It’s almost Christmas – a time of tinsel, bad jumpers and cheese boards. It’s also the time of year when we get out a few of our favourite festive movies to enjoy yet again – Gremlins, Die Hard, It’s A Wonderful Life, Elf, or Jaws: The Revenge to name a few.
It’s unlikely, though, that Santa Claus Conquers The Martians is anywhere on that particular festive list. Shot in the 1960s, this infamously poverty-stricken production regularly appears on “worst films ever” lists, and is generally regarded as the Plan 9 From Outer Space of seasonal pictures. But as things like mulled wine, grumpy relatives and Russ Abbott Christmas specials prove, the festive season is a time of enduring things we wouldn’t normally tolerate.
So in the spirit of Christmas, join us as we delve deep into this frequently scorned family movie, and see if there are a few remarkable things to report about it…
1. Its opening shot is terrifying
The movie opens with the infuriatingly catchy swingin’ 60s theme song, Hooray For Santa Claus (pronounced “Santee Claus” by the school choir singers). After that aural assault, director Nicholas Webster pokes us in the eyes with a first shot worthy of David Lynch: the camera slowly pans from a seemingly ordinary period television to a pair of children staring sullenly straight ahead. Their hands rest on their knees. They sit bolt upright. They do not blink. They wear weird hats, fire-retardant suits (possibly), and what can only be described as fake tanning lotion.
To the uninitiated, the pair’s lack of humanity and weird clothing suggests we’re peering into the secret lair of a religious cult – a cabal of extremist stunt performers, perhaps. But as the little boy and girl talk to each other about what they’re watching on television (“Bomar, what is a doll?” “I don’t know. Girmar, what is tender loving care?”), the penny drops: they’re meant to be Martians.
The story goes that, such is the warlike nature of Martian society, its youngsters don’t have a proper childhood, and grow up without dolls, tender loving care, and – God forbid – visitations from Santa Claus. As a consequence, they sit around all day in their fire retardant suits, sullenly watching Earth television, and occasionally pausing to apply some more fake tan to their foreheads.
2. It stars Pia Zadora
Younger readers may never have heard of Pia Zadora. An actress and singer who infamously won both a Golden Globe and a Golden Raspberry nomination for her performance in 1982’s Butterfly (leading some to call the Globe win a fix), she also appeared in movies such as Hairspray and Naked Gun 33 ⅓, and had a few hits as a singer, including a duet with Jermaine Jackson called When The Rain Begins To Fall.
Her first screen role, however, was in Santa Claus Conquers The Martians. That child on the left staring accusingly at Santa in the picture above? That’s her, playing Girmar opposite Chris Month’s equally transfixed Bomar.
Zadora’s later fame is part of the reason why, instead of disappearing into history along with numerous other cheaply-made children’s matinee films, her 1964 debut has endured – as soon as word got round of her early screen appearance, Santa Claus was hauled out of the archives, and has been the subject of baffled curiosity ever since.
3. It has some posh furniture in it
Santa Claus Conquers The Martians has a strange, no doubt coincidental connection with another ‘worst film ever made’, 1988’s Mac & Me. That film became infamous for its unsubtle plugging of McDonald’s products, from its title to an interminable dance routine staged in a golden arches restaurant. Only slightly more subtle was its repeated references to, of all things, Wickes pine furniture; welsh dressers, cupboards and wardrobes were dotted around throughout the film, and one plot point was based entirely around a Wickes billboard poster.
Santa Claus does a not dissimilar thing. You may notice, as you cast a jaundiced eye around the Martians’ minimalist abode, that its fixtures and furnishings are stylish and surprisingly solid-looking. There’s a handsome black chair and matching footstool, all swooping lines and narrow feet. There’s a pleasingly simple round table in contrasting white.
So where can we purchase these quality items? In the opening titles, the ‘Martian Furniture’ gets its own individual credit – Fritz Hansen, a company which still makes posh tables and chairs to this day (prices range between £500-£6000, fact fans). At one point, a TV announcer even proclaims, “For Martian furniture, Fritz of Mars!”
