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.

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Lifeforce

June 4, 2012

Lifeforce plays like a good 1950s sci-fi thriller, full of aliens multiplying, populace feeling, and scientists wringing their hands dourly. It’s almost a relief, after a rash of revisionist sci-fi movies that make fun of the genre, to see a film that plays it straight.

As much as that attracts me to Lifeforce, I have to admit that a lot of it is derivative. The visual style of the first part of the film, aboard a space shuttle, is reminiscent of 2001, and the later section conjures up Night of the Living Dead, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the British Quatermass movies.

Director Tobe Hooper (he of Poltergeist and Texas Chainsaw Massacre) does get his own brand of eerie foreboding in the early scenes. The space shuttle is investigating Halley’s Comet, and they find a trio of humanoid bodies frozen in pods, which they load onto the shuttle. Cut to some weeks later, as a rescue mission finds the burned-out shuttle with the pods still intact.

The rescuers bring the pods back to London, where the things quickly break out of their shells and run wild. Seems they suck the life force out of their victims, who then become carriers of the vampire-like disease. These aliens are led by a spectacular-looking woman (Mathilda May) who spends most of the film naked and alluring.

When she escapes and infects London, a team of experts goes after her: a cop (Peter Firth), a scientist (Frank Finlay), and the leader of the shuttle (Steve Railsback), who feels a strange kinship with the alien woman.

Hooper manages the exposition crisply and spookily, but once the alien gets free, the film starts breaking apart. The whole logic of the life force business is pretty hazy, as is Railsback’s connection with the woman (he seems to be telepathically in touch with her). And halfway through, Finlay starts raving about how a previous appearance by these aliens gave rise to the legend of vampires centuries ago—and how, apparently, vampirism is no legend after all. Indeed, he deduces that the way to destroy the evil is with the standard stake through the heart.

That sounds pretty hokey, and some of Lifeforce plays that way. But a lot of it is fun, and Hooper knows how to keep things moving. He’s also backed by a remarkably first-rate production team: Henry Mancini did the music, John Dykstra (Star Wars) worked on the special effects, and the screenplay is by Dan O’Bannon (Alien) and Don Jakoby (Blue Thunder).

The supporting players, mostly British, are good to have around. All in all, not bad, but not major, either. That can’t be good news for Cannon Films, the independent-minded studio that poured upward of $25 million into this movie. They’ll be very lucky to make that back.

First published in the Herald, June 25, 1985

Hooper did Invaders from Mars around the same time, and both movies stumbled; his subsequent career might’ve been different if they’d scored really well. But casting Steve Railsback could have been the error in this case.


Poltergeist

July 8, 2011

Steven Spielberg is going to be changing a lot of people’s lives this summer. His E.T. is the kind of movie everyone is going to wish he had seen at the age of ten; and Poltergeist is full of the affection and respect that has been missing from scary movies lately. Actually, Poltergeist was directed by Tobe Hooper and co-written and produced by Spielberg, although it seems Spielberg stepped in to direct some sequences himself (he also supervised the editing and provided the detailed design from which Hooper worked). Hooper is a good director—his Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an interesting movie that is doomed forever to be a reference point for talkshow/cocktail-party critics who have never seen it—but almost everything about Poltergeist is recognizably Spielbergian.

After the first few entries in his disgustingly young career (The brilliant TV-movie Duel; one of the best “Columbo” episodes, Murder by the Book; The Sugarland Express; Jaws), the word on Steven Spielberg was that Yeah, the guy understood cinema, even if his movies were nothing more than well-crafted stimulus-response machines that didn’t really understand or care about people. Despite the disastrous 1941, Spielberg has managed to turn that too-pat analysis around, and in these first weeks of the summer has presented the public with a hugely entertaining pair of People movies.

Both films are set in solid, average suburbia; Poltergeist presents a normal, three-kid, one-dog family that gets hassled by some troubled spirits. Spielberg and Hooper establish their normalcy without any sense of rush or bother; as often happens in a Spielberg movie, scenes around kitchen tables are important in revealing intrafamily dynamics. The only unusual ripple we see is that little Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) has the disturbing tendency to stare into the static TV screen—after the day’s programming has gone off. It isn’t long before this leads us into a series of spaces—a cluttered closet, an unfinished swimming pool, an opening in a tree—that are just as pregnant with terrifying possibility as the humming, busy tube.

“It knows what scares you”—the ad line for Poltergeist is very true; Spielberg and Hooper have quite a knack for selecting objects and events that can turn from innocuous to sinister within seconds. Like the stuffed clown that sits in a chair in the kids’ room. When I was a kid, a clown was about the scariest thing around, and this one gets to be just as horrific as I always suspected. The audience is led to confrontations with other such basic childhood fears as: is that Something outside the window moving, or what? and Something is wrong and I’m going to look under the bed now but Please God don’t let there be anything down there! The filmmakers orchestrate the mayhem so fluidly—and the characters are so well-acted (by JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson as the parents, Oliver Robins as their son, Beatrice Straight as a phemonena expert) and are made to matter so much—that the audience is irresistibly drawn into a heady degree of involvement.

The special effects are nice—especially a white, long-limbed phantom who hovers outside a doorway and emits a growl not unlike that of the MGM lion who presides over this movie—but the best special effect of all is the levitation effect. That’s the one in which the filmmakers raise the audience members right out of their seats. At one point in Poltergeist a character warns a group of folks to “Get a good hold on yourselves.” Audiences all over would be well-advised to do just that.

First published in The Informer, June 1982

Calling them People movies seems not right, because E.T. and Poltergeist are just as rigorously composed as Spielberg’s previous films. Anyway Jaws is a People movie, too, when it comes to that. Boy, it was a good time seeing this in a theater full of shrieking people that summer. That scene involving a closed door and the slow movement to open it should be shown to all aspiring horror-movie directors as a model for how to stage and cut a scene. By the way, I’m looking at the ads in this issue of The Informer (monthly newsletter magazine of the Seattle Film Society) and both Poltergeist and Star Trek II were playing in 70 mm. (Poltergeist was at the late, not especially lamented Town theater). Remember 70 mm.? Why has that fallen off the movie-format discussion table?