Monday, February 11, 2008

Hooray for Santy Claus!

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
Auteur/Perpetrator: Nicholas Webster
Star of Shame: Pia Zadora
Monster(s): Guy in polar bear costume, evil Martian with fake mustache

Robert and Kristin Romano contributed to this post.

One of the classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is one of the classic “bad movies” of all time, up (down?) there with Plan 9 From Outer Space, and the complete, unexpurgated (unfortunately) movie was included in the 50 Classic Sci-Fi Movies box. On a trip to Boston last weekend, I took the box set with me to inflict it upon those who had given it to me for Christmas, and, because misery loves company, we hunkered down and endured Santa Claus Conquers the Martians en masse.

I should point out that the movie was not digitally remastered for inclusion in this box set. If anything, it was burned to DVD from a tenth-generation VHS copy.

The movie dives right in with the cloying and truly irritating opening song “Hooray for Santa Claus” which after about 10 seconds will make you want to chew your own head off. The staggering low-budget animation sequence forms the background to the parade of shame (i.e., opening credits). We are promised “Martian furniture,”designed by Fritz Hansen. However, one harbinger is that “costume” is spelled wrong in the opening credits, the first indication that quality control was not present when making this thing.

We then start on a closeup of a TV set—KID TV is on the air! They are about to cut live to the North Pole, but before that, the camera pans slowly over and and are introduced to Bomar and Girmar, two Martian children, the latter played by Pia Zadora in her film debut. They are watching the Rip Taylor-esque reporter Andy Henderson almost certainly dressed inappropriately for 90 below 0 temperatures, although he does seem to have the world’s longest microphone cord. We then go inside Santa’s workshop and meet the big man himself, who has obviously either been drinking copious amounts of spiked eggnog or has something other than tobacco in his pipe, and makes reference to his reindeer “Vixen and Nixon.” Mrs. Claus steps in and is a shrieking harridan who gets far too excited by the prospect of being on television.

Santa then shows some of the new toys that he has been making. Winky the Elf—who bears a striking resemblance to former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop—is in charge of the “space division,” and has made the latest toy rocket which, Santa says, “runs on real rocket fuel.” Huh? Liquid oxygen? I guess Santa’s workshop is exempt from toy safety regulations. Henderson then finds an “action figure” (well, not in this movie) made by Winky, which is the elf’s conception of a Martian—which, as it turns out, is staggeringly accurate. “Wowy wow, I’d hate to meet a creature like that on a dark night.” I bet, especially seeing as it’s basically a guy in a cape. “I wonder if there really are people on Mars,” muses Henderson. “If they do, I hope they have someone like you, Santa.” Flattery will get him everywhere, I guess, but it also does spell out the premise of the movie. Santa then refers to Andy Henderson as “Mr. Anderson,” either, again, due to the fact that Santa is drunk off his jolly old butt, or the filmmakers just didn’t care.

We then go to Mars. Now, a note about Martian physiology. The Martians are basically humanoid, but with shoe polish smeared on their faces, upsettingly tight green leotards, a festive looking green cape, and helmets with a variety of pipes and antennae sticking out of them, made apparently out of random kitchen implements. It’s a rather elaborate headpiece, but serves absolutely no purpose. Despite the fact that the Martians are pretty much just humans in goofy costumes (or custumes, according to the opening credits), all the doors are thin and oval and are completely wheelchair inaccessible.

Kimar, the leader of Mars—a terrifying thought—enters, looking for “Dropo,” the “laziest man on Mars,” and cannot be find him anywhere, despite the fact that he is lying on the floor directly in front of him. He finds him, and activates what appears to be a touchless cattle prod, which jolts Dropo awake with fits of painful-sounding fake laughter. It’s described as a “tickle ray.” Huh? Dropo is to be the comic relief, which means you will want to kill yourself every time he appears on screen. Mars is apparently a joyless place of work and toil, with no allowance for leisure or pleasure. Why they have a tickle ray, then, is a mystery. Perhaps it’s best to not overanalyze this. After all, I think we’ve already established that the filmmakers just didn’t care. Dropo informs Kimar that Lady Momar has gone to the “Food Pill Center” to get some “food pills.” Now, is that all spacey and alien or what? Their children, apparently, have not been eating, and Kimar is distraught that they just sit in front of the videoset all day watching “those ridiculous Earth programs” (he has a point). Why they don’t just block the transmissions from Earth is anyone’s guess.

