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Invaders from Mars

Invaders From Mars - 1986

Directed by Tobe Hooper

Written by Dan O'Bannon & Don Jakoby
Based on an original screenplay by Richard Blake

Starring Karen Black, Hunter Carson, Timothy Bottoms, Laraine Newman
James Karen, Bud Cort & Louise Fletcher

With Invaders From Mars Tobe Hooper succeeded in creating exactly what he set out to create, and did this well - he had a vision and manifested exactly that. Unfortunately, from a financial standpoint for Cannon, this vision didn't have wide appeal in 1986 - and this vision doesn't appeal all that much to me. Specifically, Invaders From Mars is a film for children, from a child's point of view - a remake of the 1953 science fiction B-movie of the same name, which had left a lasting impression on the director as a child himself. Some aspects are enjoyable to watch - and some fall a little short, especially when it comes to creature design and score. There's nothing substandard about any of it though, and it in fact went on to leave an indelible mark on some of the children of the 1980s much as the original had on the 50s kids who watched it - as if part of a recurring chain. It's silly and nonsensical, but that's part of the point - it's from the point of view of a child's imagination. Adults might find it fails to measure up to their usual standards of narrative complexity and believability.

David Gardner (Hunter Carson) lives an idyllic kind of life and enjoys stargazing with his loving father George (Timothy Bottoms), while being doted on by his mother Ellen (Laraine Newman). One night, from his bedroom window, David notices a U.F.O. descend into the area of Copper Hill, and after informing his father, thinks this will be handled by the grown-ups. Unfortunately, his father comes back from investigating the area a changed man with a strange scar on his neck. In fact, everyone who does go there comes back changed, and soon David doesn't know who to trust. His teacher, Mrs. McKeltch (Louise Fletcher), is untrustworthy and combative at the best of times, and seems to have been turned - David witnesses her swallowing a frog - so he runs into the protective arms of nurse Linda Magnuson (Karen Black) - and after convincing her by taking her to Copper Hill to witness strange alien activity they both go to General Climet Wilson (James Karen) to get the military involved, and he in turn has help from scientist Mark Weinstein (Bud Cort). Together, they take on the strange aliens hell bent on invading planet Earth.

It's even more silly up on the screen than it is on paper - and although the 50s Invaders From Mars had the general paranoia of Cold War era American life to relate to in terms of aliens taking over the minds of people you once trusted, there's not much going on under the surface of this Alien Invasion movie. The creatures themselves, brought to life by Stan Winston and John Dykstra, don't look particularly memorable. They were created so that a large man carrying a little person on his back could operate the latex costume in tandem, with reverse-jointed legs that necessitated the big guy to walk slowly backwards to make them work. They're slow, don't do much and seem about the least threatening alien menace I've ever seen in a science fiction film. The master of these big-bodied, slow and clumsy soldier monsters manifests itself as a brain with eyes - particularly slow and vulnerable, as all these creatures are, and the easiest-to-defeat planetary threat since those aliens from Signs who were revealed to have water as their Achilles heel. They have futuristic laser-type weapons, but neglect to use them most of the time as they necessitate coins to operate.

For Hooper though, this looks like it must have been a fun shoot - rare for him. He had beloved friend Daniel Pearl take up director of photography duties - the man he made The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with, and who had shot the Billy Idol "Dancing With Myself" video with him. Pearl had just won an MTV Video Music Award for shooting the video for The Police's "Every Breath You Take", and he brought along with him a lighting machine which was commonly used in these music videos - most noticeable when the alien ship is landing and when it's flashing it's disco-fever balls of light in the master alien brain's control room. If any stressed-out and hounded director needed a good time on a film shoot it was Hooper, and he was also aided by the fact that he was good friends with star Karen Black, and had known young Hunter Carson (who was Karen Black's real-life son) all his life. Daniel Pearl would shoot most of Invaders From Mars from a low-down, child's perspective - because this is what this film is. An alien invasion from a child's perspective - straight from his imaginative, over-stimulated mind. This was half kids film, half rock video kind of stuff.

