Monday, December 26, 2011

An MST3K Christmas

A few years ago I started a tradition of watching a Christmas-themed episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Christmas night. This is the perfect way for self-loathing b-movie fans to punish themselves when they feel that Santa Claus has shown them too much leniency.

At first I would watch Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), which was included in the MST3K Essentials Collection released in 2004 (it's now out of print and selling for about $68 used on In 2009 they released MST3K Volume XVI, which included the Mexican-produced Santa Claus (1959). I tend to alternate between the two. It's one thing to be a regular viewer of bad movies, but when you ritualistically subject yourself to the same ones, it's possibly a sign of mental illness. Of the two films, I think Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is probably worse. When I watched Santa Claus this year, Mrs. Atomic Spud was only able to get through the first 15 minutes (and very nearly went insane in the process). I've been too kind to expose her to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

A movie where Santa doesn't
have the silliest costume
In Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, the Martians realize that their children have become absolutely joyless. They only seem to respond to television signals from Earth that depict the upcoming journey of Santa Claus. With the help of their robot (their awful, awful robot), the Martians kidnap Santa Claus and take him to Mars. It is during this scene where the film attempts to depict Santa as simultaneously innocent and wise while actually making him look befuddled and/or merely stupid. Santa seems relatively unconcerned that a "robot" *snicker* has burst into his shop, that the Martian rayguns appear to have paralyzed Mrs. Claus and the elves, or that he's being kidnapped by aliens. I'm sure that the filmmakers intended to show that Santa was unflappable and was confident that everything would work out for the best, but he just comes across as too stupid to really mind the occasional extraterrestrial abduction. Also along for the ride are two human children that inadvertently gave away the location of Santa's workshop.

The Martians' dreaded cardboard
and vacuum-hose robot
It's during this time that we meet the film's comic relief, Dropo. This character is the source of 90% of the pain delivered by the movie. Forcing myself to watch Dropo's antics annually/biennially is my penance for every time I ever teased my younger sister. In my brief review of Catalina Caper, I noted that MST3K avoided comedies because bad comedies, by definition, are not funny. Dropo is not funny. His capering is not funny, his pratfalls are not funny, and his "comic" misunderstandings and stupidity are not funny.

Anyway, Santa and the two children end up making toys for the Martian children, which makes them and Kimar (King of the Martians) very happy. However, Voldar, who tried to kill Santa Claus shortly after they kidnapped him, believes that this will make Martian children soft and weak and sabotages the toys. Voldar is eventually defeated after he abducts Dropo (who now dresses like his new hero, Santa Claus) believing that the imbecile is Santa himself. The plot is foiled and Voldar is subdued when he is pelted with toys (apparently the hailstorm of toys thrown by children was simply so overwhelming that he couldn't bring to bear his unholstered raygun). Dropo takes over for Santa on Mars (meaning that the Red Planet can have its own idiot in a red suit), Santa is allowed to return home, and the most important part of Christmas (i.e., getting presents from Santa) is saved.

Poor Leonard Hicks
The funniest thing about Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is how differently the actors portray their roles. Santa Claus (John Call) spends most of the time chuckling and treating his Martian captivity as just another amusing event (and never seems to notice that the villain is trying to kill him), Voldar (Vincent Beck) plays his villainous character as over-the-top as possible, and Dropo (Bill McCutcheon) nearly screams "LOOK HOW FUNNY I AM!" while being agonizingly unfunny. The poor Kimar (Leonard Hicks), on the other hand, plays his part entirely straight. He plays his role as the ruler of an alien civilization that has found itself in a crisis in an entirely serious manner. In other words, his presence in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is incongruous with the rest of the film. He really should be playing the sympathetic alien in a '50s sci-fi invasion flick somewhat along the lines of Exeter in This Island Earth (1955). Either every other actor except Hicks realized how absurd the movie was and decided to ham it up, or Hicks was a consummate professional who would play any role, no matter how lame, to the best of his ability. I prefer to think it was the latter.

The bad Christmas
movie for 2011
Santa Claus teaches us that Claus' shop is actually in a palace atop a cloud somewhere well above the Earth's North Pole, that his reindeer are windup toys, that he employs children from around the world rather than elves, and that his greatest nemesis is the Devil. Santa uses a variety of machines that not only look in on children's behavior, but can actually spy on their dreams. (Raise your hand if you'd feel comfortable having your behavior judged by the content of your dreams.)

The first 10 to 15 minutes of the film present us with Santa playing tunes from a variety of nations on his pipe organ while his child laborers sing along in their native language. This excruciating sequence will make you wish you were listening to "It's A Small World" instead. And to make it worse, it's completely irrelevant to the plot. We will also get acquainted with the film's omniscient narrator, who simply won't shut up.

Finally, Santa prepares to leave on his annual journey, which gives us such gems as his windup mechanical reindeer. The reindeer are utterly bizarre and are more nightmarish than whimsical. We also find out that if Santa doesn't return to his palace by sunrise, the reindeer will turn to dust and Santa Claus will starve to death. In the meantime, one of the Devil's chief demons, Pitch, prepares to ruin Claus' mission. Although he says that he'll do this by tempting all the world's children into being bad, the least effective devil in Lucifer's army manages to convince a grand total of three brothers to throw rocks at a window and to hatch a plot to capture Santa. The devil's Plan B is apparently to delay Santa until sunrise (I believe this is a common technique for defeating vampires, too).

Apparently Santa's natural adversary is the Devil

We're later told that Santa visited all the other nations, although it seems that he spends his whole time in Mexico. While there he teaches the three naughty brothers a lesson (their plot to capture him fails without ever being entertaining), gives a little rich boy what he really wants for Christmas (he wants his parents to spend time with him rather than going to parties all the time), and finally gives little Lupita the doll she's always wanted. Pitch's attempt to stall Santa fails with some help from Merlin... wait a minute; Merlin? What does Merlin have to do with Santa Claus?

Despite the horrendous opening and utter weirdness throughout, Santa Claus isn't quite as bad as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Pitch is a ridiculous slapstick character, but he's not as bad as Dropo. Santa Claus doesn't always seem too bright, but unlike his Martian-conquering counterpart, he shows some wisdom every once in a while (particularly when he fulfills the rich boy's wish). And some of the scenes with Lupita are good enough that they deserve to be in a better movie. I also have to admit some bias; I have a soft spot for Mexican movies given the two years I spent in Veracruz as an LDS missionary. Oddly enough, despite the movie's 1959 release date, the interior of Lupita's house resembles nearly 75% of all the homes I visited in southern Mexico.

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