Friday, December 12, 2014
Oddball Film Report: THE CHRISTMAS MARTIAN (1972)
Gather round, children, as your Uncle Rock unearths another forgotten Christmas movie...
Of note-worthy interest, to me at least, is this film's nationality. I have previously examined (and the very least) three Canadian movies in the Oddball Film Report. This marks my first cinematic journey to French Canadian lands. That really doesn't add much to the film's flavor, since it tries very hard to come across as American, but it's interesting to open up my cinematic map a little more (and incidentally add some flavor to the Oddball Film Report).
Because the film is French Canadian, this version has been dubbed into English for consumption in the States, the rest of the Great White North, and whatever other English-speaking countries that might've seen this broadcast on December television blocks. Moreover, the looping is slightly off, meaning the dub even less syncs up with the movement of the actors' lips (although said movements often appear to be English....). The sound effects don't suffer from this, however, beyond a scene in a blacksmith shop where a hammer repeatedly clanks a good beat after we see it strike!
I honestly had no expectations for this, because I knew nothing about it other than the fact it disappointed Pop when he saw it as a kid. I can see why that was. This movie's idea of a "Martian" is little more than a guy in a raccoon coat with a net stocking pulled over his face (something like a "Martian" you might've seen as part of a burlesque skit in 1951, in fact). His flight suit is basically a pair of greenish coveralls with netting stretched over them. The full-size flying saucer is kinda neat in the night scenes, but that comes a bit late to really help.
In short, our focus will jump back and forth between two young children and the man from space. Eventually, they'll meet up and befriend each other. Meanwhile, the town is alarmed over the presence of a monster from space and they converge on The Visitor just as he's about to take off for home.
And it's nowhere near as interesting as it may sound....
We open with Frankie and Cathy, two young children frolicking in the snowy streets of their idyllic small town while on their way to the local store to pick up a few items for Christmas dinner. After a minute or two, in walks the film's less than spectacular Visitor*, who quickly downs a jar of candy before taking off. For no reason at all, he's surrounded by bubbles during this.
(* Although he has a goofy name only he can pronounce, our titular being is credited only as The Visitor.)
Since the Martian looks like nothing so much as an odd hobo, the kids carry about their preparations, which include going out to collect a tree. Meanwhile, the Visitor is still wandering around town. For no reason at all, he steps into a telephone booth and emerges dressed as a woman. When a taxi cab pulls up, the Visitor startles the driver by pulling out a giant matchstick and striking it along the side of the car. Somehow, this propels our hero into the air.
As the locals stand around the general store and gab about the strange goings on (one man treats us to a flashback during which he saw an egg-shaped glowing object fall from the sky the previous night). The local police investigate the weird goings-on.
Again, none of this is as interesting as it probably sounds. There's a very simple reason why this is, too. This is, at best, a 15 minute story dragged out to an hour long. That means that there are long stretches of repetitious or uneventful footage.
Further dragging things down is that the film isn't really energetic even when it wants to do something. The police drive around, the kids walk around in the snow, the Martian observes things. Supposedly, the film is comedic, although it goes about it's duties in about as listless a way as possible.
We'll occasionally check in with Frankie and Cathy's parents. Mother wonders why the kids are outside for so long. Father reminds her it's the Christmas vacation. For no reason at all, the majority of their scenes will be this same exchange.
Out in the tundra, Frankie and Cathy cut down a Christmas tree as the Visitor watches from a distance. While dragging the tree home, the kids get sidetracked by some green footprints. They follow these, seeing they lead to a tree up on a hill. There looks to be someone behind the tree, but when the kids decide to get closer, the tree takes off running!
The kids keep looking for the Martian. They follow the green footprints until the trail ends in an open field. Cathy finds one of the Martian's over-sized matches and strikes it. For no reason at all, this sends Cathy flying into the air. Frankie follows, eventually telling Cathy to ditch the match. When she does, she plummets to earth.
This is as good a time as any to note the exterior scenes, filled as they are with endless blankets of snow and wintery skies, tend to wash themselves out. In particular the flying scenes, as Cathy (and everything else) just about vanishes from sight when not in close-up. This doesn't seem to be the print itself, as interiors look just fine. Maybe it's process shots, in which case, these are the worst process shots I've ever seen. Trust me, that's an impressive statement.
The kids finally stumble onto the flying saucer (which in the first shot is practically invisible). Upon closer inspection (the full-sized mock-up is kinda neat) the kids find an access hatch. Instead of running to the authorities, the kids decide to climb inside...
The Visitor is inside, but this doesn't phase the kids. What does is a clear glass tube which points in their direction. The kids take the tube for being a death ray. Instead, the tube rains candy down upon the two, practically burying them. After a giddy little scene of the three of them scoping up handfuls of the stuff, reversed footage sucks the remaining candy back up the tube.
The Visitor is unable to communicate with Frankie and Cathy, so he produces a hand-held device which he instructs the kids to speak into. After a few seconds, the recorded information is fed into some kind of space mixer, and the results emerge as a colored liquid.... I know this is a kiddie flick, but it'd be nice if this made sense on some level. Anyway, the Visitor drinks the liquid and it allows him to speak Earth-talk. Takes him a couple of tries to narrow it down to English, though.
