ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jim Rex knows plenty about movies and is more than happy to share that knowledge with the world at large.
I don’t like how sometimes history has a way of slandering the memory of some films, especially ones I fell in love with as a pup. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is such a flick.
No, I ain’t gonna try to convince you it’s some kind of misunderstood masterpiece. It most definitely is not. It’s a simple time-waster aimed at the kiddie matinee crowd but in that regard, it may be one of the best.
This flick hit screens in 1964. No point playing to the nostalgia of 1964. We’re friends, we can be honest. Between race riots and the Boston Strangler, 1964 was as screwed up as any other period in history. But it was a simpler time when a movie like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians could entertain its undemanding target audience to maximum effect.
You know the story. Martians kidnap Santa to bring joy and presents to their zoned-out Martian brood who just sit around staring at Earth transmissions on TV showing how happy the Earth kiddos are because Santa brings them joy and presents. Never one to turn his back on freaky kids who need joy and presents, Santa tries to help the little weirdos out and still gets back to Earth to make his Christmas rounds.
As simple a story that has ever entertained a kid, earthling, Martian or otherwise.
In 1964 there wasn’t much in the way of holiday movies aimed at kids, certainly nothing like today. In those days Christmas was mostly celebrated on the holiday episode of popular TV shows. (And, by god, you wanted to celebrate Christmas with the Cartwrights you made dang sure you were in front of the TV promptly at nine o’clock Sunday night for Bonanza or you missed it!) 1960 was when K. Gordon Murray slipped Rene Cardona’s Mexican Santa Claus into Saturday matinees, so there wasn’t a plethora of kiddie Christmas movies Santa Claus Conquers the Martians had to be better than.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is infused with the same type of fantastical whimsy that influenced a lot of popular culture of the time such as the films Robinson Crusoe on Mars and Mary Poppins, and books like Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Some people like to joke on poor idiot Martian Dropo, but he’s no stupider than Gilligan from Gilligan’s Island or Gomer Pyle from Gomer Pyle, USMC, which were two new hit TV shows of 1964. (The character was on par with the type of dummies Jerry Lewis was playing in The Disorderly Orderly and The Patsy in ‘64.)
This flick is pure kiddie fantasy, from a North Pole news report by an intrepid KID TV news reporter to the jolliest of jolly old St. Nicks. (Fats never stops laughing!) It’s a comic book come to life, which is appropriate since Dell Comics released a comic version. (It cost all of twelve cents when it came out, but it’ll set you back a little more today if you luck upon a copy.)
This heady mix of cheap sets, silly humor, goofy elves, laughing Santa, green Martians, psycho robots and a flea bitten attacking Polar Bear suit delivers everything its title promises.
Joseph E. Levine released it to crowds of spastic kids dropped off at the local bijou for disgruntled theater managers to babysit for the afternoon. It played these engagements for a couple years. After that Avco Embassy Television made it available for broadcast where it lived on until finally being released on little black plastic video cassettes in the early ‘80s.
Then something happened. Something horrible happened and the flick’s legacy would eventually be forever tainted.
David and Michael Medved and their partner in crime Randy Dreyfuss were sitting around the house bored one day. The Internet hadn’t been invented yet so they couldn’t criticize movies on a global stage. For 1980 they did the next best thing. They wrote the book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was on the list.
I guess they knew what they were talking about because they had written and produced and directed and done the catering for and successfully distributed that charming and beloved Martian Christmas movie all kids loved called…uh…it’s coming to me…on the tip of my brain…ummm…
Well, it’s way easier to criticize something someone else made than to go out and try to do it better yourownself. Unfortunately, the damage was done. Dropo and the boys from Mars were now in a flick that ultra-cool film snobs were describing as a “trash movie.” Some referred to it as a “guilty pleasure” or “a movie so bad it’s good.” They all had an uppity, “cooler than thou” attitude about it when they discussed about it.
When it started making the rounds on all kinds of hosted “Million Dollar Movie” type shows, everyone was pretty mean to it. This was back when you could still bully someone, and folks thought it was funny. The reputation of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was tarnished until the end of time. (I don’t think most snobs talking about it had ever seen it. They were just repeating what they heard about it from other snobs.)
Anyway, here we are. You probably ain’t changed your feelings none on Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and that’s all right. Four things you can’t change a person’s mind on is their beliefs in politics, religion, college football and movies. But if you considered Santa Claus Conquers the Martians in a different light for a few minutes, I thank you for meeting me halfway.
I’ll end with this. The first time I saw Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was a Thanksgiving Day monster movie marathon in 1974 on KRBC in Abilene. We were at my grandma’s and I was eight and I done ate my weight in turkey and giblets. Me and my little sister settled in for King Kong vs. Godzilla and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians followed. Maybe it was the turkey in my bloodstream, working on my brain, or the fact my daddy never considered me to ever be a very bright kid. Whatever it was, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was like a sweet, wonderful candy that made my eyes tingle. We didn’t move or look away from the TV as we laughed at Dropo and we didn’t even care how cheap that attacking Polar Bear suit looked, we loved every second of it. I maybe even had a crush on Gumar, and that was before I knew the difference between Pia Zadora and Zontar, the Thing from Venus. Grandma brought us a couple slices of warm pumpkin pie with big old globs of Cool Whip on top. We ate and laughed and watched. It was a perfect afternoon.
Now, does that sound like one of the fifty worst films of all time to you?