Kimar then confronts his children, who are staring raptly at the videoset. Bomar and Girmar ask each other poignant questions, such as “What’s a doll?” and “What’s tender loving care?” This hits Kimar where he lives. Kimar tries to get his children to go to sleep, and he has to resort to using the “sleep spray” on them. (What parent wouldn’t want a sleep spray?) Part of the problem could be that they have sleep on a flat plastic surface under a wire pyramid with a lucite cube in place of a pillow—oh, and with those silly helmets on. Heck, I’d need a sleep spray.

Lady Momar returns from the Food Pill Center with a bag full of vials of pills—hamburger, buttered asparagus (they look like those flavored jelly beans). It’s basically a Judy Garland fantasy. However, why Martian food is pill versions of Earth food is a mystery. But, why dwell on it (the filmmakers didn’t). Dropo says he has been vacuuming the room—I guess he’s their houseboy or something, which is more upsetting than you can imagine. Kimar says that he is worried about the children, and that he has met with the “Council Chiefs” and the problem is the same with children all over Mars. “Something is happening to the children of Mars,” intones Kimar portentously. “As the leader of Mars,” says his wife, “you must do something about it.” “I know,” he responds, “but what?” “Why don’t you go to the forest and seek Chochem, the Ancient One. He’ll know what to do. He’s never failed you.” There’s a first time for everything, I suppose. “You speak wisely,” says Kimar. “You speak goofily,” one would be tempted to respond. He then summons the Council Chiefs—Rigna, Hargo, and Voldar—to meet him at “Chochem’s chair in Thunder Forest.” We also get the first sense that Voldar is going to be a complete dickweed.

We then go to Chochem’s lair which, it should be pointed out, is a cave and nothing like a forest. Maybe a single tree would have helped allay the sense that the set designer really didn’t read the script. They were specifically ordered to meet at Chochem’s realm and yet Voldar expresses surprise that they are meeting with Chochem.

Voldar, who wears a really fake-looking Oil Can Harry-like mustache, is against the idea, and is kind of a Marcus Porcius Cato figure, a hardline conservative who dislikes change and wants to keep Mars warlike—or preserve the Republic and condemn Santa (or Julius Caesar, one or the other) as a traitor and an enemy. Ahem, but I digress....that’s what I get for watching this and an episode of Rome in the same sitting. We are then informed that Chochem is over 800 years old-and he looks it. Kimar then summons Chochem with the haunting chant “Chochem...Chochem...are you there?” There is a puff of smoke and the Ancient One appears. He is not dressed in green, or is he encumbered by the odd helmet. He does have a phenomenal amount of white hair and acts and talks like he is going to keel over at any moment. Come to think of it, he kind of looks like Gandalf after a weekend bender. Kimar puts the children problem to Chochem, and Chochem asks what time of year it is. (On Mars it is the month of “Septober.” Yeah.) Some wise sage—he’s going to solve all their problems but he doesn’t even know what time of year it is? Has anyone checked his credentials? Jeesh. Chochem delivers a lengthy monologue, stating that they have no children on Mars, that they are adults in children’s bodies (I'm sure there's a Paris Hilton joke to be made there). Chochem had seen this coming for centuries, but apparently didn’t want to give anyone a heads up or anything. Long story short: they need Santa Claus on Mars to teach children how to be children.

Chochem has an intense bout of gastric distress (it looks like), then vanishes abruptly in a puff of smoke to look for some Immodium.

Kimar then hatches an idea to fly to Mars and kidnap Santa Claus. Voldar is against the idea. So, with a roar that sounds like a toilet flushing and a cheesy spaceship, the Martians are off to Earth. They all sit around an octagonal control panel and occasionally release blasts of gas. They arrive in Earth orbit pretty quickly. Voldar has to pooh-pooh the Earth conception of a city. “We could destroy it with one blast of our Q ray.” Martian snob. At least Earth has better mustaches. They then begin looking for Santa Claus, a difficult task in a population of "millions of people" (off by an order of magnitude, but hey, they’re not from around here). Still, “It’s like looking for a speck of space dust in a comet’s tail.” I guess they don’t have needles, haystacks, or decent analogies on Mars. They do manage to find several Santa Clauses hanging outside Earth stores.

Meanwhile, Dick York-like newsreader breaks in with a news update about a UFO sighting. We then launch into a lengthy stream of stock footage as rockets and missiles (and paper towel rolls) are deployed.

The Martians detect Earth radar waves bouncing off the ship, and they turn on the radar shield (it probably would have been a good idea to have turned it on before they were spotted, but maybe the Martians don’t get out much). As it happens, the radar shield is malfunctioning, so Rigna checks the “radar box”--which obviously serves no other purpose than to have characters hide in it. And, indeed, they find Dropo hiding in it. Doh! Gilligan!

