Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
While many cheesy movies employ Christmas themes for a quick buck often have a cloying element to them, not all Santa movies are guaranteed to do that. Some strike a different tone as they treat Santa as more human and fallible or someone who is unknowable. Then there are other cheesy Santa movies in which the filmmakers strike out with the best of intentions and still manage to make a cloying film. In all of these cases, though, there is a certain disregard for the film’s core audience: children.
This weekend’s cheesy movie, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is one such case. Depending on the moment, the film is either a heartfelt, if strange production or something so cynical, the performers cannot hide it from the audience.
The plot concerns Kimar (Leonard Hicks), the boss of Mars. In the month of Suptober, he notices his children Girmar (Pia Zadora) and Bomar (Chris Month) have both caught a strange malaise. They are uninterested in their lessons, avoid taking their food pills, and need the sleep spray to get to bed. He also finds they are watching more and more of the television transmissions intercepted from Earth. In one such broadcast, KID-TV takes their cameras to the North Pole, where Santa (John Call) and his elves are getting ready for the annual Christmas Eve Day deliveries. After the broadcast, the children are inconsolable. Soon, Kimar discovers parents all over Mars are having similar troubles with their children. He and his council chiefs visit Chochem (Carl Don), the 800-year-old sage who suggests the children of Mars need Earthly fun and the Yuletide cheer to balance out the strict Martian way of life.
Kimar and the chiefs decide to kidnap Santa Claus.
Soon, a Martian ship sets off the early warning systems of the United States Strategic Air Command. But Kimar and the others are more concerned with the fact they have found hundreds of men in red suits fitting the description of Santa Claus. They land to question two children, Betty (Donna Conforti) and Billy (Victor Stiles) about Santa’s whereabouts. Though they point the Martians in the right direction, Voldar (Vincent Beck) — the council chief most opposed to the Santa plan — abducts the children as well. The Martians then make their way to the North Pole and take Santa back to Mars; where he is expected to recreate his operation with only Betty, Billy and Dropo (Bill McCutcheon), the laziest of all Martians, as his assistants.
And if this all sounds like an uninspired local drama group production, that’s part of the charm. Producer Paul Jacobson worked in video production and saw making a children’s film as a way into features. He whipped up an idea, found a writer and director Nicholas Webster. Better known for Emmy-nominated television, Webster work on the film has a certain live-to-tape quality to it. Sets are composed in a theatrical proscenium and edits follow a rigid master shot/close-up/reverse rhythm. The production design, with a strange assortment of candy colors muted only by the poor quality of surviving prints, would appear more at home on the stage than in front of Webster’s lens.
The script, by writer Glenville Mareth, also has an amateur dramatic quality to it. From the uninspired naming convention of the Martians to Dropo’s alleged humor, Mareth fills the movie with a forced sense of hilarity which comes off more sad in the finished film. Combined with Webster’s solid if uninspired TV direction, the movie occasionally feels depressing from its attempt to seem jovial.
Anchoring the whole circus is actor Hicks as Kimar. The guy is just trying throughout. He tries to be a capable leader despite Beck’s mustache-twirling turn as Voldar. He tries to maintain his dignity despite wearing an unflattering leotard and acting throughout the picture with his face painted green. He tries to act the father, despite the fact Martian parents are meant to be more rigid than their Earthly counterparts. Sometimes, he actually succeeds as the lone person trying to be a relatable human character in the midst of a cartoon.
John Call’s Santa is a rare non-starter in terms of cheesy Christmas films. Where Art Carney plays him as an irascible old cuss in The Night They Saved Christmas and David Huddleston plays him with an ideal warmth and child-like innocence, Call essentially plays him as the guy in the float at the end of the Hollywood Christmas Parade. He’s boisterous to a fault and despite being the title character, he disappears into the background as Hicks fights to keep his dignity and McCutcheon flops about as Dropo. Call was a stage actor, but maybe he felt it was best to just read his lines without causing too much of a ruckus.
After all, creating a ruckus is Dropo’s job.
The character, who actually ends up having the best developed arc of the whole ensemble, is indicative of the film’s least charming trait: the way it talks down to kids. Despite Jacobson’s assertion that the market for children’s films was bigger than Disney’s reach, he missed the key reason why Disney flicks were successful. Instead of a genuinely appealing fantasy storyline kids could enjoy while parents found some amusement by more sophisticated jokes or well-designed feats of cinematic innovation, the film goes for the most obvious plot development or gag it can muster. As it happens, you will see this in a lot of productions for children. The ones which withstand the test of time prove the best way to make a children’s film is to treat the audience with a level of respect. And while Webster and the actors may have gone into this with that respect in mind, the story suggests an attitude that children will watch anything. This may be no better signified than in the generous helpings of Air Force stock footage used when the Martian ship first reaches Earth.
Nonetheless, there is a cheesy thrill to be found in the misguided story, terrible dialogue and ill-advised production values. Jacobson and distributor Joseph E. Levine were proud of the fact the film was made in two weeks at a lot in New Jersey. The swiftness of that production shows and offers a sort of schadenfreude as you can see the fatigue on all of the performers. Unlike some of the other Christmas movies we’ve profiled, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is entertaining because it is just that poorly realized. Also unlike the others, it is best to watch this film with friends as it can turn depressing real quick on a solo viewing.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is available for rent on Amazon Prime. But as it is in the public domain, it can be found on the Internet Archive and other video websites. It has also been featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax for those who like their cheesy movies pre-riffed.