Monday, January 1, 2007

Book and Movie Review: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians by Lou Harry. Roadside Amusements, New York: 2005. Includes DVD.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, 1964. Directed by Nicholas Webster. Produced by Paul L Jacobson, Joseph E. Levine, and Arnold Lees. Written by Paul L. Jacobson and Glenville Mareth.

Lou Harry, a film major with a number of published books under his belt, has taken up the thankless task of novelizing a movie, a task doubly thankless because the movie is Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, a film famous for its badness. As an aside, this is further evidence of my movie-predicting prowess. I have thought for years that there should be a remake of this movie, and one has apparently been in the works for a while, and though Harry’s novel isn’t exactly a movie, it is an imaginative extension of the original film, much as a remake would be. So there you go.

I can say little about the movie. If you like hideously bad movies like Night of the Lepus, Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, Plan 9 from Outer Space, The Covenant, Eragon, or films of similar quality, you will like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. If you’re not into that kind of thing, you will hate this movie. It’s that simple. Apparently, this movie has a cult following, partly because Pia Zadora, who plays eight-year-old Martian girl Girmar, grew up to become a diva of bad movies.

Here’s a quick synopsis. The Martians discover that their children have become despondent, interested in nothing except Earth TV programs depicting Santa Claus. After asking for help from Chochem, a typical wise old guy, the Martian leader Kimar hatches a plan to kidnap Santa Claus from Earth and bring him back to Mars. He takes along his henchmen, including the unambiguously evil Voldar, who even has a sinister moustache, and a klutz named Dropo. On Earth, they stop and ask directions from two children, Billy and Betty, who they then kidnap to ensure the children don’t alert “the authorities.” They make it to the North Pole, have a pointless run-in with someone in a polar bear suit, proceed to Santa’s workshop, kidnap Santa, and whisk him to Mars. Voldar fails to jettison Santa, Billy, and Betty out an airlock. Voldar escapes capture and gets a few henchmen of his own. Santa gets an automated toy shop to make toys for Martian children. Voldar sabotages the shop and mistakenly kidnaps Dropo, who has put on Santa’s spare suit. Voldar is caught and foiled again (curses!), this time by the two human children and their two Martian children companions, who attack Voldar with toys. Dropo manages to rise to the position of Martian Santa Claus so the real Santa and the human children can make their way back to Earth for a big, happy ending.

Yes, it’s ridiculous.

Harry’s novel is essentially a narration of the movie, told from the point of view of Girmar. He improves the dialogue in a few places and deletes a scene or two, but otherwise the book is accurate to the film. He doesn’t simply tell the movie’s story, though. He makes fun of it. He makes humorous asides and comes up with a number of hilarious explanations for the film’s numerous incongruities. For example, Kimar’s wife Momar makes Santa a spare costume. Dropo dons it, impersonating Santa. The costume includes a fake beard even though Santa has a beard already, and Harry explains this by telling us in detail that Momar had a real thing for fake beards and was always making them for everybody. The book is packed with this kind of gentle ridicule, and the result is a novel that is not bestseller material by any means, but certainly amusing. Harry also references other B movies, which isn’t surprising, considering his field of expertise.

The book is entertaining, but it has a serious weakness; no one can appreciate it who does not already appreciate the movie. Fortunately, Harry has that covered. A DVD of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is included with the novel. If you like bad movies and want to add this one to your collection, buying a copy of this book is probably the second best way to do it (the first, of course, is getting the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode).

Considered against its source material, the novel is strong, but considered against other novels, even other fluffy, humorous novels, it’s rather weak, both because of its dependence on the movie and because it’s not as funny as it should be.

For our purposes here, I must mention an interesting line at the novel’s beginning: “Nobody here on Mars was as mysterious, except perhaps Chochem, who never had a holiday in his honor or a stop-motion animated special on the video machine. Santa has dozens” (p. 8). I assume Girmar means that Santa Claus has dozens of stop-motion animated specials, not holidays.

Santa Claus does have a holiday in his honor: it’s December 6, the Feast of St. Nicholas. Christmas is actually in honor of someone else. I have no intention here of tracing the long, undoubtedly complicated history of how St. Nicholas became associated with Christmas or of how he got his hands on those elves and flying reindeer. Nonetheless, this comment is telling. To Girmar of Mars, watching Earth television, Christmas appears to be about one thing: Santa Claus bringing presents. To an outside observer, Christmas is a Santa-centered holiday.

I’m not going to get deep into the subject of the so-called “War on Christmas,” but it is interesting that this Christian holiday, secularized in its most popular forms, is even losing its name, Christ’s Mass, which had already become all but meaningless. Whether or not there is an organized war on Christmas, there are people and organizations bent on eradicating the name Christmas from the public sphere because it contains vestigial religious associations. I find it amusing that these same people are not eradicating Santa Claus, who is of course a Christian saint (“Santa” is not his first name).

Eliminating the meaning of a holiday and yet keeping the holiday is as foolish as making Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Even changing Christmas to holiday accomplishes nothing. Just as Christmas means Christ’s Mass, holiday means holy day, that is, a day a religion considers sacred. To call Christmas a holy day and refuse to acknowledge why it is holy is absurd.

It is equally absurd that Evangelicals, who for eleven months out of the year attack Catholics for using icons, clamor for their right to display nativity scenes in public parks on the twelfth month of the year. But that’s a different issue.

For non-Christians, the logical thing to do with Christmas is nothing; that is, they shouldn’t celebrate it, much the way non-Jews don’t celebrate Hanukah. Probably many Jews would feel offended if they did celebrate Hanukah, because people who do not believe in what a holiday represents only desecrate the holiday by trying to participate. These celebrations are signs of solidarity and shared belief with the groups to whom the celebrations belong.

An outsider like Girmar, looking into our culture, would see a lot of St. Nicholas at Christmastime, but might miss the birth of St. Nicholas’s master, the one who inspired St. Nicholas to become what he was. Girmar would see happiness and laughter, but wouldn’t find the source of the happiness and laughter. None of this speaks well for the health of the culture or the health of the Christmas holiday.

Incidentally, while I’m on the subject, X-mas, which arouses some annual ire, was not originally intended to cut Christ from Christmas, though some now use it that way. X is the first letter of Christ in Greek; hence, it used to be a legitimate abbreviation, but now seems to be used only by people who like to bug other people.

Keep Mass in Christmas.

D. G. D., December 29, 2006
blog comments powered by Disqus