They get the radar shield working, even as the military launches stock footage of fighters and, inexplicably, bombers to chase down the UFO (why bombers? Are they going to get above the UFO and drop bombs on it?).

The Martians then prepare to land—lowering the landing legs, which involves pulling a series of levers, which seems like a kludgy way to lower landing gear. Everything else is push-button—why not the landing gear? Jeesh. It does use up a few moments of film.

The ship lands, which is obviously just the film of the ship taking off reversed.

Meanwhile, our two young heroes, Billy and Betty Foster, are lying in the leaves, listening to the plot development on a radio newscast. The consensus is that the UFO was a meteor, but Professor Werner Von Breen is convinced that it was a Martian spacecraft (and since he is played by the same guy who was Chochem—sans the white hair and beard—he should know). Betty asks some pointed questions about what Martians look like, and right on cue, the Martians arrive. Betty legitimately asks “What are those funny things sticking out of your head?” To which Kimar responds, “Those are our antenna.” “Are you a television set?” asks Betty. Kimar is amused; Voldar is not. “Stupid question. Is this what you want to do to the children on Mars? Turn them into nincompoops like these?” He’s got a point. Kimar says that they are looking for Santa Claus, and Billy immediately rats out Santa. “There’s only one Santa, and he’s in his vorkshop at the North Pole.” Why Billy and Betty Foster have Germanic accents and pronounce “w”s as “v”s is a mystery. Anyway, the Martians kidnap Billy and Betty. Almost immediately, Dick York, the hardest working newscaster in show biz, reports on their disappearance.

The UFO hunt continues with stock footage of jets refueling, for some reason.

Against orders, Dropo brings the kids up to the bridge which, as it happens, is unoccupied. Everyone else must have gone out to get a paper or find an ATM or a Starbucks or something, but Dropo makes it a point to indicate the elevator light, which, he says, flashes when someone is coming up to the bridge. This serves no real purpose except as a plot device, and, sure enough, there is a beat as the three wait for it to start blinking. Which it does. Doh! This is where things get severely Sherwood Schwartzian. So Dropo hides the kids in the radar box. There is a moment of deep suspense as Voldar is about to open the radar box; he is stopped by their arrival at the North Pole. Voldar then points out that the kids have to come with them back to Mars. Without witnesses, the argument goes, “No one on Earth will ever know that Santa was kidnapped by Martians.” Kimar grudgingly agrees. The kids overhear this conversation and decide that freezing to death in the Arctic would be preferable.

Despite the fact that Kimar orders one of the others to keep the ship on standby for immediate blast off, everyone leaves the bridge, giving Billy and Betty the opportunity to sneak out of the radar box, but not before pulling out the wires and deactivating the radar shield. “If this ship ever leaves Earth, they’ll have the whole U.S. space force after them.” Ooh, that would be a threat. This is 1964. We haven’t even made it to the moon yet, we’re going to chase a ship all the way to Mars?

Somehow Billy and Betty sneak out of the ship, and they are so not dressed for the North Pole. The Martians then come out of the ship—very slowly. “This action must take place swiftly,” says Kimar, despite the fact that it took three people a half hour to climb down a ladder. Voldar is defiant, and says that the children have escaped. Rigna then points out the children’s footprints in the snow. By the way, the soundtrack has what sound like gale force winds blowing, but there is no flying snow, and the Martians’ capes are not even fluttering in the slightest. I guess the sound editor decided to make his own movie. Kimar calls to “Torg.”

But before we can find out who or what Torg is, we cut to Billy and Betty, getting tired and cold. Voldar is nearly on their trail, but they elude him only to get menaced by a polar bear. Well, I should say, a guy in a really lame polar bear costume. This is about where the wheels start to come off the wagon. The kids climb into a cave where they can be easily cornered, but the guy in the bear suit gives up pretty quickly. Guess the bear must be on a hunger or or something. Betty wants to find Santa’s “vorkshop.”

We then find out what Torg is: a guy in a box with a coffee urn on his head. That is, I mean, a robot. The robot captures the kids, and while Voldar tries to order Torg to kill the kids, Kimar had reprogrammed Torg to obey only him, and the kids are sent back to the ship. Kimar doesn’t want anyone hurt, and Voldar summons up the memories of the great warriors of Mars. I sense a civil war brewing. Or, at the very least, a really dull argument.

