December 22, 2010

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

IT’S OFFICIAL: I have a new favorite bad movie.

I had heard about Santa Claus Conquers the Martians over the years, but it wasn’t until I watched it last week with Dash that I truly realized what I was missing.


Martian leader Kimar (Leonard Hicks) is upset his children spend so much time watching TV shows from Earth singing the praises of Santa Claus (John Call), so he leads a group of Martians to Earth to kidnap Santa and take him to Mars. In their travels, they abduct two children who lead the aliens to Santa, whom they kidnap as well. Will Santa and his two little Earthling friends be stuck on Mars forever? Will it be a year without a Santa Claus? (Oh wait, that’s another story.)


It’s hard to believe the same year that gave us Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer also gave us Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. It’s an exceptionally poor film in many – check that, all – respects, but one that provides unintentional laughs and even an odd sense of warmth in its desire to please.

Regarding the title: Conquers” is a bit of an overstatement – frankly, Santa doesn’t do jack in terms of overthrowing the Martians (and he’s pretty blasé after Kimar tells him he won’t be returning to Earth). The conquering lies more in the hands of Billy (Victor Siles) and Betty (Donna Conforti), the kids the Martians abduct while searching Earth for Santa.

There’s not enough room to list all the things wrong with Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, but here’s a sample of some of the biggies:
  • The pitiful lighting: Were the filmmakers just cheap, or were they deliberately trying to conceal the flimsiness of the sets?
  • The cornball dialogue by everyone involved, such as a news announcer declaring, “Mrs. Claus has positively identified the kidnappers as Martians” and Billy telling the leader, “You’ll never get a way with this, you…you…Martian!”
  • When the Martian’s ship is spotted in the sky by the US military, we’re treated to extended stock footage of military command centers and Air Force pilots jumping into fighter planes (the same footage was used at the beginning of Dr. Strangelove – also released in 1964!)
  • A “polar bear” that chases Billy and Betty at the North Pole is obviously a man in a polar bear suit, to the point that he stands upright and casually walks out of frame as the scene ends
  • There are actually typos in the movie: One in the opening credits (“Custume Designer”) and another in a newspaper headline (see right)
  • The please-make-it-stop theme song, “Hooray for Santy Claus,” is played over the opening and closing credits and sung by then-child-actor Pia Zadora, who also plays one of the Martian children (her first movie role) 

While some films claim to be the worst movie ever made, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians truly delivers the goods in terms of sheer awfulness. And though it may be a lump of coal in the stocking of cinema, it provides plenty of opportunities to laugh at its ineptitude, especially when viewed in a group environment. (In that sense, I’m shocked it hasn’t gained a stronger cult following during the holidays.)

By watching Santa Claus Conquers the Martians last week with Dash, and showing him how to enjoy a truly bad movie, Christmas did indeed come early this year.

* Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was shot on Long Island, New York, mostly with Broadway actors who never appeared in films again.
* “Hooray for Santy Claus” was written by Milton DeLugg, who went on to become the leader of the house band for TV’s The Gong Show in the late 1970s. (He was composing music for the game show What’s My Line? during filming of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.)
* Producer Joseph E. Levine also produced another holiday-themed kids’ film in the ‘60s: 1967’s Mad Monster Party.

What did Dash think?
Initially, it took some egging for him to put up with Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, but once he saw me laughing at the bad special effects and adding my own lines to the cheesy dialogue, he joined in the fun and we made a sport of it. More than once, the told me with a smile that “this is probably the worst movie ever made.”

Is it suitable for your kids?
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is essentially harmless, but there a couple of scenes that wee ones (read: toddlers) might find frightening: a Martian commands a six-foot-tall robot to crush Billy and Betty with his arms, and the “polar bear” chases the kids into a cave at the North Pole. There’s also some Martian-on-Martian fisticuffs (can’t they all just get along?).

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
If she enjoys so-bad-it’s-good movies, she’s in for a treat with Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Here’s a chance to make it a new holiday tradition for your family.

“Now, fat man, you’ll witness the firepower of this fully operational soundstage!”
(You’re welcome, fellow nerds…and Merry Christmas.)

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
* Director: Nicholas Webster
* Screenwriter: Glenville Mareth
* Stars: John Call, Leonard Hicks, Vincent Beck, Bill McCutcheon, Victor Stiles, Donna Conforti, Chris Month, Pia Zadora
* MPAA Rating: N/A

Buy Santa Claus Conquers the Martians from >>
Rent Santa Claus Conquers the Martians from Netflix >>

December 18, 2010

Best Worst Movie (2009)

TO SAY A FILM IS “the worst movie ever made” is not only a bold statement, it’s a subjective one.

For example: While 1990’s Troll 2 is surely a terrible film (I watched it last week for the first time), there are definitely films with worse acting, cinematography, set design, etc. to rank them lower in the bowels of cinema sin.

