Christmas movies can be hit or miss. The worst can appear on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. However, to become a MST3K classic, there has to be potential to the movie. Such classics include Space Mutiny, Danger!! Death Ray, Repitlicus, and even Manos, the Hands of Fate. This brings us to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, a 1964 Christmas movie that was featured during the third season of MST3K on the Comedy Channel. That episode of MST3K also featured “A Patrick Swayze Christmas”.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians starred John Call as Santa Claus, Victor Stiles as Billy Foster, Donna Conforti as Billy’s sister Betty, Leonard Hicks as Kimar, Vincent Beck as Voldar, Bill McCutcheon as Dropo, and Pia Zadora as Kimar’s daughter, Girmar. This was Zadora’s first film role, and she was part of the children’s chorus singing the movie’s title song, “Hooray for Santa Claus”[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-TGnBOZj1U]. It’s obviously meant to be a children’s movie. Billy and Betty tend to carry the film and Dropo, a Martian, is comic relief. And, of course, there is Santa Claus.
The movie begins with a TV crew at the North Pole filming Santa, his wife (played by Doris Rich), and his helpers as they prepare for the Christmas Eve world tour. The footage is broadcast all around the world and into space to satellites in orbit and beyond. On Mars, children watch the broadcast raptly. The children of Kimar, the Martian leader, are no exception. Kimar consults with a sage, who saw the problem coming. To fix the issue of Martian children being too rigid, too controlled, Kimar comes up with the idea to kidnap Santa to help the children of Mars learn how to have fun.
Kimar takes several of his top Martians into a flying saucer to go to Earth. Stowing away is Dropo, who is atypical of a Martian – lazy, clumsy, and child-like. They make the trip across space to Earth orbit and search for a fat man with a long white beard and wearing a red suit and find many. Confused, Kimar orders the saucer to land. As Kimar and his small band search for answers, they find Billy and Betty. They interrogate the kids and find out that the real Santa Claus lives at the North Pole. To make sure that the Martian plot isn’t discovered, Kimar kidnaps Billy and Betty, bringing them on board the saucer.
The saucer takes off again and lands again at the North Pole. Kimar takes his top Martians and Tor, a robot, to grab Santa. Tor is sent in first, but Santa and his elves repair the robot, turning it into a toy. The Martians move in, paralyzing the elves and Mrs. Claus and take Santa. During this, Dropo befriends Billy and Betty, and helps them hide, but there’s not many places to stay hidden.
Kimar brings Santa back to Mars. Santa, Billy, and Betty meet Grimar and her brother. It doesn’t take long before all the children, Martian and Terran, to start laughing. A new toy factory is created for Santa, all automated. Mission accomplished! Except, some of Kimar’s top Martians aren’t happy with what happened and plot to eliminate Santa and return to the status quo of rigid, unimaginative, unhappy children. The automated toy factory is sabotaged, but the damage is easily repaired. The unhappy Martians kidnap who they think is Santa, but is really Dropo wearing Santa’s suit. One final assault on the toy factory goes horribly wrong.
As the Martian children gain happiness, Billy and Betty lose theirs. They are homesick. They want to go home. Once arrangements are made for Dropo to be the Martian Santa, the real Santa Claus takes Billy and Betty home.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians tends to wind up on worst movie lists. It’s not horrible, though. There is potential, but there are several factors holding the movie back. The biggest factor is budget. It’s very obvious low budget. Tor the robot is an actor in two cardboard boxes wrapped in aluminum foil with tubing covering limbs. The Martians’ ray guns are from Wham-O[https://wham-o.com]. The sets are very obviously sets.
However, the movie is meant for children. Their imagination can fill in the gaps. Tor lurches menacingly. The ray guns are real. Santa Claus is in danger. Don’t underestimate the viewers. This doesn’t excuse the low budget, but the audience determines the level of realism. A Christmas movie for children aren’t going to go out of the way to deliberately frighten the audience. The colours will be brighter, with more flashing lights, both of which require a budget.
A larger budget means having Tor match expectations of what robots look like. Star Wars, Terminator, and even Wall-E and Short Circuit have all changed expectations on what a robot looks like, from R2-D2 and BB-8 to the T-1000 to Johnny Five. Cardboard boxes no longer make the grade. The Martian toy factory is a row of labelled doors, similar to a wall of original series Star Trek replicators. Some added flashing lights and moving parts will add to the visual interest of the scene, something that, again, needs a budget.
The story is solid enough. Tone drifts around, but not to the point of mood whiplash until the final assault by the rebel Martians. That assault was only missing cream pies being flung around. If that is going to be the climax, the rest of the movie needs to match that tone. Dropo, as cringeworthy a character as he is, matches. The storming of the North Pole is far more serious, especially with how Tor is treated. Children can handle frightening scenes, but mood whiplash is a danger.
Remaking Santa Claus Conquers the Martians just needs a better budget. Child actors can be hit or miss, but casting directors are always improving. Sets need to look better and less like they were built on a sound stage. And for a bit of stunt casting, bring back Pia Zadora for some role, even if it is Mrs. Claus. Have her perform the remade theme music as well.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians isn’t a horrible film, just one with a low budget and made in a time where children’s films weren’t seen as worthy endeavours. Remaking it just needs a decent budget, which will let solutions for any other problem fall into place.