One excruciating lost opportunity though, lies with the original score Christopher Young at first turned in after being charged by Tobe Hooper with replicating the kind of experimental track that was put together for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Apparently he produced a remarkable and extraordinarily strange-sounding accompaniment that had all kind of creepy and out-of-this-world vibes to it. When Golan and Globus heard it, they immediately demanded something much more mainstream, customary and normal - and this is how we got our perfectly ordinary orchestral score, credited to Christopher Young and Dave Storrs. Young has produced some enjoyably strange scores in the years since his lost opportunity here, and worked on Sinister - producing a score there that I admire quite a bit. I'd love to have the opportunity of hearing what he originally put together for Invaders From Mars, and concede that it might have made all the difference for me. Just listen to some of the Sinister score to see what I mean - it might have been great. Dumb decision - Invaders From Mars's score feels like it's coming from someone who has decided "fine...here..." and stuck a 'conventional science-fiction' label on it.

The film was put together in the Airport Hanger on Terminal Island, L.A. - an enormous studio space which once in the past housed Howard Hughes' "Spruce Goose" experimental aircraft. The production design by Leslie Dilley (Oscar wins for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars) along with the art direction by Craig Stearns - aided by effects and creations by Stan Winston - could be kindly compared to a kind of H.R. Giger Alien-lite. More colourful, and more sparse - not the living breathing alien mothership interior Hooper wanted, and not as strange and surreal as it could have been. The creatures were once coloured in fantastic ways - and this made them look more poisonous and threatening. I can only imagine that Golen and Globus stepped in and demanded they look more mainstream. They ended up with dark features which made all their appendages and details disappear in the general colour tones they'd been painted with. Added together, I'd say on the whole the design was disappointing - but ask the ones who matter, the kids who originally saw it, and you'll get a different perspective. This film scared them - so perhaps I'm the wrong person to ask.

Tobe Hooper did have one major breakthrough which improved the movie 100-fold however - after a big refusal from the U.S. Air Force for help the U.S. Marines stepped in and gave the production considerable co-operation, which meant various vehicles, tanks, and soldiers along with varied equipment could be utilized - and that kind of co-operation is really up there on the screen. Hooper even got advice when it came to military tactics and the fact that soldiers do not carry loose change in combat (all the more difficult to operate those darn expensive alien laser guns!) He was also sure to put a lot of effort into getting his creative teams to recreate the iconic wooden fence from the original - a kind of hypnotic, suggestive, mind-twisting visage that is difficult to explain, but when you see it in the original film it sends a shiver down your spine. It's like a twisted, rotten boundary you follow until over the hill you sense your worst nightmare lurking. It's an indicatory image. A sign. A metaphor with enhanced meaning - and the image from Invaders From Mars (the original) that stays with you.

After being edited by Golan/Globus hack Alain Jakubowicz, Invaders From Mars was released and simply went nowhere at the box office. It was another cult movie in the making, and one with more than it's fair share of missteps and unrealistic expectations. Louise Fletcher won a Razzie for her performance - rather unfairly, for I actually enjoy her in Invaders From Mars - her crazy, bitter and twisted teacher who always has it in for "David Gardner!" is the spark of insanity that livens the film up, and her frog-swallowing is legendary. Should I be worried that, when eaten by one of the alien creatures, she has to virtually lean in and crawl inside the alien's mouth herself? Nah. It adds to the charm. The special effects also won a Razzie - and I don't fully agree with that either, although I thought the creature design missed the mark a little. For adults, the film doesn't have the pace or complexity to really sustain interest, and lacks finesse. Watching Hunter Carson interact with his mother onscreen is nice - but although the kid might have been a shining beacon in Paris, Texas, the more frenzied and frightening sci-fi field exposed his acting ability and range a little.

In the end, Tobe Hooper reached the children that were probably like him at a similar age in the 50s - they all remember Invaders From Mars to this day, and it left it's imprint there. I've watched it a few times since it's release - and not once have I really enjoyed it. It's far too good to enjoy in an ironic "so bad it's good" kind of way, and far off the beaten track when it comes to my kind of science fiction or horror. I love watching Karen Black and Louise Fletcher strut their stuff as if B-movie camp is in style - and that's just about the only aspect of Invaders From Mars that really engages me in a serious way. Even the opening titles seem like a cheap knock-off of the Christopher Reeve Superman ones. It's full of little in-jokes (for example, Jimmy Hunt - the kid from the original - plays a police officer in this, and states "I haven't been here since I was a kid!" when he investigates Copper Hill.) You can spot Lifeforce playing on television, and many little things like that - but all added together, this is as niche as a film can get, and best left for 7-year-olds looking for something a little wild and weird. For Cannon and Hooper, it was 0 from 2 (financially - nearly all of the time Hooper is a winner artistically) with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel up next.