A Claus Call

I’m a sucker for Christmas. Even in the dead heat of a summer afternoon, I can often be caught humming a few bars of a carol while I whack away at weeds and mosquitoes. It is, quite frankly, bothersome, although mostly to the Scrooges who cluck their tongues and insist I wait at least until the Thanksgiving meal has passed before I start in on mistletoe and holly.

For my part, I find that it’s often during the first 11 months of the year that I could most use a lift from the spirit of the season. Wait until Thanksgiving, and you’re left trying to cram all that good will toward men into the space between Black Friday and a New Year’s Day hangover. Me, I’d rather have it all year long, with the milk of human kindness on a slow drip.

If you’re like me, you may want to keep an eye on area theaters for a local screening of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, an incredible turkey of a movie that is making the rounds as part of the RiffTrax Live series of screenings. Combining B-movie mayhem with sarcastic running commentary (the latter provided by the crew behind Mystery Science Theater 3000), it’s the type of movie you might stumble across on a local TV station while making cookie plates with Mom. Sure, you’d make fun of it for a bit—but before you know it, watching it has turned into a family tradition.

The 1964 original is a sci-fi dud that shows up with a regretful regularity on those (oddly popular) “worst movies ever” lists. Directed by Nicholas Webster—not that you should recognize the name—it has survived its early drubbings to become something of a cult classic after being featured on an episode of the Canned Film Festival series in the mid-1980s. Since then, each decade seems to have rediscovered the film in its own way: first as part of the MST3000 comedy series, and later as a holiday filler for a young Comedy Central and old Elvira movie marathons. Now it returns to the big screen.

If you’re curious about the plot, then I regret to inform you that you have completely missed the point of seeing a film called Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. The title is the plot, end of story. Okay, fine. In the spirit of the season, I’ll give you a bit of backstory. It seems that over on the red planet, the Martians are concerned that their kids are watching too much Earth TV—a distraction resulting from the rigid rules of the alien society. The solution, somehow, is to kidnap Santa and bring him to Mars in the hope that he will inspire the young Martians to think for themselves. Does it make a lick of sense? Not too much—but neither, really, does egg nog.

Also this week: Amherst Cinema brings in a different sci-fi film from the past when it screens The Visitor as part of the theater’s ongoing Late Nites series. Showing Friday night at 10 p.m., the 1979 film—restored and presented uncut theatrically for the first time ever in the U.S.—stars John Huston (The Maltese Falcon) as an interstellar warrior caught in a battle against an 8-year-old girl and her bird. While this one is unlikely to become a new tradition, it’s mind-warping enough to warrant a viewing.

And finally, Amherst also hosts a return engagement of The Flat, director Arnon Goldfinger’s exploration of family and friendship, and the sometimes surprising strength of the bonds that we make. For Goldfinger’s grandparents—whom he knew only as the Tel Aviv residents he visited as a child—those bonds spanned some of the most horrific years of Europe’s history. To say more about Goldfinger’s discoveries would be to deprive viewers of some of his film’s emotional wallop. Barton Byg, founder of the DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and a leading scholar of East German cinema, will be on hand to discuss the film in relation to Günter Grass’ Peeling the Onion.•