Yet over the last two decades, Troll 2 has taken on a cult following based on its “worst movie ever” word of mouth – spawning special screenings, Troll 2-themed parties, even body art dedicated to the awfulness of this film.


In this documentary, actor Michael Stephenson (the child star of Troll 2) travels the country and speaks to fans and cast members of Troll 2 to find out how a low-budget horror film, shot in Utah, starring a dentist-turned-actor and directed by a thickly accented Italian, found a second life as a cult classic.


The unofficial star of Best Worst Movie is George Hardy, a career dentist who played the dad in Troll 2 and seems to be one of the most likeable guys on the planet (even his ex-wife thinks he’s awesome). He’s in nearly every scene of Best Worst Movie, his personality and laughter are contagious, and he’s unabashedly proud of being part of Troll 2’s, uh, legacy.

Just as one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, some of the cast and crew of Troll 2 actually think they made a good movie. The film’s editor has the cajones to say that movies like the Harry Potter series owe their existence to Troll 2, while actress Margo Prey (who played the mom in Troll 2 and is now an eccentric recluse living with her mother) puts Troll 2 in the same company as the films of Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.

In addition, the husband/wife team of director Claudio Fragasso and screenwriter Rossella Drudi still see Troll 2 as an important film that tackles serious topics like family, society, and mortality. Fragasso is especially interesting to watch as he displays both confusion and pride at the cult-like popularity of his film.

Best Worst Movie is fascinating to watch, even if you’ve never seen Troll 2. It’s surprisingly moving to see how revered the cast is by fans, especially when the actors show up at sold-out screenings across the country. It’s definitely a case of the fans laughing with the cast, not at them – and when you watch this oddly touching documentary, you’ll do the same.


Is it suitable for your kids?
Best Worst Movie does contain adult language (including several F-bombs). And in a clip from Troll 2, a woman’s bare breast is briefly shown.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Even if your FilmMother’s not into horror or so-bad-it’s-good movies, I believe she would enjoy watching Best Worst Movie with you.

Official trailer:

Best Worst Movie
* Director: Michael Stephenson
* Screenwriter: Michael Stephenson
* Stars: George Hardy, Michael Stephenson, Darren Ewing, Jason Steadman, Jason Wright, Claudio Fragasso, Connie McFarland
* MPAA Rating: N/A

Buy Best Worst Movie from (DVD) >>
Buy Troll 2 from (DVD) >>
Buy Troll 2 from (Blu-Ray/DVD Combo) >>
Rent Best Worst Movie from Netflix >>

December 13, 2010

Opposite Day (2010)

CHILD/ADULT ROLE-REVERSAL MOVIES are nothing new. Freaky Friday, Vice Versa, 18 Again!…

So what does Opposite Day offer the genre? Dash and I pressed Play to find out…


Two siblings, Sammy (Billy Unger) and Carla (Ariel Winter), are disappointed when their workaholic parents send them on vacation with their grandparents to a cabin in the nearby mountains. Back in town, a team of scientists (led by French Stewart) concocts a powerful formula that switches behaviors of adults and children, when it suddenly goes awry and blankets the whole town – just at the same moment that Sammy, on his vacation with Carla and their grandparents, wishes that kids could rule the world. When Sammy and Carla return from their trip, they find their dad Robert (Pauly Shore), mom Denise (Colleen Crabtree) and all the other adults behaving like children, while the youngsters are running the town.


Sadly and ironically, the big weak link in Opposite Day is the large cast of pre-teen children. Many of the kids are less than convincing when delivering adult dialogue – leaving the film’s two kid stars, Unger and Winter, to pick up the slack. Watching the dozens of 10-year-olds in the movie have extended conversations using adult-sized words is draining (though strangely, it did make me want to revisit Bugsy Malone).

That’s not to say that there aren’t a couple of cute touches to the adult/kid switcheroo. The funniest bit is when a pint-sized policeman takes Sammy and Carla’s grandparents to jail and books them – using finger cuffs for handcuffs, finger paints for fingerprints, and a Sears-like portrait backdrop for their mug shots.

It was also occasionally amusing to listen to the kids as they try to discipline their child-like parents (of which Stewart does the best job of acting juvenile). Those of you with children will smirk and nod while hearing kids bark out oh-so-familiar parenting phrases such as “I’m not asking you, I’m telling you,” “Don’t make me come back there,” “Because I said so,” and the classic “I don’t care whose idea it was, both of you clean up this mess now!”

Opposite Day looks like it took a lot of effort to put together, and the fact that that effort is visible on-screen is not a good thing. Nearly everything seems forced, particularly the kids’ performances and director R. Michael Givens’ attempt to stretch a one-note plot into a 90-minute film. It could easily pass as one of those live-action, made-for-Disney-Channel movies; I wouldn’t say that’s a good thing, either.

What did Dash think?
While he did chuckle a couple of times and stayed with Opposite Day till the end, he said with a wrinkled face, “It was just okay” – probably because he’s too young to know to say, “meh.”

