Mystery Science Theater 3000 introduced a lot of us Gen Xers to some pretty terrible films. It could be argued that movies like The Killer Shrews, Robot Monster, and Manos: The Hand of Fate would have fallen into obscurity forever were it not for the skewering they received from the silhouettes of two smart-ass robots and a janitor. But perhaps one of the most infamous B-movies the MST3K-ers ever dug up was 1964’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year here on Earth, but on Mars, it’s “Septober”, when all the little Martian boys and girls sit in their rooms watching Earth shows on their vid screens. They stare blank-faced while their earthly counterparts gaily frolic and sing about Christmas and a mysterious man named Santa Claus. Their green-skinned, antenna-sporting parents are concerned that the kids might be unhappy due to their oppressive educational system draining them of all excitement and creativity. Naturally, the only way to save Mars’ children from a life of blandness is to bring Santa to the red planet so that he might sprinkle peace on Mars and good will towards Martians. However, when the Martian kidnappers arrive on Earth, they’re discovered by two precocious human children, whom the little green men decide must be kidnapped as well out of fear that the kids will tell the authorities of their nefarious plan. With the help of the robot Torg, the Martians are able to capture St. Nick and bring him back to Mars. Will Santa and the kids somehow escape the green clutches of the Martian king and return to the North Pole?
As you might have heard, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is pretty terrible. The film’s $200,000 budget (~$1.4 million in today’s money) amounts to a lot of spotty green make-up, some blinking lights, plywood sets, and a polar bear that is so obviously just a person in a bad costume that they never show it from the waist down. The acting is atrocious, especially from the younger actors, both human and Martian. Everything from the shoddy Martian costumes to the barely-standing sets to the horrible 1960’s sci-fi cheese dialog is so generic and unimaginative that it’s pretty clear no one put a whole lot of effort into the production. Even with the ludicrous plot of Santa Claus going to Mars, it’s so lazily executed that it’s little more than filmmakers going through the motions. There’s really not much you can honestly say that’s all that positive; it’s just a really bad movie.
Although it was a deservedly forgotten film, the outright ire for the film really began in 1984 when the book, The 50 Worst Movies of All Time, written by Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss, included SCCtM on the list. However, it’s the 1991 MST3K episode that put it on the current pop culture landscape. Since then, the film has become a popular target for sniping, but it has also gained a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek appreciation. For example, there was briefly talk of a remake starring Jim Carrey (a tonal followup to Earth Girls are Easy?), there have been a handful of satirical theatrical productions, a spoofy novelization released in 2005, and it was just named the Worst Christmas Movie Ever by Fandango. However, SCCtM has also been making a limited engagement run in theaters this year with a newly-restored print. It’s obviously become a film that people love to hate, yet hate to love.
The thing that confuses me, though, is why this film has become such a whipping boy. It’s a shitty Christmas movie made for kids. Throw a lump of coal and you’ll hit a shitty Christmas movie made for kids. It’s pretty obvious that writer/producer Paul Jacobson saw an opportunity to make a film that worked like a cinematic Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, combining the Baby Boomer generation’s fascination with the space race and the mythical guy in the red suit that helped justify America’s post-World War II materialism. Add those elements together, do it as cheaply as possible, and you’re bound to make a buck at the box office.
To put it in today’s context, you could make a movie about a 9-year old kid that has lost his Christmas spirit because his parents, whose jobs were recently exported overseas, can’t afford to buy him an iPad like everyone else in his class. However, his life changes when a no-name tablet computer magically shows up on his doorstep, pre-loaded with only one app – a flying reindeer simulation game. When the kid beats the game by delivering every present in the allotted time, he and his family are whisked away to the North Pole by a real flying sleigh, where Santa puts his dad in charge of toy production, his mom becomes head of Elf Resources, and the kid is taken under St. Nick’s wing to be trained as Santa’s one-day replacement. But — Oh, no! — Santa gets sick just before Christmas, and our young apprentice, along with his flatulent elf friend, has to fill-in to deliver all the presents. It’s The Last Starfighter meets Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets The Santa Clause.
There. There’s your shitty, contemporary Christmas movie that will make back its measly $1.4 million budget. It’s not going to change your life, it’s not going to renew your faith in humanity, and it’s not going to make you believe in Santa Claus. But it will sell on DVD and air on ABC Family, because it touches on things kids can relate to, uses buzz words that are on their radar, and it will get them to shut up for 93 minutes. I’ll bet it took the brains behind Santa Claus Conquers the Martians about as long to come up with their exploitive cash-grab film, and I’m sure they had the same lofty aspirations in mind.
It’s easy to laugh at how bad Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is – and don’t get me wrong, it is terrible. But it’s still on par with any of the equally bad, equally lazy Christmas movies out there that are also only in it to make a quick buck off America’s blind nostalgia for all things red and green. The story of a character that has to fill in for Santa, or two warring goofballs that come together in the spirit of the holidays, has been done so often it’s become a joke. Yet it seems every year Hollywood keeps cranking them out, and every year, people keep going to the theater to see them, buying them, renting them, or watching them on TV, leaving the producers to say, “Ho, Ho, Ho!” all the way to the bank.
So, this Christmas, gather your friends, family, and some eggnog around ye’ olde Netflix Instant Streaming and go ahead and hate on Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Just don’t forget to spread some Christmas jeers on other movies that only exist to cash-in on peace on earth and goodwill towards men, too. There’s enough “Bah, Humbug!” to go around.
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Written by Rob Lammle (@spacemonkeyx)
Rob became a geek at a very young age. Growing up on a farm, with the nearest kid his age living five miles away, Rob had a lot of time to watch movies, read comic books, and play with his Star Wars action figures. He now finds time to write for a few… More »
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