Monday, September 29, 2014

One Flew Over the Martian's Nest

I don’t think I’ alone in remembering movies from my childhood more as moments than full narratives. I couldn’t tell you much about my family’s VHS copy of Invaders From Mars, save for those specific images that stuck: a mother eating raw beef, icky open wounds on the back of adults’ heads, and Louise Fletcher practicing Grandma Foxworth’s diction screaming a-e-i-o-u (in my own re-imagining, she adds “and sometimes y”).

Naturally, when it popped up on Instant Watch, it was a natural experiment to see how Tobe Hooper's little loved sci-fi/horror remake played to my adult sensibilities.

Quick Plot: Young Hunter Carson lives happily in the suburbs with his mom and NASA employed dad. One night, he spots what a possible UFO landing just over the hill outside his window. Dad takes a walk to investigate and returns a little ... off.

Just give it one more day and a parents-only walk before Mom is serving up blackened bacon and eating raw chopped meat. At school, Hunter begins to suspect his teacher may also be under some form of extraterrestrial influence, and not JUST because she happens to be played by Nurse Ratched. 

Thankfully, Hunter is able to convince the friendly school nurse Linda (genre stalwart Karen Black) that something is amiss. Together they discover a series of underground tunnels occupied by giant, fleshy ball creatures with long legs and almost adorable t-rex arms, plus their master who resembles what I assume would happen if a baseball had sex with a meatball, the meatball took thalidomide when pregnant then drank steroid-infused clamato while breastfeeding.

Slightly cute, but mostly ugly.

Invaders From Mars is a remake of a classic (though unseen by me) sci-fi film from the golden ‘50s. This version starts with a fair amount of complicated pedigree: Alien creator Dan O’Bannon on script duties and Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper behind the camera. Fresh off of the alien (and boob)-filled Lifeforce and slightly distanced from the controversial Poltergeist, Hooper seems to approach Invaders from a rather in-between style. With its child protagonist and PG rating (although a 1986 PG is generally translated into a 2014 PG-13), Invaders From Mars certainly feels like it’s made for a younger audience. On the other hand, some of the violence and general theme of Martians landing on our planet to possess your parents, eat your teachers, shoot your war heroes, and poke a hole through your neck is rather rough stuff for the kiddie crowds.

More problematic is the pacing. My understanding of the original film is that it follows a similar feel to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with a slow build of suspense with special attention to its Cold War analogy. Hooper’s film has other aims. We get one quick but sweet scene setting the Carsons up as a happy family before immediately pulling them apart. It’s not that every monster movie with a child lead has to include the obligatory ‘only the kid knows the truth!’ trope, but Invaders moves so fast that there’s not even time for the intelligent adults to question him.

It’s strange. There’s so much about Invaders From Mars that’s almost awesome. You’ve got a super duper supporting cast filled with the likes of Timothy Bottoms, Laraine Newman (with a Coneheads reference to boot!), and James Karen, all of whom clearly relish the chance to go big. The effects by Stan Winston and John Dykstra are genuinely great, and plenty of weird touches (Fletcher’s zombie-teacher-intimidating-through-vowel-reciting, for one) that keep the film on a kind of special radar.

It’s not really enough. I enjoyed watching Invaders From Mars, but to call it a good film would be a lie. And reader, would I ever lie to you?

High Points
Enough really can’t be said about the creature design of Invaders’ Martians. Gooey, ugly, and genuinely not of this world. Also, they shoot lasers. That’s never bad

Low Points
I don’t really want to even talk about the ending because it made me that mad, so we’ll just leave that right there

Lessons Learned
Always keep a sack of pennies on you. They might cause you to run with a limp and almost get caught by clumsy martians or schoolteachers, but it's worth it

Marines have no qualms about killing martians (although they never carry spare change into combat)

Astronauts need to stay up late

Just 90 minutes on Instant Watch, Invaders From Mars is certainly worth a look for those interested in sci-fi, heavy practical effects, or true ‘80s genre cinema. I can’t imagine anyone will declare this an unheralded classic, but it’s a weird little oddity that should prove entertaining on one level or another. I mean, lasers. Who doesn’t love ‘em?

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