I’ll get it out of the way right of the bat: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is not a very good movie. You know that. Everybody knows that. If you haven’t seen it, you’ve probably seen the title on “Worst Movies of All Time” lists. Even if you’ve never heard of it, it’s still called Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. It it this single stroke of genius– and the fact that the movie does, indeed, feature St. Nick hanging around with doofy green-faced Martians*, though “conquers” is maybe a strong word– which has granted it immortality. It’s also easier to see than many similarly infamous “classics”; its public domain status has landed it on countless dollar-DVDs and low-wattage TV stations, and it’s popped up on not only the venerable Mystery Science Theater 3000, but also MST3K splinter groups Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians will be around forever, and god bless it for it.
What’s really kind of fascinating, though, is that the film extends its immortality to an entire genre which would otherwise be largely forgotten. Those who have indulged their curiosity know that Martians is a remarkably threadbare affair; the sets, and even the exteriors, feel like school play backdrops, and the costuming and makeup aren’t much better (take a gander at the jaw-dropping fight between boxy robot Torg and a moth-bitten polar bear). While jarring from today’s standpoint (or, really, any era’s standpoint), Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is one of many low-budget, truly bizarre children’s movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s. At the time, it was common practice for mothers to drop their children off at the cinema for a kiddie-friendly matinee while they ran their assorted mid-century errands, and many exploitation filmmakers (including Herschell Gordon Lewis!) found a handy side hustle in cranking out quick features to fill the bills. Like Martians, these were mostly excruciatingly cheap, with children, local actors, and crude puppets running through fairytale paces on a handful of meager sets, but they succeeded in giving a generation of bored children something to do in those dark, pre-Angry Birds days. Enough of these films were made to constitute a subgenre, but it’s tough to say just how large a subgenre– many are no doubt lost, and the genre is mostly forgotten outside of the Something Weird Video catalogue and the hazy, Candle Cove-like memories of a generation. They were distinctive, and weird as hell, but ultimately a footnote in all but the most esoteric film histories.
Ah, but there’s still Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, a film so irresistibly strange that it’s become a classic, of sorts, for generations of hipster weirdos. Like Lonesome George, the Galapagos tortoise who (until recently, sadly) was the last representative of his species, Martians carries the DNA of its entire lineage (though other examples are still out there; for those eager to dive further into the rabbit hole of negative-budget matinee holiday fare, I recommend The Magic Christmas Tree or Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny). Those stranded in the city this holiday weekend can even recreate the experience; The Video Underground in JP is hosting a free Black Friday screening, allowing you to take a break from shopping to bide a couple of hours in the same baffling merriment of your forefathers. Just don’t expect to shake that theme song anytime soon.
* – It is at this point that most reviews point out that one of the Martian children is played by a young Pia Zadora, but at this point I think it’s safe to say that no one cares.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
dir. Nicholas Webster
Screens Friday, 11/24, 7:30pm @ Video Underground
Free! (RSVP here)