Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (1964)

Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (1964)‘Thinking of taking another nap in the radar box, Droppo?’

The children of the planet Mars have forgotten how to have fun and spend too much time watching TV broadcasts from Earth. The Martian King decides to kidnap Santa Claus to remedy the problem, but a renegade official disagrees with the plan…

Dreadful Yuletide science fiction comedy, which has gained a significant cult following in recent years, in part due to that amazing title, but mostly because of its staggering banality. Yes, it is a children’s film and yes, it was made on a very low budget, but those facts do little to excuse the finished product.

The story follows Bomar and Girmar (‘Boy Martian’ and ‘Girl Martian’) played by Charles Month and an 8-year old Pia Zadora.  They are binge-watching Earth TV, specifically an interview with Santa (John Call) from the North Pole. They are so invested, in fact, that they no longer sleep or eat properly, which concerns their father ‘King Martian’ Kimar (Leonard Hicks). This is actually a curious foreshadowing of society’s viewing habits today, but it’s the only thing remotely interesting in the vapid, lifeless script. After all, we’ve already sat through Zadora dragging her nails down the chalkboard with opening song ‘Hoo-ray For Sant-y Claus’…

Enlisting the help of Earth kids Billy and Betty (Victor Stiles and Donna Conforti), our naughty extra-terrestrials snatch Santa and get him back to Mars, successfully sidestepping Tom Cruise, H.G. Wells and NASA public relations staff. Once there, the big guy is tasked with turning out some toys and is given the dim, but well-meaning, Dropo (Bill McCutcheon) as his ‘comedy’ sidekick. All round bad egg Voldar (Vincent Beck) hasn’t got time for all this nonsense, though, and plans to sabotage the operation.

Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (1964)

Robby the Robot’s Ketamine habit had really taken its toll…

But Voldar’s up against it, folks! You see, just being in the presence of Santa makes everyone ridiculously happy! Even cardboard box robot Torg no longer follows orders. And the Martians are soon convulsed with hysterical laughter at the old man’s wit. ‘What’s soft and round and you put it on a stick and toast it in a fire…and it’s green?’ The answer? A Martian-Mallow. You can see why it’s hopeless to oppose him, can’t you?

There are several other ‘delights’ on offer too. A man dressed up as a polar bear. McCutcheon’s hilarious idiot schtick as the ‘lovable’ Dropo. The US Airforce scrambling fighter jets (and a bomber?) to intercept the Martian spacecraft via the reliable old medium of lots of stock footage. A po-faced newsreader providing completely pointless commentary. The first ever appearance of Mrs Claus (Doris Rich) as a character on film. Endless talky scenes that don’t advance the ‘plot’ a centimetre. Oh, yes, and McCutcheon’s a riot as the hapless Dropo…oh, I already mentioned that, didn’t I?

The young Zadora went onto some level of notoriety in the entertainment world, particularly in America. After marrying a millionaire businessman, she got her first big break as a model in a national advertising campaign in the late 1970s. Never mind that her husband held a significant financial interest in the product concerned. From there it was a short step to the magic of Hollywood but headlining her first grown-up film in a cast that included Orson Welles and Stacy Keach was not a move commensurate with her acting experience. Despite (somewhat controversially) winning a Golden Globe as best ‘New Star’ for ‘Butterfly’ (1982), her performance was universally critically panned. She earned two Razzie awards that year, and more such ‘acclaim’ followed for next project ‘The Lonely Lady’ (1983). The award for ‘Worst Actress of the Century’ came her way at  the Razzies in 2000.

Elsewhere, most of the cast were minor Broadway performers and only McCutcheon ever achieved any significant level of screen recognition, appearing as Uncle Wally in episodes of TV’s ‘Sesame Street’ between 1985 to 1998. Director Nicholas Webster made an ill-advised return to the red planet four years later with the excruciating ‘Mission Mars’ (1968), a film so unutterably tedious that it should come with a government health warning attached. However, his career took an upward swing in the 1970s with gigs directing episodes of TV shows like ‘Bonanza’ and ‘The Waltons’, and as occasional writer-producer and director of TV’s ‘In Search of…’ hosted by Leonard Nimoy. He followed up in the same vein with cryptid documentary ‘Manbeast! Myth or Monster?’ (1978).

Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (1964)

‘Can’t you get on with it? The Merseyside derby’s on the box in a minute…’

The nature of what’s on display, together with Zadora’s reputation has led to the film’s growing reputation as a cult classic in recent decades. A remake was even planned in 1998 with Jim Carrey as Dropo, but it never appeared. However, there were various theatrical adaptations in 1993, 2006 and 2011, and a satirical novelisation of the story appeared in 2005.

So, here’s the obvious question; is it ‘so bad, it’s good’? The answer? Not really, no. It’s just too boring. A dull and dreary slog through a quicksand of cheapness and infantile banality. There aren’t even any bizarre quirks to alleviate the sheer monotony.

