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

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Godzilla Raids Again (1955) – Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

This review is part of my Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

After the massively successful Gojira this sequel was rushed into production and released only a year after the first. In my review of Gojira I mentioned that it would be interesting to see how the transition was made from a powerful atom-bomb allegory to the stereotypical Godzilla that fights a seemingly unlimited onslaught of beasts. It turns out that the transition was rather sudden, as Godzilla Raids Again introduces Anguirus; a dinosaur awoken by the same atomic bomb tests that awake Godzilla who, we are told through some painfully blatant & unexplained exposition, is extremely aggressive towards other similarly sized reptiles.

I’d be annoyed if an atomic bomb woke me up too

This film, probably due to its hurried production, has nothing like the careful, restrained effects of the first; fights between Godzilla and Anguirus are occasionally reasonable but the majority of the time less than good. Some sequences are sped up making them look nothing less than laughable, and the quality of the suits really doesn’t allow the fully-lit, long shots that make up these sequences. Inbetween these sequences are various human stories. The main plot is about two pilots who first discover Godzilla and end up in the teams trying to stop him. This is a pretty straight forward plot, with a Saturday matinee mix of light comedy and light romance, with a few brief but intriguing moments thrown in that seem to challenge some misogynistic ideals of the era. One or two other plots appear without warning that on one hand give the film a wider scope, showing some different perspectives on the city’s destruction, but on the other hand make very little sense in context, meandering along for 5 or 10 minutes without a clear purpose before disappearing from the movie, having created a setpiece for more key characters to be involved in. It’s an interesting way of telling the story but the way it’s pulled off here feels very disjointed and setpieces feel quite forced rather than organically forming as this style could have allowed. That said, regardless of how they’re created, the setpieces in this film have a great sense of spectacle that foreshadows the very visually-charged stylings of more recent Japanese films (not just Kaiju films).

“We need a sequel written by the end of week”

While I was completely aware that my expectation had to be held back as I moved on from the brilliant first movie, I was still disappointed to find this film sitting uncomfortably between the darker, more realistic tone of Gojira and the spectacular, outlandish tone the latter movies are known for, never willing to commit to one or the other. In the context of the series it serves as an interesting transition, but as a standalone movie I had difficulty finding much to enjoy, ultimately being glad of the relatively short 80 minute runtime.

4/10

Gojira (1954) – Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

This post is part of my Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

Godzilla is a franchise known primarily for men in rubber dinosaur suits fighting each other. However, to start my marathon review of every single Godzilla film I naturally go back to the first one and though I have seen it before, it always manages to surprise me with just how good it is. Much more than ridiculous giant monster action (that I’ll no doubt soon be reviewing with glee nonetheless), this film has a very strong dramatic presence. It’s no secret that this is a thinly veiled way of dealing with Japan’s shock from the then-recent Nagasaki & Hiroshima atomic bombings. It was taboo to make a film directly depicting the bombings or indeed war at all at the time, so Toho produced Gojira which manages at once to transpose the frenzy, horror, and despair of the events into an awesome monster movie.

The reptile in question isn’t actually visibly present for the first half an hour or so, with his attacks being presented from a personal, human perspective. It isn’t clear what is causing the disasters to happen and the civilian hysteria is coupled with a mixture of bemusement and arrogance in the political world, instantly hitting some very raw nerves from World War 2. The building tension throughout this section is brilliantly executed too. Some pretty horrific disaster scenes for the time and the complete mystery of the cause all comes to a head when our main characters first witness Godzilla looming over a mountaintop. This first glimpse is… well… actually, it’s pretty terrible.

It’s a shame that this first glimpse is so poor as many later scenes have pretty convincing effects, especially in longer shots where careful lighting and composition coupled with some great composite shots and miniatures really sell the difficult image of a 50-metre reptile destroying Tokyo. Close-ups do suffer in the same way as the first sighting we have, but the content of the film is good enough that these shots only take you out of the action for a brief moment. And you can’t be too harsh on a film that was made 60 years ago which pioneered the new ‘suitmation’ style of effects.

That’s more like it

The destruction of Tokyo is certainly on a wide scale but never creeps over the line to be sensational as there are constant glimpses of the true, human horror of it, again echoing scenes from the real-life bombings. A particularly poignant scene featuring reporters broadcasting literally till the end stands out amongst many and when the destruction ends, truly affecting scenes in makeshift hospitals are painfully reminiscent of documentary footage from the real-life aftermath. The strongest hint of B-Movie styling comes from Daisuke Serizawa, the ‘mad scientist’, complete with eye-patch and pseudo-scientific babble. In practice though, Serizawa is a well fleshed out character and in the wider context of the film doesn’t simply avoid being corny; he provides the more difficult moral discussions in this film.

“Bring me a Dutch angle, STAT!”

It’s fascinating to see how the campy monster movie was dissected to create a pretty balanced account of Japan’s recent history that would otherwise have been frowned upon. So too it will be interesting to see how faithfully these origins are treated in the following films. As for this film in itself, that the only real negative point I can make is about a few dated effects shots proves that it’s actually a fantastic film, not just for fans of monster movies – I would call it a truly essential classic, a precursor and template to the blockbusters that fill cinemas nowadays.

10/10