Now able to communicate, the Martian is even less impressive. He speaks with a normal, not particularly commanding voice. That could work, but he doesn't really say anything of note. Normally, something like this would allow for lots of exposition on various scientific achievements (picture John Hoyt in THE TIME TRAVELERS for an obvious example of what a scene like this should incorporate). The Visitor offers only scant information about his planet, and it's more fanciful than anything else (like the fact that his people let bees build their houses, seeing as bees are always building things).
Anyway, the kids at some point here steal their Mother's Christmas turkey and feed it to the Visitor aboard his ship. In a throw-away bit later, Mother serves dinner and apologises for the lack of a main dish. Cathy notes her full tummy, but Mother fails to catch this.
The Visitor plans to take the kids on a flight in the saucer, but discovers an important piece of equipment is damaged. In one of the quickest resolutions ever seen in a science fiction movie, Frankie takes the device to his blacksmith uncle and he rather quickly welds it to perfection. I was on the edge of my seat.
There're further difficulties in launching the saucer. Despite it's VTOL capabilities, the area around the saucer needs to be cleared away with a snowplow. Frankie, who looks to be all of ten (if that) borrows his uncle's snowplow and clears the area himself! Some snow has landed on top of the saucer, however, and for some reason this requires clearing before the ship can lift off.
Unfunny sub-plot here has the uncle calling the police to report his snowmobile missing after Frankie has made off with it. When the police Chief arrives on scene, the mobile has been returned. This bit is repeated with the snowplow.
Back at the saucer, the Visitor and Frankie are shoving snow off of the craft. For no reason at all, Cathy is wandering around the cockpit area and sits in the command seat. Despite knowing the ship will start when she waves her hands over some neon tubes, she does so. The ship begins to lift off with Visitor and Frankie clinging to the outer hull. This is really the flick's most effective scene, as it's very easy to feel suspense for someone who'd be in this situation. Cathy manages to return the craft to it's original position.
The saucer is suspended by a crane, apparently. To try to hide this effect, the saucer sports a huge, thick antenna on the central dome. This is more obvious in some shots than others, but in this sequence it's really bad. With people clinging to it, the saucer wobbles back and forth, making the truth just a touch too obvious. As noted, though, it will later be employed in night scenes and the effect is rather cool. For one thing, the lights rimming the edge of the saucer blink on and off in sequence to give the impression of rotating energy nodes. Seen against a stark black sky or surroundings otherwise lit only by the firework jets from the ship's bottom, this produces a pretty cool (if decoration-like) effect.
With the saucer in working order, Visitor finally takes the kids on a trip around the globe. In one weird bit, Visitor notes the viewscreen isn't adjusted to our atmosphere so as to explain the impaired visuals on screen. Thing is, these look like effects you'd see in any science fiction film, so I don't know what he's talking about. If the producers are trying to cover for a cheap effect, this seems like the wrong one to try and explain away.
Visitor returns the kids after dark. Frankie and Cathy skitter on home, but the police and townsfolk have formed a mob intent on capturing the Martian everyone is talking about. Having found the landing site, the mob closes in on Visitor just as he's making ready to take off. Although he has no reason to assume this, Visitor thinks the town is coming out to give him a send off. The earth-men make it quite clear the idea is to turn the space-man over to the authorities.
That would raise the budget of what looks to be a film made by a single town as a bit of a lark, so Visitor easily outwits the would-be captors by teleporting away anytime someone gets close to him. This, as one might guess, it done by the old turn-the-camera-off-and-have-the-actor-step-out-of-frame-before-rolling-again trick familiar to 60's sitcoms like I Dream of Jeannie.
Back at the kids' place and Father is dressed like Santa Claus to hand out gifts (he'd been a part of the great alien chase, but just gave up and went home!). For no reason at all, Visitor runs up outside the window -also dressed as Santa Claus. He rushes in and presents a gift of his own to the kids (a pretty neat model of his flying saucer). Then the police break in, knowing one of the Santas is the Martian. Father could just remove his fake beard, but for no reason at all the police round both Santas into the squad car.
On the drive back to the station, the Chief gloats over the capture before Visitor makes with the bubbles again (remember those from way back in the first reel?) and blinks out of the car. Frankie and Cathy see the saucer pass by their window and wave off their new friend. The end.
For a movie called THE CHRISTMAS MARTIAN, the Christmas setting really isn't used to much effect. In fact, the date adds nothing to the goings on! Presumably, the Christmas season was chosen because it's almost completely culturally universal. The Christmas title would, in fact, guarantee the film received some regular play on television, although the film looks threadbare even by UHF standards.
To the extent Christmas is used at all, the holiday seems only there to explain why all the kids aren't at school. At one point, Frankie and Cathy ride around in a one-horse sleigh, but given the snowy surroundings (indeed, there are times the film seems to've caught snow blindness) such a conveyance hardly seems out of the norm. Indeed, this appears to be taking place on Christmas day and everyone is still at work!
The film looks and sounds like a Chec import, but the dub finds no difficulty in moving this affair to American soil. The only strongly Canadian element here, and I didn't think twice about it until I began these reflections, is some kids seen playing ice hockey instead of the more typical baseball. Again though, with all this snow, hockey just makes more sense anyway.
So there you go. Another kid's Christmas movie with science fiction trappings. Normally, I love that kind of thing, but this one drives home just how nicely constructed SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS really was.
A very Merry Christmas to you all!