As anyone who’s been in a shopping mall the last two months can attest, the Christmas season is upon us once again. And within the strange cinema community, that means it’s time for the annual debate over which of two vintage holiday-themed movies is the more bizarre. Last year we looked at the first contender: Santa Claus, the Mexican import from 1959 in which the titular jolly old elf teams up with Merlin the magician to stop Pitch, one of Lucifer’s more flamboyant devils, from spoiling the Yuletide of boys and girls around the world…or at least of boys and girls in Mexico City. Now, if a south-of-the-border St. Nick is able to defeat one devil, then surely a good old-fashioned, made-in-the U.S.A. Kris Kringle can triumph over, say, a whole race of alien invaders, right? Well, that’s what we’re going to find out now, because this year’s Christmas plum is none other than the 1964 kiddie curiosity Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
It’s a quick score for the red, white and blue during the opening titles, as the audience is “treated” to the never-quite-became-a-holiday-favorite tune “Hooray for Santy Claus” (co-authored by future Gong Show musical director Milton Delugg) and also gets to see Ramsey Mostoller’s unique credit as “Custume (sic) Designer.” With the proper holiday mood thus established, the filmmakers take us to the North Pole and a live “via Telstar” broadcast by KID-TV direct from Santa’s workshop. Satellite signals must have moved quicker back then, because at that same moment the show is being watched by two green-skinned Martian children on their futuristic home’s eerily prescient flat-screen set (which is topped, like the kids’ heads, with antennas). The reporter lets a harried and rather befuddled Mr. Claus puff away on his pipe while he and his elves demonstrate such up-to-date playthings as a toy rocket that “runs on real rocket fuel”–parents must love paying for that!–and allows Mrs. Claus make a fool of herself on live TV. The alien youngsters, meanwhile, are not taking their food pills and just sit blank-faced in front of the TV, soaking in the unbelievable proceedings…similar to what Earth tykes (including yours truly) did when this movie was a seasonal weekend matinee staple in the ’60s and early ’70s.
It’s precisely this disturbing behavior by the little green sprouts (who, it turns out, are siblings Bomar and Girmar; guess which one’s the boy Martian and which the girl?) that has their parents, Momar and Kimar (mom and, er, king) so worried. What’s more, the same thing is happening in households all across the red planet…not that we ever get to see any other Martian kids. Luckily, papa Kimar just happens to be head of the “Council Chiefs,” and he hastily summons said chiefs for a meeting with Mars’ resident wise man, a verdant, white-haired sage who resembles the love child of Yoda and Leon Russell. He informs Kimar and company that the news broadcasts have given their play-deprived offspring a nasty case of Christmas fever, and it’s decided that the only way to cure them is to go to Earth and bring back Santa Claus…by any means necessary (okay, I made up that last part).
Building an interplanetary spaceship turns out to be easier than finding one portly toymaker, because our alien abductors first need to shanghai Earth children Billy and Betty Foster from a countryside backdrop to help them track down St. Nick’s Arctic headquarters. The kids do their best to escape, but are pursued by a man in one of moviedom’s all-time worst polar bear suits and recaptured by Torg, a Martian robot made out of tin pots and cardboard boxes with painted-on dials. Once the Martians reach Santa’s factory, they use their futuristic freeze ray guns (Baby Boomers will instantly recognize said guns as Wham-O Air Blasters®) to immobilize Mrs. Claus and the elves before convincing the “big man” to accompany them back home.
At this point, I should mention two key members of Kimar’s extraterrestrial hijacking squad. The mustached menace seen on your right is the film’s antagonist, Voldar. He’s surly and nasty, wants to be ruler of Mars, and doesn’t understand why they’re going to “all this trouble over a fat little man in a red suit.” It’s Voldar, in fact, who attempts to get rid of Santa, Billy and Betty en route by expelling them out the ship’s airlock into space (See, lighthearted holiday kiddie fare!). Also on board the spacecraft is Dropo, Kimar’s dimwitted aide/servant/boy toy (just look for the scene where Kimar uses a “tickle ray” on him and fiddles with his antennas), whose goofy antics make him a Cold War precursor to Jar Jar Binks.
Needless to say, Voldar’s evil scheme fails and everyone safely reaches Mars. Santa is given a computerized toy assembly line (“Look at me: Santa Claus, the great toymaker, pushing buttons. That’s automation for you.”) and gets Billy, Betty, Bomar, and Girmar to serve as his new vertically-challenged work crew. Voldar, however, managed to escape detention and plots with a pair of his own slapstick sidekicks (You can tell they’re not too bright when one mispronounces the word “nuclear” as “nucular.” Imagine!) to sabotage the workshop and discredit Kris Kringle. While doing so, the bad guys find Dropo dressed in a spare Santa suit, mistake him for the real McClaus, and take him hostage. There’s a final showdown between Voldar and the toy-wielding kids that looks like a bargain-basement rendition of the battle scene from Disney’s Babes in Toyland before the forces of goodness win. Santa and the Earth kids can return home in time for Christmas, and Dropo can take over as the red planet’s St. Nick and spread consumerism and greed the holiday spirit across that world (those poor Martian kids!).
So, how does Santa Claus Conquers the Martians stack up to the Mexican Santa Claus? Both feature inane dialogue (Betty: “What are those funny things sticking out of your head?” Kimar: “Those are our antenna.” Betty: “Are you a television set?”), grade school pageant-level scenery and “custumes,” and a pair of Kringles with rather lecherous-sounding laughs. What boosts this domestic disaster above its Latin American counterpart, though, is the casting trivia tidbit that Girmar was played by a 10-year-old Pia Zadora (Those of you under 30 may not be familiar with her, but there’s an entire ward at the Strangefilm Institute devoted to Ms. Zadora’s ’80s oeuvre).
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians has gone through a number of identities in its 46-year history. First it was known as “that laughably bad outer space Christmas kids’ movie,” then it became “one of the 50 Worst Films of All Time” (thanks, Medved brothers). In the 1980s it gained fame as “Pia Zadora’s film debut” and a decade later was “the annual Mystery Science Theater 3000 holiday film” (thanks, Best Brains). Now it’s back to “that laughably bad outer space Christmas kids’ movie”…which is just how fans of off-the-wall cinema like it. Hooray for Santy Claus!