This was supposed to be an easy Trash or Treasure to do before the festive season really kicked in. The plan was to find a seasonal movie with a reputation for being a stinker and heap 800 more words of jovial disdain on its head. Could you get any surer shot than a film that’s spent its whole life in the bottom 100 of the Internet Database, has appeared on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, and even made the 100 Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made list by the founder of the Razzies? I thought not, and I was wrong. Very happily wrong. And I now know why it shat out money like a gilded Christmas goose when it first hit the cinemas in 1964.
The story is as sturdy as you need for 80 minutes of kid-friendly feel good amusement. The children of Mars are all feeling terrible, so their leader of the planet consults the sage Chochem and says it’s all the mind control learning, overly rigid social structure, and absence of Christmas causing it. So, being a responsible war chief, Kimar goes to Earth in his rocketship, kidnaps two kids to get directions, and then kidnaps Santa to bring back to Mars.
Once there, Santa is just amazingly jolly at everyone; including to the usurper Voldar, who keeps on trying to kill him. His presence and the newly made toy factory, beings out all kinds of joy in the kids, and the Martians gradually chill out. Voldar tries one final scheme to kill Santa, but the Earth and Mars kids save Santa by the power of toys. Dropo the Martian proves to be especially jolly, whereas previously he had just been useless, and so he becomes Mars Santa and Earth Santa gets to head home to Christmas day and his wife (random fact: this was the film that invented Mrs Claus).
Its bobbins. Pure, perfect, bobbins. It’s taking the sociopolitical complexity of the early ’60s and putting a technicolor shine all over it, uniting the Earth through the universal joy of Christmas and just saying that everything will be alright. It’s not even slightly realistic, and it doesn’t care because it stars Santa. This is not aimed at the cynical or concerned, or anyone who wants to have a mental age over seven. This is for people who want to stay up on Christmas night and get a glimpse of Santa, just to see him.
It’s also not badly produced, even if it wasn’t high budget. The sets are solid bits of Christmas chintz and Sci-Fi modernity, the Martians and their robot are satisfyingly inorganic and strange. It certainly looked better than most Doctor Who episodes of the era and had plenty of good performances throughout. No one did an amazing job, not with that script or direction, but for a slice of matinee sci-fi pantomime, I’ll be amazed if there was anything better out there at the time. The sound was also pretty decent, starting and ending on 100% pure sugar Bobby Soxer nonsense and just keeping things light and active all the way through.
Did it age especially well? Probably not; I suspect it’s too “of its time” for its contemporary target audience to connect with it that much. For anyone older, there isn’t all that much to get stuck into, which is probably why people have gone digging for meanings ranging from pro-consumerism to anti-communism propaganda in it. I don’t buy that though, as it’s really not that deep. You can argue that it oversimplifies the complexities of multiculturalism throughout the world, but that’s like saying The Snowman ignores basic biology. On the plus side, it doesn’t drop any massively offensive clangers, so your main fear whilst watching it will be dozing off during the start of the third act.
Why did it get such a reputation of being “So Bad It’s Good”? My guess is that it’s because it was very obviously a money maker and had no fear over being cheesy. Nothing is easier to mock than honest, open, charitable niceness and a bit of cornball traditionalism, and that has this coming out of its ears. It does exactly what it says on the tin, about the only misnomer is the use of “Conquers” in the title but even then, Santa manages to do that by being unrelentingly pleasant at them all. It’s 80 minutes of mild peril and intense “science-fun-fiction”, so whilst it may not be a treasure it certainly doesn’t deserve being put out in the trash.