Is it the worst film ever made about Mars? No, actually, I don’t think so. Director Webster’s own ‘Mission Mars’ (1968) is a whole different level of ghastly. And don’t even get me started on ‘The Wizard of Mars’ (1964)!

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Mission Mars (1968)

Mission_Mars_(1968)‘A large ball-like thing has just materialised about 50 yards in front of us.’

Three astronauts go to Mars on the first manned U.S. rocket. The Russians have already launched a spacecraft, but rumours from behind the Iron Curtain suggest that it’s gone missing. Back home, the astronaut’s women worry and the Mission Commander tries to hold things together.

Mars has been a graveyard for many filmmakers over the years, from the famous to the infamous. From Brian De Palma – Mission to Mars (2000) – and John Carpenter – The Ghosts of Mars (2001) to David L Hewitt – ‘The Wizard of Mars’ (1964) and Larry Buchanan – ‘Mars Needs Women’ (1967). So what chance Nicholas Webster with his micro-budget epic starring Darren McGavin and Nick Adams? Well, none at all, really.

The film opens, fairly inevitably, with that long-standing friend of low budget science fiction: rocket launch stock footage. At least by the late 1960s, V2 missiles had turned into Saturn V rockets and black and white had changed into colour. It all turns out to be a nightmare anyway, as McGavin’s wife (Heather Hewitt) frets about his imminent trip into space, but feels better once the two of them go all ‘From Here To Eternity’ on a nearby beach. But McGavin is off to the stars all too soon; captaining a three man crew comprising impulsive geologist Nick Adams and bland George de Vries. Adams also has a worrying wife/girlfriend back home and the two ladies spend a lot of time talking about their worries with Mission Controller Michael DeBeausset. De Vries doesn’t get a ‘woman who waits’ so we all know what’s going to happen to him!

Ironically, the film actually comes up with some probable realism during the transit between planets. Yes, the cabin is far too big; yes, there’s complete artificial gravity; yes, they are hit with the inevitable meteor shower (that looks like electrical sparks from a welding torch), but what it does get right is the sheer tedium of it. By the time our dreary heroes reach their destination, it truly feels as if the audience has been cooped up with them for months on end. McGavin provides fascinating voiceover facts by reading out of an encyclopaedia (probably)! Adams navigates by looking out of a porthole and using a sextant (no computer for him!) The worrying women back home watch television and worry! The mission controller chews out some colleagues who worry about their sums! The worrying women talk to the Mission Controller! Again! Adams eats a pastrami sandwich! And so on…and on. It’s all so dull and lifeless that brain cells begin to disengage and die slowly.

Mission_Mars_(1968)

Hell’s Astronauts head for their Moon Sickles…

Arrival on Mars is followed by more pulsating action. Adams digs rocks and the others inflate balloons that float into the camera. Adams finds a frozen Russian. There’s a hole into the supply module. Eventually, our heroes encounter a multi-limbed statue thing that flashes bright lights at them. In accordance with reasonable first contact protocols, they blast it! (If science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s has taught us anything it’s that firearms are essential equipment for space exploration).

All of this takes place on a tiny cardboard set that doesn’t resemble the model landscapes. But we do have to cut the filmmakers some slack here. Apparently, the original sets were destroyed by bad weather the day before filming and had to be rebuilt in a hurry in a nearby basement! Similarly, the film is probably best known for the motorcycle helmets that the astronauts wear on Mars. Worse than their obvious origin is the fact that these are ‘open face’ helmets, leaving a wide gap beneath the visor. Again, there were mitigating circumstances. The original custom-made headwear apparently didn’t meet McGavin’s high standards and he smashed his against the set, necessitating some last minute replacements from a local store!

McGavin went on to find lasting cult fame as ’Kolchak: The Night Stalker’ on U.S. TV and many supporting roles in big budget films; usually as a shady authority figure. Adams made only two more films before he was found dead from an overdose at the age of 36. It was probably an accident, but both murder and suicide have been suggested over the years. Although successful in a late 1950s/early 1960s TV show called ‘The Rebel’, Adams was most famous for his friendships with both James Dean and Elvis Presley. He went to Japan to take the American lead in Toho Studio’s ‘Frankenstein Conquers The World’ (1965), but it’s clear his career was not in good shape by the time he made it to the red planet.

This is really a quite dreadful experience; a slow, pitiful crawl through one cliché after another, culminating in a planetary exploration as one dimensional as it is brutally dull. But one question remains. Is it the most boring film about Mars ever made? The obvious answer would be ‘yes’ if not for the existence of David L Hewitt’s ‘The Wizard of Mars’ (1964). I’d have to watch both back-to- back to make a decision but, you know what? You’d have to pay me. A lot.