Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Beauty & the Beast: Enchanted Christmas

Halloween is Grinch Night

Space Monster

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Lava Lamp

Our rating: one LAVA® motion lamp.

Santa gets a big laugh
out of oval-shaped doors.
Got your gravity boots on, kids? Get 'em strapped down tight and super-charged, 'cuz we're going on a fantastic trip through space, time, and imagination! That's right, we'll be visiting fantastic vistas from Santa's North Pole Workshop all the way to a Fantastic Martian Toy Factory! We'll see Earth kids meeting with Martian kids! Even a space-ship journey from Earth to Mars! It's gonna be a humdinger, we tell ya!

Aw, heck -- who are we kidding? Although Santa Claus Conquers the Martians does feature all of these allegedly eye-popping sights, it is not the splendorous fantasia of science fiction promised by its promo posters. To judge by the plot, the writers were likely simpletons or children themselves. The Martian makeup is laughable, the alien technology props are ridiculous, and the child actors -- with the uncharacteristic exception of Pia Zadora (who was 6 when the film was made) -- are wooden in the extreme. It is, in short, a grimy little piece of kiddie film.

Wasn't Anna Kournikova a cute kid?
All of these things make SCCtM a favorite whipping boy of film critics, who roast its puny carcass over the flames of their displeasure. It has been lambasted as the "worst Christmas movie ever." It took a turn on Mystery Science Theater 3000. One Internet wag even suggests that "showing the film to its target audience may constitute child abuse." And yet, we can't help but feel that SCCtM receives all of this punishment because it is an easy, easy target. With its attention-grabbing title and the hook of Pia Zadora's presence, it's just a little too tempting. And like the mangy one-eyed village dog, it's an acceptable victim for disparagement because everyone else has already gotten in their kicks.

Don't get us wrong -- in many ways, this movie has earned its position as a reviled piece of children's entertainment. But we can't help but wonder if, among all the toy-inspired cartoons and other dreck foisted on kids by slavering marketers in the name of holiday joy, there isn't some other film more deserving of the title "Worst Christmas Movie Ever." Say what you will about this trippy example of warped 1960s filmmaking, at least it seems to have its heart in the right place.

And yet, this isn't the strangest
bedroom scene Pia Zadora ever did.
But come, let us do our own brand of harm unto this lowliest of Yuletide creatures. Hopefully we won't rip off too many half-forgotten jokes from MST3K while we're at it.

The good folks at KID TV have a special surprise in store for their viewers. For the first time ever, a television crew has been allowed inside Santa's workshop at the North Pole! Don't get too excited, though -- it's just like every other interpretation of Santa's place you've ever seen: elves hard at work on the kind of toys kids don't play with anymore, Mrs. Claus fretting over Santa's production schedule, the jolly old St. Nick himself (John Call) puffing on a pipe in the corner.

Meanwhile on Mars, Martian children worry their parents by sitting around all day and watching Earth Christmas shows on TV. Kimar (the KIng of the MARtians, as played by Leonard Hicks) sees his two children, the BOy MARtian Bomar (Chris Month) and the GIRl MARtian Girmar (Zadora) falling victim to the hideous scourge of Nickelodeon, and he decides to do something about it. The planet's oldest citizen, Chochem (Carl Don), expresses the concern that Martian children no longer know how to have fun. Hooked into "electric teaching machines" while still in the cradle, Martians are full-fledged adults -- intellectually, at least -- by the time they can walk. Without a period of childhood to develop emotionally, the poor kids of Mars hit a mid-life crisis at the age of ten. Lacking the funds to buy Porsches, expensive stereo equipment, or designer drugs, they instead sit in front of the T.V. all day, refusing to eat or sleep.

"Bzzt -- so this is what humans
call 'love' -- bzzzt."
Chochem's solution? "We need a Santa Claus on Mars!" Surely Santa can teach these dumb schmucks how to laugh and play, and maybe a little something about the meaning of Christmas, too. Taking with him the other members of "the Council," Kimar flies to Earth, where he and his crew discover that finding a guy in a red suit in December is pretty easy. Just to make sure, though, they drop in on a couple of Earth kids, Billy (Victor Stiles) and Betty (Donna Conforti), who quickly rat out Santa Claus. At the urging of sneering underling Voldar (Vincent Beck), Kimar kidnaps Billy and Betty to keep them from informing "the authorities" of the Martians' plans.

You'll forgive us if we spend a few minutes at this point coughing and spluttering. The authorities? Does anyone else find it hard to believe that aliens who can travel the distance between Mars and Earth in a few hours and freeze people in time with a wave of their Wham-O Air Blasters would give two hoots about the Earth "authorities?"

