Yuletide Terror – Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

santa-claus-movie-poster

This post is the first part of my Yuletide Terror season, featuring all sorts of ‘alternative’ Christmas movies; it’ll mainly be horror, but I’m starting with this Sci-Fi oddity from 1964

There’s a special place in most nerds’ hearts for the Sci-Fi B-Movies of the 1950′; despite the often terrible acting, and often terrible effects, and often terrible storylines there is an innocent charm and defiant inventiveness about them that is rarely matched by any other genre and/or time period of films. There are of course some excellent examples of effects (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers) and some genuinely good films among this genre, but my point is that even those that fall short of the expected standard often have some lovable quality that makes them entertaining in a way that cannot be equaled. So, when this genre became rather mainstream if not over-saturated by the 1960’s it seems only natural that someone would think to make a Christmas movie in the genre. So was born Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Surely the combination of Christmas charm and B-Movie charm is a sure fire way to a cult classic? Well…

I don’t know which one we should be more afraid of…

The film’s opening credits are accompanied by the bizarre surfer rock-esque theme song performed by the Seventh Circle of Hell Children’s Choir. The few minutes the credits last ends up being somewhat like being punched in the ears repeatedly with concrete fists, but in retrospect I think that a further 80 minutes of exactly that may be more enjoyable than the film itself. These 80 minutes are stuffed with filler; people taking an uncomfortably long time to pull levers, long boring scenes of air force stock footage, and similar. However the moments that do contain a plot revolve around the inhabitants of Mars who are noticing their children become particularly despondent each year around the month of ‘Septober’ (yeah), which happens to be December on Earth. Because they are all able to watch TV transmissions from Earth (yeah) they are aware of Christmas and the excitement of Santa arriving so the Martian leader sets out to kidnap Santa and bring Christmas joy to his people’s children.

“For the last time Mr Clause; we are NOT children!”

In itself the plot allows for exactly what this says on the box; an weird, yet inventive and enjoyable Christmas-themed B-Movie; but the execution is just awful on every level without any charm or redemption. There isn’t an actor in the movie who I’d say is even acceptable; the children are unbearable, the ‘comic relief Martian’ merely waves his arms around all the time in a feeble attempt to make us laugh, while the other Martians are so flat-toned that it feels like it’s meant to make them seem scary in some way but it just makes everything they say incredibly boring (which is a real problem when they take up at least 90% of the movie). The real star should of course be Santa, but even he is played like a geriatric alcoholic who makes awkward and entirely unfunny jokes at every opportunity (even his own abduction), and who has such little wit & awareness that he ends up being saved more than a couple of times by the 8 & 10 year old children abducted from Earth alongside him who you’d think he really should be protecting.

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There’s probably a Japanese mange subculture dedicated to this

I spoke previously of poor effects in B-Movies being accepted in their own way, but this really pushes the limit. Even though my cheaply produced DVD of the movie has an awful, perhaps even VHS-sourced transfer, I could see the awful sets, botched together costumes, and don’t even get me started on the Polar Bear that is CLEARLY a man in a suit. The Martians are people wearing far-too-tight green costumes with enormous helmets sporting tubes and antennae at various angles with green/silver paint roughly smeared on their faces with a coverage that varies depending on the sweatiness of the actor. The worst effects of all are hard to pick, but perhaps it comes in the scene set in one of Mars’ great forests; a too long, panning, establishing shot suggests they were proud of the work here but some red lumps resembling tree branches with fake spiders webs strewn over them would not be good enough even for Ed Wood’s Mars-based feature. Speaking of Mars’ great forests; any movie is allowed some passes from real-world logic, and any Sci-Fi movie some techno-babble, but that isn’t to say the script can be comprised of nothing but the above elements. At every stage it’s totally unclear how characters know certain things, such as one of Santa’s Elves exclaiming “They’re Martians!” when the green-paint-smeared humanoids walk in even though they are the first creatures on planet Earth ever to witness the aliens. I always work to avoid spoilers in my reviews so I can’t be more specific because most of the major plot points in this film require the writers to simply assume that a character knows something that is otherwise totally unexplained, or for a threat to suddenly have a fatal weakness that had previously gone unmentioned. The quote “It… it turned into a toy!” should be enough explanation for anyone who has already seen this film.

“Can I get my make-up redone?” “KEEP ROLLING!”

This film stands with one foot in the so-bad-it’s-good section of cinema that I adore so much, but never manages to remain for too long. The unintentional jokes wear thin after a while, when the intentional jokes remind us they did expect us to laugh at this film for entirely different reasons, and it all becomes rather tiresome after a while. It does remain good-bad enough in sporadic bursts however to be entertaining for the most hardy aficionados of crap cinema, just don’t expect to introduce anyone to the potential joy of terrible movies with this one. You have to WANT to find this one funny to have any chance of finding some dark enjoyment here. It’s a challenge, believe me.

1/10

Battlefield Earth (2000) – Review

[This review contains plot spoilers.]

