It’s been said before, so I really have no problem saying it again; what scared us in the 1950’s rarely – if ever – has quite the same effect some years into the future. It isn’t so much that movies of a particular period no longer hold their sway over an audience after their own time has passed. Indeed, some movies perennially renew themselves – Casablanca (1942) immediately comes to mind. Such are the purest works of cinema art and craftsmanship. But sci-fi and horror have a unique hurdle to overcome, arguably intrinsic to their very existence; namely, effectively recreating the ‘chill factor’ the second time around. Audiences tend to become more jaded in their viewing habits; the level of expectation further diminished by memory; also, the expectation for bigger, more terrifying spectacles to take the macabre to a whole new level of exhilaration. Revisiting a classic horror movie takes some effort. And put bluntly, Tobe Hooper’s 1986 remake of Invaders from Mars is no Casablanca!
It is a rare remake, particularly in cult horror/sci-fi, that can visit the well twice and come up with something refreshing, or even as good to stimulate the creative juices into dread. William Cameron Menzies’ original Invaders from Mars (1953) has the pedigree of a Hollywood craftsman to recommend it; also the timely topic of the ‘Red Scare’ – in this case, taken literally (the invaders being from the ‘red’ planet). By 1949, the Joseph McCarthy witch hunts had raided virtually every studio back lot for communists and communist sympathizers; a possession and an expulsion of Hollywood’s creative roster not unlike the insidious Martian infiltration depicted in this movie. In hindsight, Invaders from Mars presupposes even the monolithic takeover of our tiny planet, one town at a time, as ominously played in Don Siegel’s moody sci-fi classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956); more purposefully remade by Philip Kaufman in 1978 as a social critique of humanity’s gradual isolation.
Invaders from Mars may also be credited with starting the whole alien abduction cycle in popular cinema; a topic nonexistent to rare in its day, except as fodder for dime store pulp fiction. Alas, we’ve seen far too much of it ever since, reaching super-saturation levels in more recent times. As they still say in Hollywood; timing is everything. The 1953 Invaders from Mars was the first sci-fi movie to be shot in color, beating out Byron Haskin’s War of the Worlds (also released in 1953) by mere months. For its time, Invaders from Mars broke new ground, especially in its rhythmic underscore by Raoul Kraushaar; also, in Menzies’ decision to utilize an Eastmancolor negative, later printed to SuperCinecolor, lending an unsettling vibrant and lush look. Menzies’ who had designed sets for no less grand a production than Selznick’s Gone With The Wind (1939) brought this grandiosity to bear on Invaders from Mars albeit, on a much tighter budget. Curiously, the cost-cutting never shows, Menzie’s manipulating the scale of certain sets with forced perspective and using elongated and sparse decoration to exaggerate the film’s surrealism.
Fast forward a few decades to shock-meister, Tobe Hooper’s glossily gilded 1986 remake. Apart from more complex special effects, this Invaders from Mars now had something of a slightly mangled screenplay by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby, sadly denied its’ 50’s ‘red scare’ paranoia – replaced by rank shock value. The movie is equally plagued by some truly hammy acting from James Karen, Karen Black and Louise Fletcher – among others – all of whom are clearly having a colossally good time, either being possessed by or fleeing the otherworldly threat in tandem. O’Bannon and Jakoby have not veered all that much from Richard Blake and John Tucker Battle’s original scenario. However, rather than being a virtue, such strict fidelity turns out to be a considerable vice. Even before the VHS era of everything on home video had taken over we had already seen the movie’s abduction scenario played out before – and again, and again – ad nauseam and to the point where it now seems terribly gauche to make even the attempt. Homage is one thing. And certainly, done with an increasing sense of foreboding it might have clicked with audiences once more.