What is Dropo dropping now?
Santa is quickly taken captive, despite Kimar's insistence on using their ultimate weapon, the robot Torg. "Torg?" jeers Voldar. "To capture a roly-poly man like Santa Claus? We don't need Torg!" Sure enough, Torg (whose front dials appear to be affixed with paint) proves useless once in Santa's shop -- it seems Santa holds sway over all mechanical things in his own domain. Nevertheless, the Martians prove their technological superiority by freezing Mrs. Claus in time. Santa, knowing a good time to get out of the house when he sees one, accompanies the Martians back to their ship.

On the way back to Mars, Santa and the kids are kept company by the amazing Dropo (veteran commercial actor Bill McCutcheon), who, if his name conforms to established Martian conventions, dropped out of high school to become a professional idiot. (We're still working on what Voldar's deal is.) Dropo brings food into the captives, but because this is the advanced civilization of Mars, the food is in the form of... wait for the hilarity... wait for it... FOOD PILLS! Ha ha ha ha ha!

"I'd like Earth T.V. better without
those three silhouettes in the corner."
This particular joke seems to show up in every 1960s science fiction film with comic leanings. It always goes the same way: The food dispenser describes the wonderful food that the food receiver is about the get. Usually the food will include "a juicy steak." The receiver is glad to hear this, and then the dispenser pulls out a... food pill! Ha ha ha ha ha!

Please be patient as we wipe the mirthful tears from our eyes. We have trouble controlling ourselves when we think about the humorous possibilities of food pills. Obviously, this particular type of humor struck a chord at the time. Perhaps it was the confluence of the space program (with the tacit promise of space-age food) and the growing popularity of T.V. dinners. Perhaps it was the fear that technology would go too far and suck the joy out of even the simple pleasures like eating. In any case, the food pill joke appears again and again. Dropo waxes poetic about the pleasures of chocolate ice cream pills. Santa makes dumb jokes as he wonders aloud what Martians take for a headache. The viewers reach for the remote control.

Santa Claus -- now with Intel inside.
Of course, Santa is only too happy to help out the poor kids of Mars. To keep the conflict brewing, our taciturn pal Voldar steps in with his hatred of everything Santa-related. First up, Voldar takes Santa and the kids on a tour of the ship, "accidentally" leaving them in the airlock and "accidentally" flipping the switch that will cycle the air out and expose the airlock's inhabitants to empty space.

Billy (suddenly realizing their predicament and that his short, short life is about to end before it really began): Santa! He locked us in!

Santa: Oh, no, I can't believe that. He probably just stepped out for a moment.

Billy (grabbing Santa by the trim of his suit): Listen up, you bloated old windbag! We're about to get blown into space because you gave the Martian Snidely Whiplash the benefit of the doubt! Now unless you've got some magic reindeer up your ass, we're all going to die very ugly deaths!

Okay, you caught us again. We made that last bit up. But man, that sure is what we felt like saying when Santa was wasting the last precious seconds of his existence.

"We wasn't playin' doctor, Ma,
honest! ...Oh, thank God -- it's
only some Martian invaders."
When Kimar discovers what Voldar has done, he engages Voldar in the lamest fistfight ever committed to film. For all we know, the cast of SCCtM watched the fight choreography of old silent Westerns and then decided they weren't exaggerated enough. Their pantomimed brawl is interrupted by the arrival of Santa, Billy, and Betty. What the -- who the -- how did they -- whaaaa? They shimmied up the air vent, of course!

Once on Mars, Santa and his Earth children pals quickly bring joy to the Martian kids, first by simply shaking like bowls full of jelly, and then by setting up a highly advanced Martian toy factory. (Since Mars has a critical elf shortage, automation was the way to go.) Voldar, who escapes the custody of Kimar (someday they'll learn not to assign Dropo to guard duty), soon puts his own plans into motion, sabotaging the toy factory and kidnapping Santa -- or is that Dropo in a Santa suit?

"Take us to your all-you-can-eat
shrimp buffet for $6.99."
You don't need our help in figuring out that everything turns out all right in the end, especially when a jolly guy like Santa Claus is around. Voldar's schemes are thwarted, Santa and the kids are eventually allowed to return to Earth, Dropo assumes the mantle of Martian Santa, and an ancient civilization is corrupted by the commercial bastardization of a Judeo-Christian myth. Yup, sounds like a Merry Christmas for all.

Were Santa Claus Conquers the Martians to be made today (and don't think there hasn't been a remake in pre-production hell since 1998), a flurry of merchandising would surely follow. We can just see it now: the Bomar and Kimar talking dolls. (Just the thought of a Pia Zadora action figure sends Chris' heart into palpitations.) The remote-control Torg. And maybe, just maybe -- the return of the Wham-O Air Blaster. Hmmm. Maybe this "movie merchandising" thing ain't so bad after all.

Review date: 01/09/2002

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