage Land when the president orders the interceptors and nuclear bombers of Strategic Air Command aloft in response to the news that Santa has been kidnapped. Best of all, it offers that inimitable experience of seeing something the likes of which you know could never possibly be made today.