A seismic shift occurred in 80’s horror that, at least in retrospect, seems to belie all the more profoundly disturbing efforts put forth to mature the genre a decade earlier. Seventies’ horror was made for adults; often with bone-chilling realism meant to truly terrorize. By comparison, eighties horror has a much more adolescent slant; to tease us with pseudo-scares. Invaders from Mars is of this latter ilk and, generally speaking, badly done on most accounts. Some of the best horror and sci-fi movies were shot on a shoestring with C-grade talent rising to the occasion; the lack of budget forcing film makers to be cleverly deceitful in their shudders; the absence of star power adding a sense of realism to these stories. Hooper’s Invaders’ remake is trying desperately to channel this aura. But it is a tenuous tightrope at best, only occasionally successful at heightening the overall anxiety and dread, as in the sequence where our prepubescent protagonist, David Gardner (played with ineffectual fear by Hunter Carson), discovers Mrs. McKeltch, his science teacher (exorcised with demonic aplomb by the kooky Louise Fletcher) devouring a live frog in the backroom. Mmmm….yummy! Alas, Hooper’s spectacle veers toward the traditional ‘gross out’ rather than exerting some truly sublime grotesqueness. Case in point: McKeltch, having eaten a frog is eventually eaten alive herself by one of the Martian guards, on this occasion – bearing an uncanny resemblance to Frank Oz’s reincarnation of the man-eating plant, Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors (1986).
Categorically bent on achieving more elaborate creature and visual effects than its 1953 predecessor, the remake repeatedly oversteps the boundaries of good taste at the expense of the original’s darkly sinister undercurrent; Stan Winston and John Dykstra’s latex puppetry playing more to the camp elements of the story. Worse for the movie’s impact, funded by a private millionaire at a considerable cost of $12,000,000, Invaders from Mars cannot help but acquire a fairly glossy patina; the movie’s paltry $4,885,663 box office intake a blushing embarrassment for independent distributor, Cannon Films and a major creative misfire for Tobe Hooper, whose best efforts have been primarily in the horror genre; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Funhouse (1981) and Poltergeist (1982). These have remained cultural touchstones in movie horror. But Hooper’s modus operandi on Invaders from Mars - to amalgamate at least some of these riches mined from horror to augment and compliment his foray into science fiction are a colossal mistake from which the movie never quite recovers. Something is decidedly remiss in this quaint conjoining of stylistic elements; the tone of the piece missing its mark, failing to frighten or astound; the net result – a minor amusement rather than a major flight into fear.
And despite the movie’s tagline, “there’s no place on earth to hide”, this Invaders from Mars is only interested in the inhabitants of a single isolated community referenced as Santa Mira, California: a rather transparent homage to the town depicted in the original, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Exteriors of the Gardner house were shot on the freestanding and fully functional set built for 1948’s Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (currently housing the administrative offices for Malibu Creek State Park) with other locations lensed in Simi Valley and Eagle Rock, a suburb of Los Angeles. It’s difficult to poo-poo a film whose cult following has only continued to grow in the years since its release. Certainly, there are merits to the exercise, particularly some of the visual effects. For their day, these were state of the art and colorfully achieved; Hooper likely attempting to tap into the gaudy allure of the original film’s vibrant spectrum. But the cave-like Martian mothership hidden beneath the sand dunes, where unsuspecting humans are implanted with odd worm-like glowing probes that sedate their emotional responses and make them subservient to their outer space controllers, looks more like an 80’s discothèque than an otherworldly central command post for this global takeover; complete with strobe-lighting and steaming vats of pumped in mist.
Our story begins at the Gardner household, the idyllic all-American household with a good-looking, affluent young couple; George (Timothy Bottoms, looking uncannily like Ryan Reynolds) and Ellen (the thoroughly nondescript Laraine Newman) and their precocious young son, David (played with ineffectually canned defiance by Hunter Carson). It all looks as it should, the family seemingly without cares; mom, a rather lax disciplinarian and dad, the kid who hasn’t quite said goodbye to his own adolescence as yet. Predictably, all this wide-eyed optimism is about to be turned asunder after David is awakened in the middle of the night by a violent electrical storm. This leads to his discovery of an alien spacecraft docking in the sandpits just beyond the horizon. David tries to convince his parents about what he has just seen. But startled in the middle of the night by a screaming child does not exactly broker an air of confidence and so, like all ‘good parents’ in an atypical horror movie, the Gardners placate David’s imagination for the sake of restoring peace to their bucolic household, although George does promise to investigate David’s claim just as soon as the rain stops.
