Monday, June 24, 2019

Mars Needs Moms (& Dads)

When I hear “Invaders From Mars,” the first things that come to my mind are raw hamburger meat and Grandmother Foxworth bellowing out vowels. Released in 1986, Tobe Hooper’s remake of William Cameron Menzies’ 1953 sci-fi film is just weird enough to have cast a very deep impression on young me. It’s a mixed bag of a film, filled with some dark concepts and style that never quite fit with its youth-targeted market.

I’ve always been curious about the hard-to-find original, which is finally easily available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

Quick Plot: Young David MacLean has his head in the stars. This happens when your dad is a scientist and you keep a long-range telescope in your bedroom. One stormy night, David sees what can only be a UFO landing in the field just behind his house. His parents are dubious, but Dad heads outside to take a look, returning the next morning in a stone-faced manner unfitting his previously gentle disposition. 

David is suspicious, and with good reason. From his window, he witnesses his younger neighbor Kathy disappear in the same place his dad headed, seemingly sucked into the ground before returning to burn down her own home and dying of an aneurysm. Clearly, something from another world (in the pronunciation of 1953, “mew-tahnt”) has come to do some damage, but the warnings of a 10-year-old are hardly believable…especially as more and more authority figures fall victim to the same cursed sand pit.

Thankfully, David finds a few allies in the sympathetic Dr. Blake and scientist Dr. Kelston, who are able to convince the Scorsese-browed colonel and mount an attack. The race is on to free those already infected by Martian probes (including both of David’s parents and a few key members of military personnel) and send the leader (depicted here as a silent by big-eyed gold-painted head with tentacles encased in a glass fishbowl) back to the stars.

Made in 1953, Invaders From Mars lacks the deeper intensity and societal smarts as something like Them! or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it’s not quite the type of throwaway lightweight space thriller better served by Mystery Science Theater 3000. Yes, Richard Blake’s screenplay essentially opens and closes with a kid saying “gee whiz”, but the film taps into something dark when David’s parents, introduced so lovingly, morph as they do. Director William Cameron Menzies finds some truly impressive ways to shoot, creating a sort of expressionist art deco style that makes the action memorable. Sure, the alien slaves are silly-looking doughy extras in green bodysuits, but there are some clear visual choices that elevate Invaders From Mars amid its timely limitations.

High Points
Authority figures not believing kids is an age-old trope for good reason, and Invaders From Mars manages to make it a deeply effective tool. We’re fully with David as he plays Chicken Little, making the introduction of Dr. Blake and Kelston such a comfort at exactly the right time.

Low Points
I love a montage as much as the next simple-minded movie fan, but when you get to the third “U.S. military assembling to patriotic music” segment in a 75 minute long film, it’s a tad exhausting

Lessons Learned
1950s suburban moms slept in heavier makeup than 2019 Hallmark Christmas movie leads

If there’s one thing the fire department can’t do, it’s put out a fire

When trying to avoid saying “dead” to kids, substitute my new favorite expression: “like Kathy”

There are certainly more powerful sci-fi flicks from this era, but Invaders From Mars is indeed worth a watch in 2019. The visuals are special, and there’s an ageless charm to the utter 1950s-ness of it all. Where else can you get a squid head Martian god in under 80 minutes?

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