Invaders from Mars

June 5, 2012

The 1953 science-fiction film Invaders from Mars is an uncomplicated, cheap-looking near-classic. It’s about a crew of belligerent extraterrestrials touching down in a backyard sand pit in Small Town, U.S.A., witnessed only by a boy who can’t get anyone to believe him.

One of the elements that made this little movie so memorable was the stark-but-evocative production design by the legendary designer-director William Cameron Menzies. In particular, the hill behind the boy’s house, with its fence curving up and back to where the aliens landed, was a repeated image fraught with dangerous possibilities.

That backyard fence is retained in the new remake of Invaders from Mars—in fact, it’s the image used in the understated print-ad campaign. (Menzies gets a high school named after him in the new film’s small town.) The story is basically the same, too, as the boy (Hunter Carson, from Paris, Texas) can’t get anyone to believe him, and his parents (Timothy Bottoms and Laraine Newman) have their minds stolen by the aliens.

This occurs in a process taken from the original film. People step out into the sand pit, are sucked under the ground, then regurgitated, their brains having been washed. The only way you can distinguish them from uninitiated humans is by the wound on the backs of their necks.

Our little hero can tell in other ways, too. For one thing, his parents speak in that low monotone that always comes when somebody’s brain is snatched in a science-fiction movie. Also, Mom burns the bacon and eats raw hamburger. These tip-offs send the boy into the arms of the school nurse (Karen Black, who is Carson’s real-life mother).

This remake gets off to a good start. The first half-hour or so is full of the creepy detail we’ve come to expect from Tobe Hooper (Poltergeist, Lifeforce). Especially good is the use of the school science teacher (Louise Fletcher) as a gargoyle. She keeps dead stuff pickled in jars. ‘Nuff said.

Unfortunately, Hooper allows the paranoia of the situation to get away from him. The kid and the nurse get the help of the Army—the Army, for crying out loud—which considerably reduces the sense of danger. The troops come in about halfway through the movie, and it’s no longer one little boy fighting the armed forces of Mars. This is a fatal blow to the film’s tension.

Even the imaginative creatures don’t add much to the narrative, other than to impress us with the cleverness of the special-effects team. Fact is, Louise Fletcher is a lot scarier.

First published in the Herald, June 10, 1986

This must be more fun than I make it sound. Er—doesn’t it? The Army comes into the 1953 version too, albeit mostly in the form of stock-footage tanks rolling around and padding out the running time.