Predictably, the morning yields unanticipated consequences. George is different from his usual self; more restrained and queerly robotic. David notices this change in his father’s personality almost immediately, although it will take the dim-witted Ellen some time to figure out as much. At school, David runs afoul of science teacher, Mrs. McKeltch (Louise Fletcher); a rank disciplinarian who vows to exact revenge, merely for defending the honor of a fellow classmate, Heather (Virginya Keehne) after two other classmates hurl a dead biology frog at her. David confides his woes about George to the school’s nurse, Linda Magnusson (Karen Black). She empathizes with David and gains his trust. Alas, she doesn’t quite believe his story either. Dumb adults. When will they learn? Children and pets always know more about the fate of the world than they do! David returns home to discover his front door ajar and the TV in the living room ominously glowing with static. It’s all a ruse, however, perpetrated by Ellen (presumably, for no reason other than to tease the audience into believing her possession by an alien life force has already occurred). In fact, nothing out of the ordinary has happened in all these long hours since the invader’s arrival. If they are bloodthirsty for world dominion, they are taking their own sweet time about it.
David tells his mother he is very worried about George. Again, she doesn’t believe him until the hour grows late and George fails to return home. The police are summoned; David directing them to investigate the sandpit just beyond the horizon for clues. Inexplicably, George resurfaces suddenly from the bushes in the backyard with another man, Ed (William Frankfather) who is Heather’s father. When asked about their whereabouts by Ellen, the two men remain cryptic. The police return from their search, predictably, already implanted with the same controlling device in the back of their necks and exhibiting the same frosty lack of human emotion. Again, Ellen doesn’t notice the difference, but David does. Later, George takes Ellen to the sandpits where she too is converted into a Martian clone. The next morning, David is acutely aware his parents are no longer operating with his best intentions at heart. And although Ellen suggests they all play hooky from work and school for a ‘picnic’ beyond the horizon, David elects to return to class where he begins to suspect Mrs. McKeltch has also become Martian possessed.
A bit of skulking around on David’s part during recess reveals McKeltch in her backroom, devouring one of the science lab frogs. Heather, now also a synthetic human, confronts David and draws McKeltch’s attention to the fact her own secret identity has been exposed. McKeltch attempts to take David away, presumably to the Martian caves. Mercifully, she is thwarted in this endeavor by Linda. David tells Linda, Mrs. McKeltch is an alien/human hybrid, as are his parents and Heather. He points to the matching puncture marks on the back of all their necks as proof of an otherworldly conspiracy taking place right under their noses. Linda is sympathetic, but cautiously remains disbelieving of this truth. The boy simply has an overactive imagination. But when she witnesses the same puncture marks on the back of McKeltch and Heather’s necks, Linda decides to keep David away from both women. Later, when David’s parents come to collect him from school, Linda lies about David’s whereabouts. In actuality, she has sent the boy to hide in her apartment.
From here, the O’Bannon/Jakobi screenplay devolves into a cursory convolution of false starts, meant to heighten suspense as David and Linda discover what we, the audience, already know. Even more predictably, the movie unravels into a series of 80’s styled chase sequences, presumably meant to elevate the level of suspense. David and Linda both agree Gen. Climet Wilson (James Karen), presently overseeing a rocket launch at the nearby military base, must be brought in to investigate. Wilson gave a lecture at the school and is something of a personal friend to David, as George also works at this top secret outpost. Earlier, Linda and David witnessed the alien abduction of two workers from this facility. Now, they have returned, planting some explosives on a highly combustible petroleum tanker that is then driven to the rocket launch pad and detonated into a hellish ball of flames. Gen. Wilson confronts the two men in his office. They are neutralized by their alien controllers and Wilson puts the entire base on high alert, calling out the army to infiltrate the sandpits. What follows is a disastrous series of obvious misfires, designed to get Linda and David back into the Martian mothership where they too can be threatened with the prospect of being converted into clones. Linda is knocked unconscious as Mrs. McKeltch oversees the preparation of another probe meant to be inserted into the back of Linda’s neck.
