Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Christmas 2015: December 20

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

“Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” has long been considered the worst Christmas movie ever made, if not one of the worst films ever made period. Even before seeing the movie, I personally found this hard to believe. There have been so many crappy Christmas movies pumped out over the years. (I mean, the Hallmark Channel has to show something throughout the entirety of November and December.) I think people like to attack “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” simply because of its outrageous title. After watching it on its own, I can rightfully declare “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” not the worst Christmas movie ever made. Heck, it’s not even the worst Christmas movie shown on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s rather bad. But there’s something to be said for its stodgy weirdness.

On Earth, children eagerly anticipate their yearly visit from Santa Claus. In his workshop, Santa works hard on fulfilling the wishes of the world’s kids. Meanwhile, the alien children of Mars have no happiness. They have no conception of toys, Christmas, or Santa Claus. Distraught by their children’s depression, the Martian adults consult the great Martian elder. He recommends that the people of Mars kidnap Santa Claus, so he can bring joy and happiness to their kids. They comply, kidnapping two Earth children in the process. Though Santa would prefer to stay on Earth, he’s happy to help the Martians. Meanwhile, forces on Mars want to send Santa packing.

People like to crap on low budget movies, frequently aligning a film’s quality with the amount of money spent on it. Truthfully, a movie’s budget has nothing to do with how enjoyable it is. If my years of watching independent films have taught me anything, it’s that meagerly budgeted films can be far more exciting or clever then the biggest blockbusters. “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” was obviously made for very little money. The whole film takes place over about four or five sets. About two people work in Santa Claus’ shop. The score is incredibly repetitive, mostly repeating variations on the surprisingly catchy theme song. The movie’s robot, Torg, is obviously played by a man in a cardboard costume. The film employs a similar tactic for its polar bear, played by an entirely unconvincing man in a suit. The Martians are played by actors in cheap costumes with sickly green grease paint slathered on their faces.

Don’t confuse my statements as a defense of “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” The movie is quite bad in many ways. The pacing moves in halts and shudders. The long sequence of the two abducted children wandering around the North Pole is one example of this. Voldar, the villainous Martian who wishes to eject Santa from Mars, never has a very consistent plan. He attempts multiple insurrections, trying the same maneuvers repeatedly. The fist fights between Voldar and the heroic Kimar are hilariously choreographed. The film’s comic relief, a buffoonish Martian named Dropo, is very annoying. Santa is a rather passive protagonist. Instead of motivating the plot, he’s tugged in different directions by the whims of other characters. The young actors playing the main kids are just awful, starring ahead blankly as they monotonously recite their lines.

But you don’t need me to tell you that “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” is a bad movie. You probably guessed that just from reading the title. Despite its many obvious, apparent flaws, there’s something weirdly captivating about “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” The movie’s low-key, languid pacing lulls you into a pleasant state of relaxation. The film was both written and produced by Paul L. Jacobson, suggesting this was a personal effort. (Director Nicholas Webster mostly worked in television and would later direct a Bigfoot documentary called “Manbeast! Myth or Monster?”) The movie’s super low-budget production values are actually fairly charming. The Martian lair, which includes triangles that the children sit under when they sleep, is interesting to look at. Amusingly, even on Mars, the wife is totally subservient to the husband. The kiddy-movie conclusion where the kids defeat the villains with toys, is… Well, it’s something. Imagine watching “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” on late night TV, drifting in and out of sleep. Or having it play in the background on a static-y TV while putting up the Christmas tree. In these scenarios, the goofy, low budget, badly made film takes on a whole new appeal.

There’s no doubt a thick flavor of cheese infects every reel of “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” It’s a weirdly hypnotizing mixture of low-balling kiddy flick and weirdo sci-fi movie. It’s not really good and never quite crosses over into hilariously bad. Nevertheless, it remains strangely fascinating. I’m just glad I exist in a world where a movie as weird as “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” exists. Should I dare attempt to watch “Santa Claus and the Ice Cream Bunny” next December? [5/10]

Community: Regional Holiday Music

Season three is my favorite season of “Community.” The Troy and Abed friendship, the true heart of the show, was fully established by that point. The show finally figured out what to do with Britta, utilizing Gillian Jacobs’ incredible skills as a physical comedian by turning her into a clumsy goofball. The series’ rich supporting cast was built in, leaving a solid foundation for quick jokes and one-off gags. The show was also at its most ambitious by this point, doing a number of fantastic themed episodes. One such themed episode is “Regional Holiday Music,” which functions as both the third season’s Christmas episode and the series’ musical episode.

With Christmas arriving, the Study Group’s arch-enemies – the Glee Club – are out singing and dancing in obnoxious ways. Jeff, however, utilizes his skills as a lawyer and knowledge of copyrights to get the Glee Club shut down. This causes the club members to have nervous breakdowns. Meanwhile, Abed worries that the year has gotten too dark and that his friends won’t have a happy Christmas. He seeks out Mr. Rad, the Glee Club organizer. Unknowingly, Abed sets a musical virus spreading through all his friends.

“Regional Holiday Music” is obviously built around making fun of “Glee,” a rival show that was wildly popular at the time but has already receded from the popular consciousness. The overwhelming happiness of song-and-dance numbers is mocked. Breaking out into song is shown as a virus, sapping the infectee of their personality and making them obsessed with “regionals.” The visual language of the show, with its spinning cameras and pianos that keep playing when nobody sits at them, is also mocked. Early in the episode, Jeff says that trying to make things happier at the holidays will just reveal more darkness. This is revealed to be true, when the psychotically happy Mr. Rad – played by a hilariously deranged Taran Killian – is shown to be genuinely psychotic, confessing to murdering the previous Glee Club. The show isn’t just lobbing jabs at “Glee.” It’s also mocking a pop culture that insists happiness is the only acceptable mood around December, ignoring how complex and melancholy the holiday can be.

Despite making fun of the musical format, “Regional Holiday Music” actually features some catchy songs. The first number, “Glee!,” is insanely catchy. One of “Community’s” strengths was its total grasp on the characters. Troy raps about being a Jehovah’s Witness, going “undercover” as a Christmas celebrator. The production of this sequence features plenty of clever, easily missed gags. “Baby Boomer Santa” caters to Pierce’s ego and hunger for nostalgia as a baby boomer. It also amusingly incorporates a number of pop styles over a few minutes. Shirley is won over with a choir of children singing about how they don’t know who Jesus is. (Yvette Nicole Brown’s panicked mumbles of “That's what they do!” gets me every time.) Annie is converted off-screen, performing an overly sexualized song-and-dance in order to infect Jeff. In this scene, the show mocks the weird trend of both infantilizing and sexualizing young women, obviously making fun of “Santa Baby” and similar songs. It also has Allison Brie gyrating in very revealing lingerie, so everyone wins. And if you prefer Britta, she wears a skin-tight body stocking before the show is over too.

There’s plenty of gags that are just silly too. Like Jim Rash’s Dean talking about his dreams, Gillian Jacobs’ inspired silly Christmas dance, or the credits bumper that features a unique rendition of “Carol of the Bells.” Just the sight of Donald Glover eating a sandwich got a laugh out of me. This is probably the only Christmas episode to reference “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Star Wars Holiday Special.” In short, another classic. [9/10]

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