This would at least explain why, in a movie with sets that look as though they’re made from old Ryvita boxes, the furniture looks stunning. It’s also heartening to know that, if we ever come into a lot of money, we could create a Martian living room in our own homes.
4. It has something in common with Dr Strangelove
Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove may be one of the director’s most lauded films, but like so many movies in the 50s and 60s, it made occasional use of stock footage – most notably at the start of the film, where we see some US airforce film of a plane refuelling in midair.
In a weird instance of movie synchronicity, the director of Santa Claus Conquers The Martians selected precisely the same snippet of footage as Stanley Kubrick did – and given that both movies were released in 1964, it’s possible that both directors bumped into each other when they were going through film tins down at the Stock Footage Warehouse.
It has to be said that spotting this shot is rather jarring, though it’s also worth pointing out that Nicholas Webster was rather less discriminate in his choice of footage than Kubrick was. If Martians came to Earth and kidnapped Santa and two ordinary kids named Billy and Betty, why would the US military scramble a huge and very slow bomber?
Presumably, those trigger-happy generals would rather have bombed Father Christmas to kingdom come than let the aliens take him – which might make this film just as pertinent a comment on Cold War-era nuclear policy as Dr Strangelove.
5. Its plot is remarkably similar to The Nightmare Before Christmas
Saying that Santa Claus Conquers The Martians is similar to Nightmare Before Christmas probably sounds like a statement explicitly designed to trigger nerd rage, but bear with us here. Pared down to their bare essentials, both are about the kidnapping of Santa, and both for the misguided purpose of bringing cheer to a benighted faraway land.
What Conquers The Martians doesn’t have, of course, is beautiful animation, sprightly music and pitch-perfect humour. But it does have some stunning posh furniture, which is something every Christmas movie needs. Possibly.
6. It features an extraordinary polar bear
As far as unconvincing screen bears go, we thought we already had a favourite. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s low-budget debut, Hercules In New York, saw the future Governator fight a huge brown bear in a Manhattan park. Unfortunately, the film’s poverty-row finances meant that the bear looked like a walking, furry doormat. Remarkably, the one in Santa Claus makes the bear in Hercules In New York look like something put together by the CG boffins at WETA.
Hapless youngsters Billy and Betty encounter the polar bear when their Martian captors take a stop-off at the North Pole to kidnap Santa. The creature comes looming out of the snow with a growl, menacing the kids with a wobbly paw as they cower in the safety of a cave. Then, just when the terror reaches its peak, the polar bear abruptly rushes off – presumably because the poor chap in the costume was suffocating underneath all the polyester fur, sticky tape and egg cartons.
7. Its killer robot is even better
Having survived the rampaging polar bear, Billy and Betty encounter a six-foot robot, which looms over them like a Terminator endoskeleton – albeit a rather ungainly one made out of old cereal boxes. As you can see from the image above, the poor little tykes are terrified out of their minds.
This robot, we soon learn, is called Torg – which is probably an anagram of Gort, the slightly scarier automaton from The Day The Earth Stood Still. Torg’s under the control of the evil Voldar (Vincent Beck) – we can tell he’s evil, since he hasn’t bothered to shave off his Movember moustache, and probably kept his charity fundraiser money for himself, the swine.
For some reason, Kimar the King Martian decided to bring Voldar on his mission to kill Santa, even though Voldar hates the idea of Christmas and wants to kill everyone he meets. Nevertheless, Kimar keeps Voldar in check with a stiff reprimand, and sends Torg stumbling into Santa’s workshop, tin-foil arms and oven glove hands flailing.
“Who let you in here?” Santa (John Call) exclaims from beneath his clip-on beard. “You’re the biggest toy I’ve ever seen. And very well made, too…”
At this point, Torg mysteriously breaks down. Or maybe the actor inside the suit falls asleep – we’re not sure. Sensing trouble, Voldar and Kimar leap into the workshop and, after freezing two elves and Santa’s wife with a couple of blasts from a high-tech ping-pong ball gun, drag Father Christmas back to Mars. None of this would have happened if Liam Neeson was of a fighting age in the 1960s.