Battlefield Earth is a movie that I had heard much about; its practically universal reputation as a terrible film despite a (reportedly) big budget and some big name stars intrigued me, making me wonder if I had achieved my goal; that I may be about to discover the pinnacle of ‘So bad they’re good’ movies…
The film opens in a desert camp, 1000 years after aliens took over earth, where some of the last remaining humans live a primitive, tribal existence. Instantly the film’s absurdity is beyond comprehension – what should be simple exposition is plagued by consistently ridiculous statements and clichés. When our hero (with the vomit-inducing name Jonnie “Goodboy” Tyler) is debating the future of the tribe with the apparent leaders he breaks into some sort of fit, writhing his limbs and kicking dirt around to accurately portray his opinion that they may not be safe. Why they are reduced to such an eccentric yet primitive existence isn’t entirely clear; a couple of sentences in the opening crawl were seemingly enough to fob off these fundamental questions in the filmmakers’ eyes. This primitive aspect reaches a new, hilarious height when Tyler meets members of another tribe; they disagree and so make loud monkey noises at each other for 2 minutes. At multiple points in the production; the writing, the shooting, the editing, test screenings and so on; never did someone decide this may, just perhaps, be unbearably stupid, that any tension therein may be ruined by grown men, all with facility to have intelligent conversation, making howling noises at each other when faced with a dispute.

‘Me… act?’

Some more nonsense happens before the aliens appear; the ‘Psychlos’, supposedly named by a writer’s 9 year old child. The main Psychlos featured in the movie are played by John Travolta and Forest Whitaker, otherwise good actors here hamming up their roles in such a way that you sincerely hope it is a self-aware act of ridicule. Like I say, I hope, but there’s not much to inspire hope in this movie. Despite wandering around looking like members of a terrible Klingon Death Metal band, we’re lead to believe they’re greatly successful in harvesting entire planets of their metals, but our insight into their world proves them to be completely inept. Tactical meetings descend into petty infighting & taunts, and they usually struggle to control a group of 50 non-educated, unarmed humans; who knows how they managed to wipe out nearly 6 billion of us with the entire world’s military forces at hand. Half of the time these dramas are completely pointless because, since they’re all the baddies anyway, we simply don’t care who’s stabbing who in the back. Even ignoring that point, they’re usually such tame yet contrived schemes that the implied twists are non-existent and John Travolta’s ‘character’ is so eccentric that it’d seem like he was a comic relief character, if not for the fact that he’s the main antagonist. He’s wisecracking (or indeed ‘dumb-cracking’) one minute, then coldly killing a secondary character the next. Are we supposed to fear him or laugh at him? The makers clearly didn’t know so good luck figuring it out for yourself.

“Yes, this is the film that’ll restart my career”

The plot is at once so drudgingly boring and wildly incoherent that recalling it is more like a series of horrible memories than one single thread. Lowlights come when the religious tones barge in like a particularly obnoxious bull in a china shop as Tyler manages to unite the thousands of humans the Psychlos have as slaves then discovers science (these events do actually happen as flippantly as I write them). Put to mining gold; the most precious intergalactic commodity; Tyler’s newfound knowledge allows them to break into Fort Knox to steal their quota and use the rest of their time to plan an assault with the US Air Force jets that somehow still function after 1000 years lying dormant. Given the unexplained ease with which they break into Fort Knox and the Psychlo’s combination of massively advanced technology & extreme desire for gold it seems odd that they didn’t think of going in for themselves sometime in the last millenum but perhaps that’s just nitpicking.
The final battle sequence seems to last about 6 hours; it’s a near-unwatchable mess where it’s never entirely clear what precisely is happening, who’s winning or losing, or which characters have died. This is all accompanied by effects that I can only describe as truly unacceptable. Many Sci-Fi films have the odd questionable effects shot, but there is not a single one in Battlefield Earth that looks anything less than appalling. I genuinely think that some shots would be rivalled by a PlayStation 2 game for realism. This brings into question the matter of the budget. I had glanced at a publicised budget of about $75 million. Turns out that was a lie; the producers told everyone that figure when in fact it was far less than half that; $44million; which, once Travolta and other people had got their pay checks, left about $10million for the actual film’s production and effects which is less than nothing in Hollywood terms, not least a Sci-Fi epic. They were sued for fraud; a lawsuit I am considering following up on based on the only critics’ quote on my DVD;

“Fantastic special effects”

-popcorn.co.uk (now defunct)

Yes, “fantastic”

In addition to the horrible acting, plot, effects and script, I had heard about the film’s overuse of Dutch Angles (where the camera is held at a jaunty angle). Still I was unprepared. In moderation Dutch Angles can have great effect; Sam Raimi makes great use of unusual camera angles for example; but literally EVERY shot in this film has a Dutch Angle; scenic shots, long shots, close-ups, establishing shots, interior, exterior, moving camera, static camera. Near the end of the film, the following completely static shot of a building appears. Accuse me of OCD if you will, but this shot, after having already endured the majority of the film, was the last straw; every millisecond that the image burned into my retinas pushed me closer to tearing out my own eyes.

WHY.

I think it may be apparent that I did not particularly enjoy this film. No, I would sooner wade through electrified barbed wire than force myself to endure this film again. It has countless components that should make it a ‘so bad it’s good’ movie, and indeed some hilarious moments, but it goes too far; it’s so brainlessly sombre, so unaware of how ridiculous it is, that after just half an hour it is not at all enjoyable, even from the perspective of a lover of good-bad films.

Since it’s my own site, I am allowed to give it 0/10 as it has absolutely no redeeming qualities.