Torg breaks down the door of Santa’s vorkshop and the elves are no match for a guy in a box. But, “by the great Dog Star, he’s treating him like a toy!” exclaims Kimar, noticing that Santa is not frightened in the slightest. Inexplicably, the robot succumbs to the power of Santa. The Martians then charge into the workshop with hair dryers, which freeze the elves in their tracks. Mrs. Claus shows up and is not happy. She is frozen, too, and Santa thanks the Martians profusely (or at least he should).

They then take Santa back to the ship, leaving Torg there, for reasons passing understanding.

Meanwhile, newspapers around the world—and Dick York, of course—report on Santa’s kidnapping. The U.N. convenes, and Werner Von Breen is interviewed and explains that they are expediting astronaut training to “go after those Martian monkeys.” There is then more stock footage of rockets and bald men talking on phones.

Despite all of this, Rigna says, “Earth hasn’t reacted yet” and Kimar detects no radar beams bouncing off the ship. Hargo comes in and is a bit too amused by Santa. Voldar of course has no sense of humor, his mustache notwithstanding.

In the brig, Santa is boring the kids to death. Then Dropo comes in, and they all pledge a suicide pact. He brings in some food pills and the kids comment about how awful Mars must be. On the bridge, the Martians discover a ship chasing them, and that Billy ("Earth's secret weapon") had disabled the radar shield.

Voldar then defies Kimar and takes Santa and the kids on a tour of the ship, starting with the airlock which, due to another strictly plot-specific feature, has no door controls in the airlock itself, but only up on the bridge which, again, is suddenly deserted, even though they should be flying back to Mars. He attempts to have them sucked out into space, but somehow Santa saves them by magically escaping through a small air duct, which you would think would not have a direct, open path to the rest of the ship when the airlock is open (oops). Kimar and Voldar then come to blows, Santa and the kids reappear dramatically, and Voldar is thrown in the brig.

They arrive back at Mars, and Rigna again lowers the damn landing legs. “We’ve landed,” he says dramatically.

Meanwhile, Voldar has escaped, “which can only mean trouble.”

At Kimar’s house, Kimar returns, with Dropo, Billy and Betty, and Santa. On Mars, the customary greeting is a head butt, for some reason. They go in and say hi to Bomar and Girmar. It all goes very awkwardly and upsettingly, with everyone bursting into uncomfortable laughter for no reason. Bomar and Girmar have apparently never laughed before. Dropo then does a little dance which will forever haunt your dreams.

After the kids have gone to bed—without the sleep spray—Kimar tells Santa that he will set him up with his own toy workshop on Mars. Oh, and that he will never go back to Earth. That makes the old man a tad less jolly.

Meanwhile, in a cave, Voldar is hiding “like a speckled Mars worm.” Ah. I see exactly what he means. One of his henchmen—who looks like the love child of Soupy Sales and Jamie Farr—is with him, and overacts horribly. Another henchman approaches—Jim. “Jim?” Did a writer’s strike break out suddenly? Anyway, we discover that the cave is guarded by a “nuclear curtain.” Ah. I’ve seen those in the Home Decorators Collection. Jim enters, and, in a very Jimmy Durante-esque manner, describes Santa’s automated workshop. He then mugs for the camera as he describes a Slinky. Voldar will have none of it. “Soon all of Mars will be blithering idiots!” Soon? Voldar then hatches a cunning plan to discredit Santa and make him a laughing stock throughout Mars. Yeah. Despite the fact that the workshop runs round the clock, it closes at 10:00. Huh?

At Santa’s workshop, laundry baskets are coming off the assembly line by the dozen. Martian children must really love doing laundry. Santa runs the entire assembly line from what looks like the control room at Abbey Road Studios. Tired of pushing buttons, Santa makes a poignant commentary about automation. Well, its no elf-based manufacturing industry, but what can you do? Santa then explains to Dropo that Lady Momar made him a extra suit—I guess the old one was getting a bit ripe by now. Dropo asks if he can wear it, which is getting into a whole weird area. Santa then makes fun of the fact that Dropo is not obese.

Back at Kimar’s, Billy and Betty are now getting despondent. Doh! There’s no winning for Kimar, is there? It takes Momar to point out that the kids are homesick, and to suggest that he take them back to Earth. “Impossible.” But why?

Then, in a truly upsetting peek into Dropo’s private life, he is putting on Santa’s extra suit and wearing his extra beard (huh?!), stuffing pillows into the suit, and prancing around singing and dancing. Death would be sweet relief at this point. He hangs Santa’s extra hat from one of his antennae and his helmet is still visible. He goes to the workshop and, as Voldar, Jim, and the Jamie Farr/Soupy Sales guy start sabotaging the machinery, Dropo is mistaken for the real Santa, despite the fact that he looks nothing like the real Santa. Voldar and co. then shanghai him back to the cavern.

