B Movie or Kids’ Film?
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is Both
This is tough to admit, but sometimes horror and sci-fi B-movies don’t have a particularly scary monster. Sometimes, they are just … bizarre.
That’s true in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Until I saw this infamous 1964 B-movie, I equated Martians with that creepy three-fingered hand with suction-cup tips on aliens in George Pal’s The War of the Worlds.
But in SCCM, the Martians wear green tights, matching capes and a football helmet with weird metal protrusions that give the appearance of a Halloween costume gone wrong. I can deal with that.
SCCM is the seasonal equivalent of Plan 9 From Outer Space. Both were made with little money (and look it), both were panned on their release, yet both have persevered to gain “legendary” status as cult classics.
It almost didn’t happen, though, until SCCM was pulled from obscurity with an appearance on The Canned Film Festival, a 1986 late-night TV series, and the Mystery Science Theatre 3,000 Christmas special in 1991. In 2011, it “won” a Fandango poll when it topped the list of the 10 worst Christmas movies.
Since then, the movie is frequently shown around the country and has had multiple stage versions, including a recent one in Denver. And why not? In a time when holiday fare has the same “boy/girl meet in a small town and discover the meaning of Christmas,” a strange sci-fi seasonal film just might provide some holiday cheer – unusual as it may be. Let’s start with the story.
Martian parents are worried. Their kids are depressed. They’ve lost their appetites, don’t rest without sleep spray, and blankly stare for hours at the “video set.” (Ah, too much screen time is not just a problem on Earth.)
Even King Kimar (Leonard Hicks), the Martian leader, is having trouble with his son (Bomar) and daughter (Girmar) who binge-watch “ridiculous Earth programs” broadcast from KID-TV where it’s Santa Claus all the time. (Note the cleverness of “mar” for Martians in their names: Kimar for King Martian, Bomar for Boy Martin and Girmar for Girl Martian.)
The king and his council seek advice from the 800-year-old wise one who identifies the problem immediately: the Martian kids were never kids! They never played, laughed or had fun. So while Earth children are joyfully anticipating Santa’s arrival, the kids on Mars are pouting and asking questions like “What’s a doll” and “What’s tender loving care?”
So what’s a Martian King to do? Kidnap Santa Claus to bring holiday cheer to Mars, of course.
But not everyone is into the idea – namely council member Voldar (he has a handlebar mustache, so we know he’s evil).
“All this trouble over a fat little man in a red suit,” Voldar grumbles.
Wait until he sees all the fat little men in red suits on Earth. Who is the real Santa? Well, little Earthlings, Billy and Betty can help with that, especially if it involves a trip to the North Pole.
But these kids quickly realize Voldar has it in for them. And once the Martians find Santa (who charms their most evil weapon, Torg, a tin foil robot, they’re all on a road trip to Mars for equal doses of peril, laughs and weirdness.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians sprung from the imagination of producer and writer Paul Jacobson who wanted to create family entertainment. He later called it “a yuletide science-fiction fantasy.” I don’t know how the film played on its original release since it’s such a mish-mash of oddities. Most of the Martians are kind, but there are children in peril scenes, which are always uncomfortable at best – even if it involves an attacking polar bear who is clearly just a guy in a furry suit.
Our villain Voldar is a bit goofy despite trying to kill Santa and the kids (there’s that peril again). When he leads a group to sabotage Santa’s factory and stop the “toy nonsense,” it plays out like a comedy bit with The Three Stooges.
But I do love the excitable script that is packed with statements that demand an exclamation point: “Something is happening to the children of Mars!” …. “We need Santa Claus on Mars!”… “Now you belong to Mars!”
How does Santa Claus conquer the Martians? Let’s just say the big finale isn’t as much a battle for survival as it is a kids’ fight with bubbles. Terrifying? No. High drama? Not even close. But is it a Yuletide science-fiction fantasy B-movie? Absolutely.
- This was the first film to feature Mrs. Claus.
- The Martian King’s daughter, Girmar, was played by 8-year-old Pia Zadora – best remembered as the Golden Globe winner for the incest film Butterfly.
- The wonderful actor playing Santa Claus is John Call, who was appearing on Broadway in Oliver!
- It’s widely reported that SCCM used the same military stock footage seen in the opening of Dr. Strangelove.
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One last note. If you’ve seen Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, you’ll notice it bears more than a striking resemblance to SCCM (although Nightmare is far superior in all ways). Both have a leader (King Kimar on Mars, Jack Skellington in Halloweentown) who wants to do good by his people. Each kidnaps Santa Claus (pronounced Santy Claus on Mars, Sandy Claws in Halloween Town) to bring Christmas home with disastrous results. Each film has a ridiculously catchy theme song, too. I can’t help but think that Burton has seen SCCM and it influenced his creativity in some way.
Where to watch SCCM
It’s available for sale; to rent on such services such as Google Play and iTunes; and to stream on Amazon Prime.
–Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.