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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Lifeforce (1985) – Review

Following the enormous success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist (with the enjoyable The Funhouse in between doing pretty well too), Tobe Hooper signed a three film deal with Cannon Films, the company famed for their flurry of crazy films through the 1980’s. Both parties had big ideas of adapting the subtly titled novel Space Vampires to shake their respective  images as horror director and exploitation film studio, and this $25 million blockbuster was released… To near indifference, as it received mixed reviews and made back less than half it’s budget at the Box Office. What may have been forgotten about slowly became a cult hit, with a high-concept blend of sci-fi & horror, eventually prompting the dependable Arrow Video to release a special edition Blu-Ray. Does it deserve to remain forgotten or is it an under-appreciated gem?

Blue lights… it’s definitely an 80’s film.

Opening with blockbuster intent, the powerful score accompanies some spectacular scenes of asteroids and a space shuttle, as the British/American crew of the Churchill investigate Halley’s Comet. There’s a brilliantly handled mixture of suspense, mystery and a strong visual flair to the whole section of the film that takes place in space, as the investigation unearths alien activity in the form of a famously nude Mathilda May. The camera floats around dreamily, really helping to sell the zero-gravity effect, plus showing off the set designs with their vast & desolate, yet visually striking presence. The effects in deep space shots have inevitably dated, but rather than looking objectively bad, there’s an almost cel-shaded, unique quality to many of them that I felt enhanced the otherworldly feel of this section of the film. Returning to earth rather abruptly we’re left to discover the fate of the Churchill’s crew at the same time as the search party. I try to avoid spoilers but let’s be realistic; if the novels’ titular “Space Vampires” sat playing Monopoly with the humans there wouldn’t be much of a film. Their intent is slowly revealed throughout the film, in a surprisingly clever Rashomon-effect manner, relying on characters’ revelations. Though according to they’re being honest or true or being deceived the “truth” can change. With a film that already merges different genres together, adding this element of mystery really creates a unique experience. True to the horror element however, the means by which the Vampires acquire their sustenance has some horrendous results, with some genuinely shocking moments and fantastically unpleasant practical effects.

SMOKING IS BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH

With the basic synopsis being; Tobe Hooper directs Cannon Films’ movie where space vampires are brought back to earth from Halley’s Comet, only to break free and cause chaos around London; it would be easy to assume that this is on some level a campy film, or at least has moments of humor. However, it is rare any of the uptight British characters or the tough-talking Americans crack a smile, let alone the film having any moments of comic relief. It’s an entirely straight-faced, sombre affair that would have so easily misfired into ‘so bad it’s good’ territory if it wasn’t so masterfully pulled off. For the most part, the cast are excellent, with some unexpectedly esteemed faces including  (later Sir) Patrick Stewart. It’s a shame however, given everything that the first two acts work so hard to achieve, that the third veers into the territory of yet another _____ of the Dead clone. It may have been budgetary constraints, as I’m sure the near-apocalyptic sequences in London were intended to be more exciting and more unique than what we’re ultimately presented with, and the alternative would have been having the big events unseen which would be even worse. It manages to narrowly avoid descending into visual gags and the like, so while this is by far the weakest part of the film, it isn’t destroyed in these moments. Thankfully returning to point towards the end, the crescendo of the film is as unpredictable and exciting as much that precedes it.

“Glasgow’s miles better”? Looks just like Glasgow to me.

I often see debate surrounding Tobe Hooper’s quality as a director, with some passing off The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s most terrifying and difficult to watch moments as happy accidents; the result of the poor technical aspects of the film rather than masterful direction; and perhaps the same people perpetuating the belief that Poltergeist was practically directed by Steven Spielberg. Whatever truth lies in these stories, Lifeforce for me certainly adds another impressive entry to his early catalogue. Rather than reinvent Cannon’s label as exploitation masters, Hooper has managed something perhaps even harder; to make the signature excess and gratuity seem classy.

9/10