A recently scholarly essay on alien-replacement paranoia fantasies from Invasion of the Body Snatchers onwards put me in mind to give a spin to Tobe Hooper’s widely ignored remake of the William Cameron Menzies original; an expensive dud back in the 1980’s. With a slew of Spielbergian product to navigate, such remakes were regular events back then, and Invaders From Mars has plenty to recommend; a Dan O’Bannon script, and effects by Stan Winston and John Dykstra. The odd thing is that it’s a long wait for the effects to take over, and the film actually loses rather than gains momentum when the aliens finally appear.
The first half of Invaders From Mars is easily the best, with a strange off-kilter feel that comes from slavishly updating a 50’s storyline. David (Hunter Carlson) imagines that aliens have landed beyond the picket-fence of his back garden; he awakens to find there’s something off about his parents (Timothy Bottoms and SNL’s Laraine Newman), his class-mates and even his teachers. Louise Fletcher plays a biology–teacher with a snake-like ability to detach her jaw and eat experimental frogs whole from the science table, so David does have a point. The military catch up with the youngster, who joins forces with sympathetic school-nurse Linda (Karen Black) to tip them off, then lead an attack on the alien spacecraft.
The last fifty minutes of Hooper’s film is fairly anonymous, aside from the defiantly weird design of the top-heavy aliens. But the first section benefits from keeping the camera at a kid-friendly level that makes the compositions look like Tom and Jerry; as a kid, David has a lot to be paranoid about, and the sense of alienation from the Norman Rockwell small-town life portrayed here is contagious. While the performances are nothing to shout about, Hooper pulls together a strong production, and the central idea, that no-one can be trusted, is effectively portrayed even if the pay-off is weak.
Invaders from Mars is no-one’s favourite film, but kids of the Stranger Things generation might dig the youthful protagonist in conflict with a corrupt adult world, very much in tune with its Netflix relation. Hooper’s career was blighted by misfires like this and nude-vampires-in-London mad-fest Lifeforce, and yet both these flops are more entertaining than many of the big hits of the era…