Why in the hell does anyone watch Santa Claus Conquers the Martians? It’s not a good movie; even the people who love it wouldn’t be so bold. It’s not really a good source of schadenfreude either, or at least, not for everybody (that would imply the people responsible were visibly unhappy, and that’s just not the case). And at eighty minutes, it’s too long of an investment to be a mistake, but regret is almost guaranteed. Watching this picture just isn’t a good idea. But Santa Claus Conquers the Martians’ survives, probably for the same reason that people peek at the tissue after a huge sneeze. Sometimes you cough up something so ugly it’s worth looking at.
To start, the plot is as ridiculous as the title, and explaining it only makes it worse. The King of Mars, on the advice of a wizard, kidnaps Santa Claus from the North Pole to forcibly spread Christmas cheer to the children of Mars. The Martian scout team also takes two Earth-children with them, because no witnesses, man.
The problems pile up from there. The screeching theme song goes through the trouble of spelling “Santa Claus” and then don’t bother to pronounce it correctly in the very next line. The Martian King is named Kimar and his children are Bomar and Girmar (Girl Martian. Girmar. Stay with me). The robot is named Trog (like Gort). These are not choices made by people giving a great deal of effort. Technically, the film has production values—the Martians aren’t wearing street clothes—but they’re around the bottom. Plywood sets (built in a repurposed hangar in Long Island) surround the clumsy action of grown men dressed like the Great Gazoo (and armed with Wham-O Air Blasters). Trog makes an old Cyberman look like an Asimo. And, Jesus, the dialogue. “Santa, you will never return to Earth. You belong to Mars now.” This line alone undermines any credibility the movie may pretend to. This article’s probably a little worse for including it. The script, it should also be pointed out, was written back when everyone was just convinced that all food would come in pill form.
The film was released to the matinee circuit and found some circulation on television before it made its way onto Harry Medved’s The Fifty Worst Films of All Time in 1978. From there it found itself skewered on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1991, firmly securing its infamy. But what is it about Santa Claus Conquers the Martians that makes it “succeed” after all these years and all these problems? Well, for one, it’s sincere as hell, which is more than can be said for stinkers like Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter or Sharknado. It’s not trying to pull anything a fast one on you, it’s not fooling its audience into spending money ironically. It’s exactly what you think it is. There’s no winking self-awareness of its own failures to signal to the audience that, yes, the people behind this picture still have some dignity and don’t want you to get the wrong idea about them. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is a movie about Santa Claus going to Mars.
Further separating Santa Claus from its bottom-shelf neighbors is its apparent lack of an origin story. There wasn’t a lone, mad auteur steamrolling the film to completion at the expense of all good sense (Tommy Wiseau, Harold P. Warren), no war stories from a hellish production (Ishtar). There’s no former star falling on hard times (the sole “name” actress is Pia Zadora, back when she had an excuse). And plotwise, there’s not a huge gulf between Martians and an acceptable Christmas special like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but Rudolph gets a network broadcast every year. Probably because one has stop-motion animation (always a sight to behold, even in a stinker) and the other has Pia Zadora painted green (and not in an Orion Slave Girl kind of way, either).
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was made for children without options. It doesn’t insult its audience because it hardly expects one in the first place. Whatever the reason people choose to watch it today—with love, scorn or irony—the film seems to exist to be the low-water mark of filmmaking. A sort of Judas Iscariot of Christmas specials, it serves to elevate others at its own expense, and in this role it is recirculated—a Christmas classic, kept alive by the curiosity and cruelty of cinephiles worldwide.
For another view on Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, see Take One.