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invaders1

Despite beginning his career with ultra-gritty, low-budget chillers like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Eaten Alive (1977) and The Funhouse (1981), horror auteur Tobe Hooper quickly moved into an odd, mid-’80s phase that saw him tackle bigger budget, more mainstream fare such as the smash-hit, Spielberg-produced Poltergeist (1982), the bizarre space vampire/sci-fi shocker Lifeforce (1985), a remake of the ’50s-era sci-fi classic, Invaders From Mars (1986) and a more expensive, candy-colored sequel to his debut, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986). Since that time, Hooper’s career has been all over the place, although he hasn’t managed to return (as of yet, at least) to either his ’70s-era glory days or his inscrutable ’80s output. While none of his ’80s films, with the exception of Poltergeist, ever made much of a splash (indeed, his ’80s era Canon films actually helped to nail the lid on that studio’s coffin), they’re all infinitely better than the “paint-by-numbers” TV productions and Poverty Row genre pics that would dominate his ’90s-’00s filmography.

Of his ’80s-era films, Invaders From Mars is easily the slightest entry on Hooper’s resume. While Lifeforce wasn’t entirely successful, it was completely audacious, which certainly must count for something. Most critics and fans seem to detest The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 but I’ve never understood the derision or hate that gets heaped on that film: it may not be the same type of movie as the original but it’s a pretty genius production, in its own right, and handily slots into the series’ original mythology before subsequent sequels would scatter the storyline to the four winds. Poltergeist, of course, is almost universally revered, although the conventional wisdom has always been that Spielberg had as big a hand in the production as Hooper did (anyone familiar with films like Eaten Alive and The Funhouse, however, will see plenty of parallels in Poltergeist: Spielberg may have been a presence on the set…he is Spielberg, after all…but the film doesn’t feel like it was his, alone). Of these films, then, only Invaders From Mars seems to stick out like a sore thumb. Lacking the sheer, nutty verve of his other ’80s films, Hooper’s take on the ’50s sci-fi staple isn’t a bad film but it does feel slight and unnecessary, which certainly isn’t a particularly strong recommendation. More than anything, however, Invaders From Mars strikes me as a definite product of its era: unlike classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or even The Funhouse, Hooper’s Invaders has not aged particularly well.

One rainy night, young David Gardner (Hunter Carson) happens to see some sort of alien spaceship descend from the skies and land somewhere over the hills behind his house. David’s a bit of a space buff, so his parents don’t entirely (or at all) believe his story about the UFO but his dutiful father, George (Timothy Bottoms), nonetheless goes over to check it out. Next morning, Mr. Gardner is acting extremely odd: he seems emotionless and robotic, is walking around with one slipper as if it’s the most normal thing in the world and has a strange mark on the back of his neck. David is instantly suspicious of his father but the situation gets even worse after his mother takes a walk with George in the hills (after she finishes washing the dishes, of course): the following morning, she’s equally listless and strange, although she also appears to have developed an appetite for raw hamburger. Something, clearly, is going on.

The situation continues at school, as David overhears his much-detested teacher, Mrs. McKeltch (Louise Fletcher) discussing some sort of secret plans with an equally suspicious police officer, plans which somehow also involve David’s father. David flees his sinister teacher and lands straight in the arms of school nurse, Linda (genre vet Karen Black). Linda doesn’t quite believe David, either, but she’s noticed that something seems to be going on and is determined to get to the bottom of it. “It,” of course, is an evil plan by Martians to invade the earth, a plan which only David and Linda seemed equipped to stop. With time running out and the whole town seemingly under alien control, David and Linda must risk their own lives and freedom in a desperate bid to repel the intruders and restore order to their formerly sleepy little town.

For the most part, Hooper’s version of Invaders From Mars is no better or worse than most similarly constructed/plotted sci-fi films. The creature designs, courtesy of legendary effects artist Stan Winston, are pretty excellent, although it’s a little distracting that the Supreme Martian Leader is a dead-ringer for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’s Krang: since Krang debuted sometime in 1987/88, I’m more than willing to wager that the character might have been influenced by Hooper’s film. On the other hands, many of the films other effects are absolutely awful, including some of the worst laser effects ever put to film. The musical score is thoroughly generic, although there are some nifty elements to the cinematography: in particular, the spaceship scenes are extremely well-done and favorably compare to similar scenes in Spielberg’s iconic Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

As with the technical side of the film, the acting in Invaders From Mars is equally hit-or-miss. Carson actually does a great job as David: he’s believable and only rarely irritating, two qualities that seem rather rare for ’80s-era child actors. The part where David calls the Martian leader “dickbrain” is pretty great, as it directly recalls the way that the kids speak in other ’80s films like Spielberg’s ET (1982) or Richard Donner’s The Goonies (1985). I also got a big kick out of character actor Bud Cort’s turn as Dr. Weinstein: the bit where he tries to talk sensibly to the Martians is just a hairbreadth away from greatness. On the flip side, Louise Fletcher is astoundingly terrible as Mrs. McKeltch, while Karen Black becomes tedious by the film’s final reel, reduced to no more than a living, breathing, running bag of scream. She begins the film strong but devolves into wet paste, which seems like a terribly shabby way to treat the scream queen.

Of all of these issues, however, none bother me quite so much as the obnoxious ending. Without giving (much) away, suffice to say that anyone who’s familiar with Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City (1980) will know exactly what I’m talking about. These kinds of endings always strike me as cheap, ridiculous cop-outs and it ends up being a severely deflating way to finish the film. Whatever good will had been built up by the final scene was largely squandered with one of those endings that seems designed to elicit nothing more than forehead slapping and audience groaning.

Despite my problems with the movie, however, I would still rather watch something genuine, if a bit clumsy, than something that feels like a carbon-copy of a million other films. When the film works, it’s a rousing, entertaining throwback to a time when effects were still mostly practical and kids’ movies (I still feel that this is aimed at slightly younger audiences) could feel dangerous and high stakes without seeming completely age inappropriate. It’s telling that my warm feelings once the film ended were largely nostalgia-based: while the film itself was fun, it reminded me pretty explicitly of my own youth, which really increased my appreciation of the finished product. Had I not grown up in this era, however, I wonder if I would find Invaders From Mars quite as charming? Despite its good qualities, I’m pretty sure that this won’t supplant TCM 2 as my go-to ’80s Hooper film, although it practically begs for a future double-feature with the original.

 

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