Momar is upset that she cannot find Dropo—why would anyone be upset about that? Santa says his extra suit is missing—and suggests that Dropo is at the toy shop. Santa is starting to get sarcastic and heaps shame on his hosts’ food pills.

Santa and the kids go to the workshop, cannot find Dropo, and then discover that the machinery is screwing up all the toys—a doll has a bear’s head and a teddy bear has a doll’s head. It’s kind of cool, actually. Something goes wrong with a toy train, though we can’t see what it is. Maybe it has human body parts mixed in with it. Who knows? Santa complains about the machinery not working; what do they say about a poor workman blaming his tools? What a whiner. Take away the guy’s elves and he’s lost.

Meanwhile, the Three Stooges hatch another plot to confront Kimar, thinking that they have Santa as a hostage. They leave Jim behind to guard Dropo/Santa.

Kimar suspects Voldar is behind Dropo’s disappearance and the sabotaged equipment. At that point, Voldar and Soupy Sales/Jamie Farr show up and laugh diabolically, the latter utter ridiculously. Kimar holds them at hair dryer-point and asks for their demands. Voldar wants the toy machine destroyed and the Earthlings sent back to Earth. Kimar then points out that Santa has escaped. Kimar calls for reinforcements, and attempts to hold Voldar and Stobo (ah, the Jamie Farr guy’s name is Stobo) in a storeroom. Kimar orders Lomas to search for Jim. In the storeroom, we find that the Martians do have fun, as there is a water ski in there, for some reason.

Dropo escapes from the cave by switching the lightbulbs on the nuclear curtain, flummoxing Jim who, himself, is not the brightest bulb (he makes reference to the “nucular curtain”—it could be George Bush).

In the storeroom, Voldar escapes by smacking Kimar with the water ski (ah, that’s why it was there). Santa and Billy have finished fixing the sabotaged machinery and, ever the perfectionist, Santa wants to touch up the sabotaged control panel with some red paint. (It’s Monk all of a sudden.) Naturally, this is solely to get Billy to the storeroom so he can overhear Voldar. Billy warns Santa, and the climactic battle for Mars begins: the kids unleash a barrage of toy weaponry on Voldar. In one classic moment, for which I am sure the film editor won an Oscar, Stobo is looking into the workshop, the film cuts abruptly, the soundtrack drops out, and Stobo suddenly has a red ball in his mouth. It’s so deftly handled, I really believed he had been hit in the mouth with a red ball. The music reinforces the slapstick with a “wah wah wah” trumpet noise. Fortunately, Kimar wakes up and puts a halt to the whole thing.

The battle for Mars being won and Voldar in custody, Santa and the Fosters are about to go back to Earth. “Thank you Santa for bringing happiness to the children of Mars,” says Momar. “And the Christmas spirit to everyone,” adds Kimar. Dropo comes prancing in in a Santa suit; yes, he is to be the Santa of Mars. I give it one more year before he is locked in a spaceship and fired into the Sun.

Santa yells “Merry Christmas!” and the cloying “Hooray for Santy Claus” song pipes in again as the end credits run, followed by the song lyrics. (See, you spell it “S-A-N-T-A C-L-AU-S” but you say “Santy Claus.” FYI.) The end!

Whew! This was a rough one. The thing is, the idea behind the movie really isn’t all that bad, and is certainly no cheesier than any other holiday movie. Even the script isn’t too bad in spots (“in spots,” I hasten to add), but the attempts at comedy rarely rise to sub-Sherwood Schwartzian levels, and the guy who played Dropo—the Gilligan character—makes Bob Denver’s performances seem subtle and nuanced. Shockingly, he (Bill McCutcheon) won a Tony award in 1988 for a Broadway revival of Anything Goes. The acting was pretty bad across the board, though, and not surprisingly only Vincent Beck (Voldar) had a career after it (according to IMDb, he was a character actor staple of 1960s and 1970s television).

Still, what kills this movie are the production values which are non-existent. It seems like the entire budget went to the Martian furniture and the Milton Delugg score. However, the song “Hooray for Santa Claus” did not turn out to be the holiday classic they apparently hoped it would be, although I do recall hearing a punk metal version of it (performed by a no-name band called the Swamp Zombies) in a record store in Manhattan once. The punk treatment did not improve it appreciably.

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