Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. And why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when does giving in to peer pressure put you on the naughty list?
With little rhyme or reason, check in from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.
Short of a plate of chocolate chip cookies, the notion of Santa Claus “conquering” anything stretches the imagination, so duking it out with denizens of Mars sounds plain absurd. Nicholas Webster’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is as much a woefully misguided mashup of family holiday fun and science fiction as its title implies, and to return to the image of Kris Kringle blowing away green spacemen, its haphazard conceit likely accounts for much of its cult status. Because really, why martians?
Perhaps a better question is why Santa? The children of Mars have become enamored with Old Saint Nick after absorbing hours of television — yes, American television. On Mars — and its in-depth coverage of goings on at the North Pole. Consulting his village’s 800-some odd year prophet, concerned father and village leader Kimar (“King Martian”) endeavors to capture Santa and return him to Mars where the Martian council can presumably set him up with some sweet kickstarter money to get to cracking on toys for Martian children.
The shortsightedness of Kimar’s Martian brigade is arguably where the “lesson” here would lie were it not for the film inadvertently preserving much of the previous decade’s insularity. An “us vs. them” mentality is a vestigial tail borne out of Cold War politics, whether it’s “us” as in Earth against the brute force of Voldar’s mustachioed emerald adonis or the “U.S.” opposed to those Soviet cats out east, an inconsequentially small region of Earth whose sole existence is to fact check to whom those strange UFOs belong — if you believe everything you see on TV, that is.
The American media certainly seems to buy their own product, as a news reporter pre-empts our introduction to Santa with a ludicrous check-in at his workshop. John Call’s rendition of Claus resembles a schlubby Bert Lahr type, an aloof man-pixie who ambles about scenes with a lackadaisical whimsy — and possibly a heavy buzz going. Were he not the closest cut to a protagonist, such lightness might work. As it stands, Santa makes for a piss poor anchor. In one moment, he enters a room and, apropos of nothing, immediately induces a laughing jag in the children, earthling and martian alike. What shred of stakes remain in such a feeble plot line are singed by Santa’s arbitrary presence, hooting and hollering without a care or clue in the galaxy. It’s as if Jack Nicholson’s Joker wandered into the wrong makeup trailer (and decade) and proceeded with his same shtick anyway. “Oh me, oh my, oh me!” smashes mirror on table “Ho ho, we meet again, eh?” murder by hand buzzer.
From its opening jaunt of a children’s choir sing-yelling “Hooray for Santy Claus!” the production quality is an immediate red flare that explains why the crew of MST3K would have any interest in recording a scathing commentary. Costumes appear to be the spray-painted contents of a PA’s toolshed, its fist fights are feigned beyond belief, and a certain polar bear “suit” imbues Star Trek’s Gorn with the special effects sophistication of Gollum by comparison. But alas, a list of Santa Conquers the Martian’s failings would far exceed beating a dead reindeer. What’s any of this got to do with Christmas?
Propelled by “golden age” TV mechanisms in its dissolves and punchy sitcom-styled stingers on the end of sequences, Nicholas Webster pulls from early serial storytelling techniques to fashion an inept chunk of holiday pop culture that unknowingly anticipates the deluge of televised Christmas specials to follow. That the traitorous Voldar’s plot is ultimately foiled by a children’s barrage of manufactured toys is oddly indulgent of the glimpses of B-roll military-industrial footage we glimpse of rockets blasting into space. And of course, Santa’s stump speech on the follies of industrialization fly in the face of the idea that a toy train set, whether handcrafted or machine-generated, hurts all the same when chucked at your head.
Perhaps the children of Mars’ baffling awareness to secular commercialism speaks volumes about the ubiquity of the Christmas profit engine. Oh, who am I kidding, right?