Friday, December 20, 2013

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
Nicholas Webster

I think the best holiday films are the ones that tap into the delirium that can be experienced around this time of year. I like my Christmases gaudy and schmaltzy. No matter how much you are sold on the magic of spending money, or alternatively, togetherness and giving, Christmas is a time of strange rituals, images, and sounds you only hear once a year. Halloween often finds its imagery dispersed throughout the year via the horror genre itself. Christmas is one concentrated month of odd things that you don’t even think about any other time.  So, I believe that the weirder a Christmas film, the closer it comes to the true experience of the holiday, and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is plenty weird.

In case you haven't seen it a few hundred times: A squad of Martians shows up on Earth to kidnap Santa Claus. The leader, Kimar (John Call) wants to drag Santa back to Mars to bring gifts to the planet’s listless children. His second in command, Voldar (Vincent Beck), is against the idea and seeks to undermine Kimar at every opportunity.  The Martians grab a couple of kids to help them find where Santa lives. Eventually they kidnap Mr. Claus and haul his fat ass across space where he meets Dropo (Bill McCutcheon), the laziest man on Mars. Meanwhile Voldar plans to get rid of Santa once and for all.

Garish doesn’t begin to describe how Santa Claus Conquers the Martians looks, even through washed-out prints and cheap VHS transfers the film manages to vomit color all over the screen with bright green Martians, Santa's red suit, and shadowy yet colorful sets. The recent Kino Blu-ray release has cleaned up the film as well as it’s ever going to be and the results are positively eye-searing.

Kimar is about the only character taking any of this seriously, and it does help bring a dramatic tension to the film but not enough against several terrible child actors, the mustache twirling evil of Voldar, and the floppy doofiness of Dropo. There is a little of a tonal issue here too, as Voldar attempts to murder several people throughout the film but it’s all laughed off as nothing of importance.

The special effects are as terrible as you expect them to be, badly filmed model rockets, a cardboard robot costume, and the Martian make-up looks greasy and uncomfortable. A few of the Martian caves are evocatively lit, but that’s about the best you’re going to get.

Underneath it all, there is a meandering strangeness going on here. I can't think of another film that mixes folklore with SF, the cold war, a dystopia, and splashes a little psychedelic color on top of it all with such a carefree attitude. There something enchanting about the cavalier attitude taken in the making of this film, especially in the face of modern kid's films which are market researched within an inch of their lives.

Viewed as a work of science-fiction, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is laughably cheap, broadly acted, and poorly written. As a children’s film it’s annoying. As a Christmas film, its message about toys being the only thing making childhood worthwhile is dubious at best. However, all three of the elements colliding with each other transforms the movie into something oddly compelling, not good mind you, but compelling.

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