Naming a film among the best and worst of all time can be very subjective. For every Citizen Kane and Seven Samurai, there was Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space and the World War II epic Inchon! with Laurence Olivier as Douglas MacArthur. In 1964, the year of Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady and The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, an infamous holiday-themed science-fiction epic would take its place on the list of films people wished they had never seen, perhaps let alone make. Yet for bad film fans, it is simply another jewel to devour in awe.
The title alone says it all: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
The film’s plot does not leave much room for discussion or afterthought, since it is rather simple: a group of Martians go to the North Pole to kidnap Santa Claus in order to make their planet’s children happy. They kidnap two children from Earth in order to find the real Santa, and one of the Martians is against the idea of bringing joy to the Martian children, for it will make them and the other people of Mars weak.
In order to recognize Santa Claus Conquers the Martians as one of the worst films ever, one must see the film to truly gain how terrible and ridiculous it truly is. One knows the film is in trouble when they have a peppy opening theme song proclaiming “Hooray for Santa Claus!” And this is how a cheap, low- budget 1960s science-fiction epic opens. Then it goes to the Martians, their faces and hands all oiled up in black paint. The colorful sets are so tacky and garish, one wishes the movie was in black-and-white to make things better – if not by much. The actors’ performances are all over the map – at times wooden, stiff, an obvious use of too much emphasis at certain points, and overall completely ridiculous. Even the actor playing an 800-year-old Martian wise man seems to be on the verge of tears every time he speaks – which makes it all extremely laughable. One notable performer in this movie is a young Pia Zadora, who starred as Girmar, one of the children in need of some cheering up from Santa, after watching him on “Earth television.” She would have a brief measure of notoriety in the 1980s by starring in the major flops Butterfly and The Lonely Lady.
Even for its simple plot, the movie goes places where one may feel like they are watching another movie. There are scenes in which the U.S. military are called into action to take out the ship. Their involvement may seem plausible in other 1960s sci-fi fare, but their time in the film just seemed strangely out of place. One has to wonder if the military approved the use of their planes in this film; two other 1964 classics, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and the dramatic Fail Safe, were blocked from gaining such allowances. Another major aspect is how at certain moments, some characters realize what have happened to other characters without giving much time to think it all out. They just realize what has happened and move on to make things right, leaving out any potential for suspense or second-guessing.
Then there are the special effects for the Martian spaceship, with cheap modeling on wires and flames roaring out – they clearly look like models without much effort to gloss over the obvious fakery. To go along with the bad effects, director Nicholas Webster and his creative team did not even bother to make the lettering on the spaceship garbled to show this is a Martian spaceship – the objects and directions are clearly marked in English, with no real attempt to create anything that could look Martian. They also use a bear on the North Pole that easily looks like a man in a fur suit, and during a critical moment in which one of the good Martians disguises himself as Santa, the villain kidnaps him believing he is the real Santa – even though the Martian’s antenna is clearly sticking out. Since the film is only 81 minutes long, the filmmakers must not have had any interest in such subtleties; there was a story to follow through on, whatever little story there is.
What makes the film all the more astounding is the independent pedigree behind the scenes. Santa Claus was produced by Joseph E. Levine, the head of Embassy Pictures, which was on the road to becominga significant film company. By the end of the 1960s, Embassy and Levine would achieve two major critical and commercial successes: the 1967 career-defining classic The Graduate (with Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, directed by Mike Nichols) and the 1968 drama The Lion in Winter, which landed Katharine Hepburn her third Best Actress Oscar.
Yet Santa Claus Conquers the Martians has no such winning caliber attached to it, unless one is a cult film fan and finds the ridiculousness and implausible mayhem worth devouring. It is a cult classic after all, one not meant to be taken seriously or to leave a film-watcher guilty from overthinking the story. It is so easy to understand why it earned its place as one of the great Hollywood bombs – over-the-top style, all-over-the-map acting, cheesy effects, and absolute implausibility in the story’s plot. It certainly provides a good antidote for film fans who want to break away from the serious Oscar-caliber fare, and get a good laugh or two out of it. If there is any reason to watch Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, it may be for that alone. It is so good in its uproariously bad state.