Will your kids like it?
While is Opposite Day is rated G and is suitable for all ages, I can’t imagine kids younger than the film’s cast members having the tolerance or attention span to sit through the whole thing.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
She may think the premise is cute, but she and your kids would no doubt have a better experience with any of three role-reversal films I mentioned at the top. the "WEA-sel" doesn't want broccoli...? Tough noogies.

Opposite Day
* Director: R. Michael Givens
* Screenwriter: Max Botkin
* Stars: Billy Unger, Ariel Winter, Pauly Shore, Colleen Crabtree, French Stewart, Dick Van Patten
* MPAA Rating: G

Buy Opposite Day from >>
Rent Opposite Day from Netflix >>

December 2, 2010

Watership Down (1978)

APOLOGIES ALL AROUND for the uneven frequency of my reviews lately. Hopefully I can get several fresh reviews posted before 2010 is history.

On that note, I bring a review of a film that was a milestone in my movie-viewing…


When neurotic visionary Fiver (Richard Briers) tells his brother Hazel (John Hurt) that something bad is going to happen to their warren, a small group of rabbits – including Hazel, brutish Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox), and clever Blackberry (Simon Cadell) – set out on a quest for a new home. In their adventures, they encounter dangerous predators, other warrens with strangely-acting rabbits, and ultimately a warren run with fascist-type discipline by General Woundwort (Ralph Richardson).


With my initial viewing around age 10, Watership Down was the first film to show me that animation can be more than just slapstick cartoons or Disney fare (not that there’s anything wrong with either of those things). My young mind knew I was experiencing something on a whole new level as I watched Hazel lead his (often doubting) followers through dangerous passages on the quest for a place to call home.

Speaking of Hazel, writer/director Martin Rosen gives this two-dimensional, animated rabbit more complexity than many living, breathing, human characters in motion pictures. In the face of danger and the threat of destruction, Hazel rises to the occasion: Bigwig may have the muscle, and Fiver may have the vision, but it’s Hazel who becomes the group’s de facto leader. He’s like a cotton-tailed Moses, struggling to lead his people to a promised land.

And much like Moses’ The Ten Commandments, it can be argued that Watership Down is an epic story in its own right. From the exodus taken by the rabbits, to the ensemble cast, to the conflicts and obstacles they face on their way to their destination, the film is a sprawling journey – one that culminates in a confrontation with a seemingly unbeatable foe (General Woundwort, one of the most underrated villains in movie history).

Another biblical aspect of Watership Down is its use of spirituality. Faith plays a significant role in the film. Starting with the prelude showing how rabbits were created by their god Frith, the rabbits’ devotion to Him is woven into their dialogue and decisions – all the way up to the heart-pounding climax where Hazel pleads with Frith to save his people from Woundwort’s army.

A couple nits: The character of the bird Kehaar (Zero Mostel), while necessary to the story, serves up comic relief that largely falls flat – and in a German-accented voice that quickly gets old. Also, the animation is a bit iffy at times: There’s frequent choppiness when the rabbits are in action, and items that will soon come into play are sometimes colored more obviously – making these scenes feel a bit Hanna/Barbera-esque.

Watership Down is an amazing film that’s hard to categorize. It’s a decidedly mature animated feature that’s alternately somber, exhilarating, quiet, scary, trippy, terrifying, violent, action-packed, and bittersweet. Revisit it if you haven’t seen it in a while; see it now if you’ve never had the experience.

(An open plea: While Warner Brothers did release a Region 1 (US) “Deluxe Edition” DVD of Watership Down in 2008, there’s a Region 4 “25th Anniversary Edition” from 2003 that has many more extras, including full-length director’s commentary by Rosen. If anyone knows where I can get a Region 1 or region-free version of this edition, please e-mail me and let me know.)


Is it suitable for your kids?
It baffles me that, after more than 30 years, stores and libraries still file Watership Down in their Children’s or Family section simply because it features animated bunnies. Don’t be fooled – Watership Down is not for young children. It’s rated PG for a reason – well, several reasons: Rabbits are snatched by birds of prey, caught in snares, buried alive, engage in bloody fights, and shot by a farmer. (That being said, I would argue that Watership Down is a near-perfect film for the transition from childhood to adolescence.)

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
While Watership Down is a great film, be sure you inform her that it’s not about cute, fluffy bunnies playing in the meadow. It’s heavy, serious stuff – but it’s also a moving, engaging film.

Carrots?! Where??!!

Watership Down
* Director: Martin Rosen
* Screenwriter: Martin Rosen
* Stars: John Hurt, Richard Briers, Michael Graham Cox, Simon Cadell, Ralph Richardson, Roy Kinnear, Hannah Gordon
* MPAA Rating: PG

Buy Watership Down from >>
Rent Watership Down from Netflix >>


Related Posts with Thumbnails