8. Martians speak like thespians
The film’s cast may be mostly comprised of jobbing TV actors of the day, but both they and writers Paul L Jacobson and Glenville Mareth really go to town on the dialogue. Kimar the King Martian holds himself as though he’s playing King Lear, and with a biblical tremble in his voice, says things like, “Their children eat not and sleep not. They just watch Earth programmes on the video!”
There’s also a bearded wizard named Chochem who looks a little bit like Mel Brooks’ character out of Spaceballs, but the actor who plays him (Carl Don) milks the part for all it’s worth, clicking and wheezing through every line, staring directly ahead as he tells us, “The children must be allowed to be children again. They must learn what it means to have fun. We need a Santa Claus on Mars!” It’s a stunning performance.
For grandstanding speeches, the movie truly belongs to the villainous Voldar. His passive-aggressive, sulky outbursts are the highlight of the first part of the film, and some of what he says probably echoes the thoughts of parents everywhere (“All this trouble over a fat little man in a red suit… I don’t want Santa Claus coming and bringing games. The children will start laughing and being a nuisance!”)
Voldar’s finest moment, though, is this following speech. Eat your heart out, George R R Martin.
“What has happened to the great warriors of our planet? Mars used to be the planet of war! Mark my words, Kimar, your softness will destroy us. Santa Claus! Toys! Games! Laughing children!”
9. Martian parenting skills are questionable at best
As we’ve already established, kids on Mars don’t have a lot of fun growing up. But paying close attention to the crackly dialogue reveals worse parenting crimes still. For one thing, children are fed pills instead of proper dinners. “I’ve bought some new food pills” gushes Kimar’s wife. “We have hamburger, buttered asparagus, mashed potatoes, and chocolate layer-cake pills.” No wonder the kids never eat anything.
Then there’s Kimar’s rather troubling tactic of getting his children to sleep at night. “The children appear to be troubled,” Kimar says, before adding, matter-of-factly, “I had to use the sleep spray on them again.” So there we have it: Martian parents let their kids watch TV all day, stuff them full of pills and then spray them with gas to put them to sleep. And when they can’t think of ways to cheer their children up, they’re perfectly willing to kidnap mythical old men to build them some Christmas presents. And we thought the Martians in War Of The Worlds were evil.
10. Santa is either incredibly dim or unspeakably cunning
Santa Claus, as played in the movie by John Call (who later appeared in the 1971 Sean Connery flick, The Anderson Tapes), is rather a confused old chap. As we’ve already seen, he sees a huge robot and assumes it’s a toy. Elsewhere in the film, he refers to one of his reindeer as Nixon. Even kidnapping and repeated murder attempts don’t appear to bother him – when Voldar tries to blast Santa, Billy and Betty out of a ship’s airlock (“doing a Ripley” as it would later become known in sci-fi circles), Santa simply laughs, taps the side of his nose and calls it all a simple misunderstanding.
The film ends with another of Voldar’s wicked schemes falling apart – this time, he tries to sabotage Santa’s toy making machine. The (wobbly) stage is set for a final confrontation, in which Voldar is vanquished by a group of angry kids flinging toys. Santa then appoints the unfeasibly dim Martian Dropo (Bill McCutcheon, who later played Uncle Wally in Sesame Street) as Mars’s own Father Christmas.
Perhaps this is the true meaning behind the title, Santa Claus Conquers The Martians – he secures victory not through violence, but with a benign grin. By setting up his own franchise on Mars, Santa can enjoy a boozy retirement on Earth; he can sit back and watch the profits roll in as Dropo and his army of Martian child slaves spend all day churning out trinkets from a giant toy machine. And if one of them dares step out of line, Voldar and Kimar are waiting in the wings with their killer robot and sleeping gas.
Maybe Santa himself is an alien, setting up toy slave franchises all over the galaxy; Earth was first, Mars second – he’s colonising every planet in the Solar System one by one, and chuckling into his big white beard as he does so. Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, then, isn’t just a cheap holiday movie for the young and easily pleased – it’s a warning from history.
To paraphrase both a famous poet and movie, “The greatest trick Santa ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And like that – poof. He’s gone. Up the chimney.”
Merry Christmas, readers.