Seriously, I was joking. When finishing my last award-seeking blog post for Day 3, I had no real intentions to talk about Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Honestly and truly, it was never my thought! I just wanted to end on a semi-lame, partially weak joke. You know, like I do with most of my postings, if not all of them. That would be the end of it and “Ha-ha, let’s move on now to more serious holiday fare, like Gremlins.”
But I recalled a moment from Christmas Past when fate had intervened with this movie, which I shall get to later. As I recalled that moment from the hazy holiday halls of memory, I would be quite aways past remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to share some thoughts about this movie. (By the way, this film will be hereafter abbreviated as SCCTM, because yes, I am too lazy to even bother with cutting and pasting.)
I first saw SCCTM during the third season of the bestest television show ever produced, Mystery Science Theater 3000. Having a Christmas-themed episode for a TV series is a tradition, with some true classics emerging over the years. The Christmas episodes from The Bob Newhart Show stand out as memorable. There’s a great SCTV Christmas episode that is regular holiday viewing in my house every year. At last count, M*A*S*H had an estimated eight Christmas episodes, which is remarkable because the Korean War lasted only three years. (I’ve postulated that one could earn a useless doctorate trying to compile a timeline that takes the events in M*A*S*H and corresponds them with actual historical dates and events from the war.)
So naturally, when I found out that MST3K would have a Christmas episode, I was excited to say the least. This meant that my favorite puppet show would now be following the tropes and conventions that come along with being an actual real-life show!
Of course, back then, I thought that every single movie MST3K did was the worst of the worst movies ever made. They weren’t. Not by a country mile. Television and taste standards prohibited them from taking the piss out of the worst films ever made. Don’t get me wrong, the movies they did weren’t terrific, but they weren’t the lowest form of filmed entertainment ever produced either. Yes, Twilight film series, I’m looking right at you.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 did provide me with a film school of sorts though. They exposed my young mind to a variety of genres and filmmakers that otherwise might have eluded me. I’m certain I never would have watched SCCTM without MST3K introducing it into my life. At that time, I thought this was the worst Christmas movie ever made. (This is before I was ever introduced to evil The Santa Clause franchise.) SCCTM must be bad, right? After all, both post-MST3K projects Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic later took SCCTM to the woodshed all over again. With all this re-riffing going on, there could be only one result: I now own more versions of SCCTM than any human ever should. So, this movie absolutely deserves the treatment, right?
Let me just preface this by saying that SCCTM certainly isn’t Miracle on 34th Street or A Christmas Story. It isn’t any version of A Christmas Carol or Die Hard either. I do find it more watchable than It’s A Wonderful Life, but I just wanted to get in yet another dig as to how I just don’t care for that overestimated production. The bottom line is that someone decided to make a movie called Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. What expectations could one possibly have going in to see a film with a title like that? I would think that a theatregoer would be quite happy that the film did in fact deliver on the promised titled premise. Unless you ended up being angry because Santa conquers the Martians with loving and giving instead of hard-core military operations and/or disemboweling laser weapons. Oh, spoiler alert by the way.
As far a movie Santas go, John Call is no Edmund Gwenn, but who is? Call is perfectly serviceable and never plays it as being anyone else but the actual Santa. Given the material, the rest of the cast performs relatively well too and seems to be game for the proceedings. The child actors aren’t much to dwell on, but they remembered where to stand, they remembered their lines, and they remembered to even act a little. Besides, playing one of those kids is Pia Zadora! Seeing as how her best role would be 30 years later, playing herself falling into an orchestra pit in Naked Gun 33 1/3, I think she acquits herself well playing an emotionless Martian child.
What else is there in no particular order whatsoever? The effects aren’t great, but at least they attempted to try to make a Martian environment different than Earth in a very World’s Fair ’64 kind of way. The Martian weapons are clearly toy air blasters, the costumes are extraordinarily cheap, and the Martian head antennas clearly came from thousands of broken Zenith TVs that were then left to rot in landfills. Using green face paint instead of prosthetics was a wise budgetary choice, but it certainly gives you the impression that Martians are a sweaty, rather greasy race of people. The soundtrack is serviceable, and I can attest that you won’t be able to get the “Hooray for Santy Claus” song out of your head any time soon. The cinematography gives the appearance that the film was run through the washing machine on a hot cycle.
So, the movie has some mediocre points and some outright awful ones. That should mean this flick is an unwatchable mess, devoid of any entertainment value, right? Well, not exactly…
One Christmas several years ago now, my daughter was about 6½ years old. We were both putting together a Lego treehouse that she had received as an early Christmas gift. She would only want help from me when she couldn’t find a certain piece right away. Once I found it, the piece would be snagged from my palm immediately, which was her kindly way of telling me to get out of her way. As she was content with her Lego construction, I put SCCTM on for some background noise. I have an un-riffed version on DVD that was given to me as a joke. I then went back to the kitchen table to help her look for even more little Lego pieces.
And you know what happened when I started the movie? I ended up putting together almost the entire Lego set by myself. And why? My daughter barely looked away from the screen, totally engrossed in the proceedings unfolding before her. She saw Santa getting kidnapped by these weird-looking Martian guys! Would Santa get out of this mess? When it seemed like Santa and the kids were going to be sucked out of the airlock and into cold unforgiving space, she was concerned. She thought the toy-ridden finale was a hoot. And when I asked her afterwards if she liked it, she replied, “Yes! I liked the toy making machine the best! Hey, that’s a nice Lego treehouse, Dad. You can go now so I can play.”
It then dawned on me. When I first saw SCCTM, I was into MST3K for about 2 years by then, so I thought that any movie they riffed was complete garbage. However, in retrospect, while the films they jumped on weren’t cinematic masterpieces like Citizen Kane or Big Trouble in Little China, they weren’t complete failures either. The movie’s intended age demographic matters too. I wasn’t really a little kid when that episode aired. SCCTM wasn’t made for my age group; it was made for little kids. My daughter was right in the zone and just couldn’t get enough.
As far as children’s fare goes, watching Santa and Martians and spaceships is quite exciting. The story isn’t too complex, but it isn’t watery pablum either. The acting isn’t going to garner incredible awards and the movie won’t rocket up any critic’s top ten or even top 250 list. But the film wasn’t meant for that, it was meant to entertain children and that it does in spades. This more than 50-year-old movie managed to entertain my daughter, which was no small feat. She was in for the duration and loved every minute of it.
Is SCCTM a bad movie? Well, what is a bad movie after all? Here is my basic litmus test to determine what makes a movie good or bad: Do I find the movie boring or not? I think that should be a baseline for everyone based upon their individual tastes and interests. Now, I must add another criterion: Is this movie meant for me? And more specifically: Is this movie meant for my age bracket? If the movie is directed toward the “I still wear training underpants!” crowd, then odds are it isn’t for me. Not to say there aren’t exceptions to whatever rules I make up as I go along, but it is a good measuring stick for me and my own training underpants.
Knowing that SCCTM was geared for kids helped in my rethinking of it. Some producer saw a chance to get into the holiday market with an admittedly unique take on the holiday movie. To that end, they knew their audience and flourished on that level. Of course, the critics at the time lambasted it, but as they weren’t 7 years old, they weren’t the target audience either.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians has become a success despite itself. The producers I’m sure had no idea that their film would last for as long as it has. All I know is that their little opus brought a twinkle of Christmas joy to a child in my house, so they most certainly succeeded in at least making a memorable movie that still entertained a child. Not many films can say that more than 50 years later.
And I got to play with Lego! For the Christmas win! God bless us, everyone!