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Thus far on ICFTBB, we´ve covered the cheap (Screaming Skull), the mangled (A Town Called Bastard) and the cash-in (Master of The World). Now, we come to the world of mashups: take two or more ideas that can get derrieres in seats, and squish them together into a cinematic gumbo. Jesus Christ and Vampires? Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter. Abraham Lincoln and zombies? Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies. Blaxploitation and old school horror? Blacula and Blackenstein.
In 1964, someone called Glenville Mareth (his only known credit being this film) decided to mix Martians, no doubt off the tidal wave of popular alien invasion films of the era, like War of The Worlds, with jolly old Saint Nick. After all: Kids love aliens and Santa. It’s practically mathematical, so what could possibly go wrong?
Well, wrong is maybe too harsh a word, but it’s definitely one of the oddest Christmas films out there. Kimar, a prominent leader on Mars, finds his children are miserable and not eating. His solution? Consult with a Gandalf-like elder, who tells him to bring Santa Claus to Mars to share his special brand of joy and love. So, with a few subjects in tow, Kimar blasts down to Earth, asks for directions from two kids whom he then snags, and then takes Santa back to his home world.
For a film that doesn’t even clock in at an hour and a half, I had to give you a very abridged version of the plot, as there are lots of holes that could make for an entire article unto themselves (including, but not limited to: 1) the Martians know about Earth culture, but don’t know where the North Pole is, and randomly stop in a random part of the American countryside to ask for directions. 2) To combat a space-based threat, the US sends up the regular air force, even though the Martian ship is nowhere near the atmosphere. 3) The Martians consume diet pills based around very specific Earth dishes like Banana splits, chocolate layer cake, and beef stew).
However, what’s really remarkable is, unlike other holiday films, you actually see the bones of a good story here. There are efforts to offer commentary (albeit very hamfisted and brief) on materialism, mechanisation of toy making, the meaning of Christmas and figures like Santa, and even our own pressure on children to grow up fast for the sake of ‘progress’.
Even the production values mirror that, erring on the semi-competent: Santa’s workshop, the model shots of the ship and the arctic tundra look fairly good, and the stock footage used for the military sequences is of a good quality stock, so it doesn’t stick out as much as other low budget productions, like Ed Wood’s films. However, the Martian sets are really boring, amounting to ugly yellow stock flats and some post-modern furniture that looks like it came from a college art project. Even the spaceship feels like a mishmash of generic elements (some conveniently labelled in English to boot) with little creative embellishment.
The actors are rather standard, not quite hammy enough to be funny or wooden enough to be boring, but the lead weights are the two ‘human’ child actors, Victor Stiles and Donna Conforti. Their inflexions have all the emotion of the Martian’s machines, and they often look bored or confused during scenes that are meant to be about fear or joy. John Call is only one of two cast members who seems to fully get into his role as everyone’s favourite yuletide fat man, exhibiting a great warmth and cheek as well worldly patience. The other is future Tony and Emmy winner Bill McCutcheon as bumbling Stooge-Martian Dropo, who imbues a thankless slapstick role with as much energy as possible. He’s lightning compared to the bricks that are the kids.
The only other notable feature is the music by Milto DeLugg. Not his actual score, which is very repetitious and droning, but his somewhat catchy opening song about Santa. It’s a little cheap but undeniable cheery and you’ll be damned if it’s not stuck in your head long after the film is over.
Indeed, I feel that summarises Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. It’s a tacky production that had its heart in the right place. It didn’t have the right people to pull it off effectively, but it shows moments of effort amidst all its weirdness, and that back and forth between some ambition, more than a project like this deserves, and then the regular B-movie clumsiness is very much worth seeing. If you’re tired of Miracle on 34th Street or It’s A Wonderful Life, take a trip to Mars and yell ‘Hooray for Santy Claus!’
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