McKeltch takes David to meet the supreme being of this Martian invasion; a pincushion styled purple blob. David ineffectually pleads for the Martians to reconsider their hostile takeover (oh right…now that’ll work!) and McKeltsh is eaten alive by one of the Martian henchmen, presumably for having failed in her primary objective to stifle the boy’s probing mind. Together with Gen. Wilson, David rescues Linda before the probe can be implanted. The Martians are subdued in a hailstorm of bullets and David narrowly escapes the alien craft with his Martian-controlled parents in hot pursuit. As the mothership prepares for its’ hasty departure from earth, the mind control exerted on David’s parents short circuits. George and Ellen return to their former selves. At this point, David awakens from his nightmare, comforted by George and Ellen, even as a violent electrical storm is brewing outside. Too bad for David, history is about to repeat itself. David witnesses the landing of the self-same spacecraft depicted in his nightmare and rushes to his parent’s bedroom to warn them of the impending disaster, whereupon he witnesses a terror (unseen by the audience) that sends him into fitful screams.
In hindsight, this final scene seems even more perversely to have been stolen – if watered down – from Philip Kaufmann’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; a truly ominous finale where Veronica Cartwright suddenly discovers she is the only human being left on the planet untouched by that film’s pod culture. There is no such moment of startling revelation at the end of Invaders from Mars. A pity, the movie plays very much like a hand-me-down, stitched together from parts of other horror/sci-fi masterpieces; the 1953 original included. At least, the ’53 version had some fairly solid acting to recommend it. The ’86 remake lags in this regard, especially Hunter Carson’s blonde-haired moppet, frustratingly unable to convey a child’s startle, shock, amazement and disbelief as anything greater than a pair of bulging eyes and some thoroughly girlish, if marginally frantic shrieks. Perhaps comparisons between the ’53 and ’86 versions are unfair. After all, the ’53 was made near the start of the Cold War. If one substitutes communism for alien abduction (as one must in this case) then the original movie is a very clever allegory for this socio-political angst and paranoia gripping the United States. Having reset the movie to the ‘then’ present, ’86 version cannot use the threat of communist infiltration as its crutch – at least, not with a straight face.
Invaders from Mars is a prime example of a high concept past its prime. In choosing to remain closely aligned with the original 1953 classic’s plot – though hardly its thematic elements – and going the more glossy route to ‘show’ the Martians in their full flourish – this remake subverts virtually all the horror clichés inserted by director, Tobe Hooper meant to titillate and terrorize. Inevitably, the precepts of sci-fi too had moved on; particularly in the wake of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982); two movies about visitors from outer space with more altruistic purposes in friendship than hostility. Within the context of its original 50’s ‘red scare’ paranoia, the original Invaders from Mars premise worked exceedingly well and was repeatedly mined throughout the decade. It would take the likes of Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) to dilute, then trample on Spielberg’s warm and fuzzy aliens, making Invaders from Mars either a cultural throwback to another time or the proverbial fish out of water in its own. Either way, the movie does not work half as well as it should. There are nuggets of greatness about it, but on the whole, nothing comes together in any sort of deliberately edifying way. Quel dommage!
Scream Factory – a division of Shout! has brought Invaders from Mars to Blu-ray. Alas, there are issues with this 1080p transfer; age-related damage, speckling and some moderate to unexpectedly heavy scratches and a lot of dirt. I suppose we shouldn’t be terribly surprised by any of it. This film was released by Cannon, now under the auspices of MGM, who clearly have only marginal interest in resurrecting their back catalog. Very problematic: up-and-down grain – looking either harsh or nonexistent (as in DNR scrubbed) – erratic clarity and a general lack of overall crispness. About grain: it has a bizarre yellow caste. I am at a loss to explain the reasons why this is so. But trust me – it is, and distractingly evident. The SFX shots, using optical mattes, are less refined with a distracting spike in grain texture. As expected, the exterior sequences look brighter and generally more colorful.
I really need to tap into the executive brain trust to explore the logic behind a good many less than stellar digital transfers getting completely repurposed DTS 5.1 audio tracks. It isn’t that the effort is not appreciated. But frankly, what is the point when the visuals do not live up to such high levels of mastering proficiency? Fix both or fix neither. A great sounding movie with mediocre visuals is still a dud in my not terribly humble opinion. The original 2.0 mix is included for the diehard purest. Overall audio fidelity will surely impress on either track. Extras include an audio commentary from Tobe Hooper, a making of (superfluous at best), a few TV spots and trailers, stills gallery and some original storyboards. Don’t get excited. As a movie, Invaders from Mars is a middling effort. Ditto for MGM Blu-ray master, farmed out to Shout!/Scream Factory to save a few more bucks in third party distribution. Bottom line: pass, and be glad that you did!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)