Christmas Eve is upon us and with it comes a cavalcade of holiday classics, cast-offs and crap. For every White Christmas, A Christmas Story or Elf, we get a dozen Lifetime movies starring Valerie Bertinelli or underwhelming big-screen fare like Deck The Halls. But it takes the discerning Christmas viewer to root out the truly obscure and the jaw-droppingly horrible. We’re not talking Tim Allen-in-a-fat-suit bad— we’re taking Santa Claus-battling-Satan bad.
It’s one thing to stumble across crummy Christmas movies on TV’s beloved Mystery Science Theater 3000, but another thing to find them restored in high-definition on Blu-Ray. But both 1959’s Mexican-made Santa Claus and 1964’s Santa Claus Conquers The Martians have made their high-def debuts over the last year. Of the two, Santa Claus Conquers The Martians is the easier pill to swallow. Badly made but goofily appealing to kids, the film — often better-known for its wacky theme song, “Hooray For Santy Claus” and the fact that ’80’s softcore celebrity Pia Zadora played one of the Martian children — the film has a low-rent charm and looks decent on Blu-Ray despite not being shown in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio (distributor Kino Lorber claims that the only acceptable element they had to use was a 1.33:1 16mm print). Extras include 45 minutes of amazing Yuletide shorts and ephemera.
More problematic is Santa Claus, Mexican exploitation director Rene Cardona’s tale of good-and-evil in Mexico City, where Santa and Satan do battle for a young girl’s soul on Christmas Eve. If that sounds a little ridiculous (not to mention heavy-handed) to begin with, keep in mind that (a) Santa lives in a Bespin-like cloud village full of freaky inventions; (b) Santa’s key advisor is Merlin The Magician of Arthurian legend; and (c) the devil here is a fey lesser demon named “Pitch” who jauntily prances around in a red Spandex suit. The word “insane” doesn’t do this movie justice. The Blu-Ray from VCI is a huge upgrade from the public-domain DVDs that have been floating around for years and includes both the Mexican version of the film in Spanish as well as the American dub and re-edit supervised by scholockmeister U.S. producer K. Gordon Murray. Despite being shown in its original aspect ratio (perhaps for the first time since it was originally released) the disc showcases some weird encoding errors, including a second-long insert of color bars (which VCI promised to fix and repress and never did). The generous extras are more centered around the actual movie here, including an informative commentary by Daniel Griffith, a retrospective on the film, deleted scenes (!) and three mid-‘60’s-era K. Gordon Murray shorts.
Rifftrax, the commentary-on-demand company established by Mystery Science Theater 3000 veterans Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, are no strangers to holiday cheer as they’ve put out a pair of incredible Christmas chestnuts which are — if it’s possible — even more inept than either Santa Claus or Santa Claus Conquers The Martians. 1964’s The Magic Christmas Tree details the adventures of a chunky tween who, given a ring and magic seeds by a witch, grows a Christmas tree who, through the voice of what seems to be a petulant drag queen, grants him three wishes, including one where he holds Santa hostage. The film is hopelessly amateurish, but it’s Citizen Kane compared to 1972’s Santa Claus And The Ice Cream Bunny, a ridiculous Christmas-Easter hybrid shot at a seedy Florida amusement park. The story is ostensibly about the Easter, er, “Ice Cream” Bunny — a guy in a creepy, ill-fitting rabbit suit who drives a fire-truck — helping Santa pull his sleigh out of the sand, but it’s actually a framing device for an older fairy-tale short, “Thumbelina,” which has absolutely nothing to do with the main story. Both films come with commentary by the Rifftrax crew; purists might wish for the addition of the films without the wisecracks, but these films are so tedious and poorly made that it’s hard to see them being bearable on their own. The Rifftrax crew have also just released a compendium of the three K. Gordon Murray shorts included on the Santa Claus Blu-Ray called Santa’s Village Of Madness, where you can learn all about Santa’s heretofore unknown helper… Stinky The Skunk.
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without presents under the tree and any bad-film aficionado would appreciate the latest installment of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 DVD collection, Volume XXV. This set includes films split between the MGM and Universal libraries which, due to myriad rights issues which have finally been resolved, are now available on home video, including the atrocious Robot Holocaust, the Creature From The Black Lagoon sequel Revenge Of The Creature (which is legitimately one of the better films ever on the show), and the Ann-Margret/John Forsythe potboiler Kitten With A Whip.
The highlight, however, is the Italian James Bond knockoff Operation Kid Brother (aka Operation Double 007 and OK Connery), which features Sean Connery’s actual brother Neil Connery, a non-actor wearing a dorky Mitch Miller-esque Van Dyke beard, as a hypnotist recruited by the British Secret Service to take down a terrorist organization. It’s bad enough that the characters keep talking about Connery’s secret agent “brother,” but the filmmakers dragged in not only Bond series actors Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell but Thunderball villain Adolfo Celi and From Russia With Love starlet Daniela Bianchi. Nothing about the movie makes much sense and Connery’s wooden performance is only amplified by having his voice dubbed by another actor (who's American to boot!). It’s prime MST3K cheese and host Joel Hodgson and robot pals Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo have a field day sending up the piece. Extras on the box include retrospectives from the cast and crew and an excellent biography on Revenge Of The Creature filmmaker Jack Arnold, a dependable Universal Studios director best known for the original Creature and The Incredible Shrinking Man.
If you’ve had enough eggnog (well-spiked, natch) and have finally reached your Christmas season tipping point, any of these films might help you get through to Christmas Day— or drive you over the edge. Happy Holidays!