William Cameron Menzies was an art director on seventy films going back from 1917 to 1956, but he’s probably best known for just one of the twenty four films that he directed, Invaders From Mars. Released sixty five years ago in 1953, Invaders From Mars remains a classic thanks to Menzies’ tight direction and imaginative use of settings and costumes.
A young boy named David (well-played by Jimmy Hunt) sees what looks like an alien spacecraft land in the sandy field behind his house at night during a violent thunderstorm. Of course his parents don’t believe him—yet when his father (Leif Erickson) goes out to investigate, he comes back the following morning acting very weird. In addition to being cold and distant, this normally loving and gentle man now resorts to hitting David when the boy doesn’t immediately obey his orders.
David notices that his father has a strange wound on the back of his neck, and this becomes a telltale mark of those who have been “taken” by the aliens that David is convinced reside within the ground behind his house. Of course, nobody believes him, least of all the police chief whom David runs to for help. The chief—who also bears the telltale mark of alien possession on the back of his neck—proves to be a hindrance when he orders David to be locked up.
Menzies presents the police station as this coldly black and white setting with tall blank walls and too-long corridors that feel very oppressive. The art direction makes it clear even before David shows up that the police station will not be a welcome place for him. However, when Dr. Pat Blake (Helena Carter) arrives, it’s also made clear from her pure white dress with a peacock-shaped handkerchief over her heart that she will be David’s first true ally. The handkerchief over Blake’s heart is a warm reddish hue, suggesting her innate warmth and goodness. Menzies uses colors very effectively to tell his story, showing people who have been possessed by the aliens—like David’s parents—dressed in all black.
Once David gathers more allies in his fight against the aliens, the movie gathers steam, leading up to a full-on confrontation between the Invaders From Mars and the American military (which is seen mostly in stock footage of troops loading equipment aboard trains). The alien spacecraft, embedded beneath the earth, has wonderfully honeycombed corridors that lead to their impervious leader, a scary looking humanoid head with octopus-like tendrils that resides within a glass ball. The Martian warriors themselves are a bit of a letdown, looking like nothing more than masked men in green pajamas.
Another letdown is the fact that, for the better part of the confrontation at the end of the film, we get countless shots of people—both army soldiers and aliens—running back and forth through the corridors, over and over again. These shots are repeated so much as to be a major distraction, making me wonder if the film had originally came in too short, and this was what they did to lengthen it.
But these are quibbles, because the 1953 version of Invaders From Mars remains a classic thanks to its dream-like quality (the whole story turns out to be a nightmare that David has) and the fact that it’s told from the innocent point of view of a little boy. The paranoia that the film revels in (who can you trust when those closest to you can turn against you at any moment?) reflects the wild-eyed suspicions and mistrust of its era. The early 1950s saw a communist in every dark corner, which climaxed in the McCarthy hearings that persecuted countless people. Exchange the communists for Martians and you have the same sort of rabid paranoia present in Invaders From Mars.
I saw the remake of Invaders From Mars on opening day in the movie theater when it first came out back in 1986. I was eager to see the remake because I was a big fan of the original film, and since the remake was directed by Tobe Hooper, who had directed one of my all-time favorite films the previous year, Lifeforce, I thought the new Invaders From Mars would be a new modern masterpiece like I thought Lifeforce was back then (although my belief that Lifeforce was one of the greatest films ever made has been greatly tempered over the years, it still remains one of my favorite films—although now for completely different reasons than back when I first saw it).
Starring Karen Black in the Pat Blake-type role of the adult ally to David, this time played by Hunter Carson (Black’s real-life son), the remake is somewhat of a disappointment. Despite the presence of some formidable acting talent in the form of Black, Louise Fletcher, and Carson (the young Carson gained fame appearing opposite Harry Dean Stanton in 1984’s Paris, Texas) all of the performances are way over the top, with some line deliveries and reactions from the cast looking like they were straight out of a comedy.
Indeed, the tone of the remake often veers sharply from straight out horror to goofy comedy, leaving the viewer wondering how much—if any—of this they should be taking seriously. The art design on the remake is fantastic, however, with the look of the Martian foot soldiers being much better than those in the original film. Eschewing the dopey pajama look of the original Martian soldiers, the remake has instead this wonderfully nightmarish ‘giant mouth with legs’ design that truly looks alien (and creepy).
The remake is also filled with some great casting, such as Jimmy Hunt, who played David in the original, appearing here as a cop (he even has a funny line when he mentions, as he goes up the hill leading to the alien landing site, that he hadn’t been here since he was a kid). Laraine Newman, one of the original cast of Saturday Night Live (as well as a Conehead), appears here as David’s mother. James Karen (the Pathmark guy for those of us on the East Coast) stars as the leader of the Marines, with Eric Pierpoint appearing as his sidekick. Pierpoint would later be well-known for his role as George in the short-lived but sorely missed Alien Nation series. Bud Cort has a silly moment as a scientist who tries to reason with the Martians.
While the remake is fun to watch in a “so bad it’s good” way, it can’t hold a candle to the original Invaders From Mars, which has a weird and wonderful dream-like quality that stands the test of time. --SF