Monday, December 22, 2008

Clickable Advent Calendar, 22: Cinematic Titanic vs. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Posted By on Mon, Dec 22, 2008 at 6:10 PM

A holiday tradition in my household is to watch the “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” episode Santa Claus. This astonishing Mexican Christmas movie from 1959 features a horned devil in red tights who sabotages Santa’s attempts to deliver toys, until Kris Kringle gets help from Merlin the magician and some terrifying mechanical reindeer.  Here's a helpful highlights montage.

"MST3K" went off the air in 1999 but a new spin-off project, “Cinematic Titanic,” roasts another holiday chestnut with its fifth and latest video for DVD, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians from 1964. "MST3K" creator Joel Hodgson and his four cohorts, all alumni from the show, appear in silhouettes to heckle the movie from bleacher-style platforms, as opposed to the original show’s puppets-in-movie-seats gimmick. Rather confusingly, "MST3K" riffed on the same movie in 1991, but near as I can tell, the "Cinematic Titanic" version features all-new jokes that improve on the earlier version. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians's plot offers all-you-can-eat fodder for ridicule, in which Martians in capes, tights and green make-up kidnap Santa Claus so he can make merry for the emotionless children of Mars:

"Cinematic Titanic" differs from the other post-"MST3K" heckling project, "RiffTrax," a series of hilarious downloadable audio commentaries from other veterans of the show. You could say "Cinematic Titanic" resembles a revival of "MST3K 1.0" thanks to the involvement of Hodgson and co-quippers Trace Beaulieu and J. Elvis Weinstein (the first voices of puppets Crow the Robot and Tom Servo, respectively), as well as Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl, whose deadpan feminine sensibility makes her a stand-out jokester. "RiffTrax" is primarily the brainchild of the show's second host (Michael J. Nelson) and its replacements for Crow and Tom Servo (Bill Corbett and the superb Kevin Murphy), whose overall humor reflects a darker sensibility. "Cinematic Titanic" evokes Hodgson's formative years in in stand-up prop comedy by pausing the movie for the players to joke around with each other, sometimes with elaborate sight gags based on the silhouette effect.

The "Cinematic Titanic" jokes may be slightly cornier and more reliant on baby-boom era pop references, but they can still take down a cheesy movie with the best of them. At one point in the movie, a Christmas-obsessed "comic relief" Martian named Dropo tries to fatten himself up to fit in a Santa costume by eating handfuls of Martian food pills. Weinstein sighs, "It's like watching Judy Garland, Mama Cass and the Great Gazoo kill themselves all at once." ("Cinematic Titanic" even uses that gag as its e-card.) Santa and two human children escape a spaceship deathtrap by climbing through an air duct, and St. Nick only explains, "I'm Santa Claus!" Hodgson elaborates, "I can collapse my skeleton like a sewer rat!" (Which would account for how Santa can squeeze his ample frame through the world's chimneys.)

No doubt former "MST3K" fans, the "MSTies,"are crowding the internet with Kirk vs. Picard-style arguments over whether "Cinematic Titanic" or "RiffTrax" is better. I'd say that "RiffTrax" offers slightly funnier quips, but "Cinematic Titanic" offers the more valuable service of digging up fascinatingly obscure films like its debut, The Oozing Skull. Like "MST3K," "Cinematic Titanic" can be a kind of master class in bad cinema, teaching you the countless ways that movies can be terrible without requiring you to watch them alone.

Cinematic Titanic: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Cinematic Titanic. $14.99.

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