Wednesday, November 27, 2013

It Came From the '80s: Invaders from Mars

by Patrick Bromley
In which a '50s sci-fi classic gets an '80s overhaul courtesy of Tobe Hooper.

By the time he released his remake of Invaders from Mars in 1986, Tobe Hooper was pretty much on the outs with mainstream filmmaking. He wasn't being credited for directing his own biggest hit. His previous movie, 1985's Lifeforce, was an expensive failure and a difficult experience. He had gone from being the next big thing to a bit of a has-been in just half a decade. Directing a campy, borderline silly remake of Invaders from Mars did nothing to restore his reputation. He's a filmmaker who hardly gets the respect he deserves already, and Invaders from Mars gets even less respect than most of his films. Even his fans are reluctant to stand up for this one.

A remake of the movie of the same name from 1953, Invaders from Mars finds odd things going on for young David Gardner (Hunter Carson). He sees a spaceship land in his backyard. His parents are behaving strangely. His teacher (Louise Fletcher) is eating live frogs. The entire town seems to be taken over by aliens, and the only one who will believe David is Linda, the school nurse (Karen Black). So the pair does what anyone would do in this situation: they bring in the Marines to combat an army of aliens who have built a series of underground tunnels and are turning the entire population into mindless slaves.
I can't quite get a handle on Invaders from Mars. It could very well be an incompetent movie that's bad. Knowing Hooper's intelligence and predilection for subversion and the fact that it's written by Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby (who previously wrote Lifeforce for Hooper), I've long held that the movie is about being bad -- it takes many of the cheapest, worst qualities of old B-movies and cranks them up to 11, demonstrating that there is a fine line between what is scary and what is campy. I can still remember my brother and I as kids watching the original version on a Saturday afternoon and finding a lot of it genuinely scary. The remake has never scared me, even though I saw it, too, as a kid. The difference is one of tone and technique. The 1953 film directed by William Cameron Menzies did its best to be a real movie with limited resources. Hooper's version actually has too many resources; he goes bigger and sillier. It would be like if Tim Burton's remake of Planet of the Apes actually had any personality or point of view.

The movie was part of Hooper's three-picture deal with Cannon Films -- the same deal that spawned Lifeforce and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (which was released just two months after Invaders from Mars). None of the movies were very successful either critically or commercially; only TCM 2 managed to turn a profit. There have been rumors for years that Hooper was dealing with a pretty major coke addiction during this time, which would explain the craziness of all three films. Hooper has never confirmed it. I wish he would, if only so that I could start referring to the three movies as his "Cocaine Trilogy." I say this as a big fan of the Cocaine Trilogy.

Invaders from Mars earned back only a third of its $12 million budget, which was relatively high for a Cannon Production. The film boasts creature design by Stan Winston and visual effects from John Dykstra. The underground alien lair feels big and elaborate. It's clear that money was spent, yet everything about Invaders from Mars feels deliberately phony. The Winston-designed aliens are obviously big rubber suits. The famous hill over which the characters disappear before the aliens overtake them looks as though it was clearly shot on an indoor set -- the sky looks fake on purpose. Most of the dialogue sounds like it was re-recorded in ADR, creating a detachment between what we're hearing and the characters' mouths moving.

For me, it's all part of the charm of Invaders from Mars. This is Tobe Hooper's children's film -- a PG-rated monster movie that's big and weird and has the potential to capture the imagination of a kid but which adults find easy to resist. Hooper even shoots much of the movie from a low angle, the way a kid sees the world.
Because Hooper had made his name with the gritty, documentary-like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, people easily forget that his sensibilities lean more towards the broad and cartoony, as evidenced in pretty much every movie he's made since The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. That's what Invaders from Mars is: a broad, cartoony celebration of the kinds of movies Hooper grew up watching. Even the opening credits are so much fun, as Christopher Young's fun, march-y score plays and the names come flying out towards the screen like the movie was made for 3D (it was not). There's even a wooshing sound for every single one. Seriously. You keep thinking it's going to stop, but it never does. From its opening moments, you can tell that Hooper is having a blast making a '50-style alien invasion movie.

The performances are strangely stiff, and it can be difficult to discern if it's just because of actor limitations or if it was a specific stylistic choice. Timothy Bottoms and Laraine Newman both seem to pitch their performances as through they're doing parodies of '50s TV parents -- and that's before they are replaced by aliens. So much in the movie seems to be commenting on some pop culture that preceded it.

There's no getting around the fact that the lead performance by Hunter Carson is...problematic. The son of screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson (who wrote TCM Part 2 for Hooper) and co-star Karen Black was not a professional actor, and it shows. It's not fair to lay the failure of an entire movie at the feet of a child, but I suspect there are a LOT of people who can't get past the shortcomings of Carson's performance. Even by "kid actor" standards, it's well-meaning but pretty bad. He basically wears a single expression of surprise throughout the entire film.
Yes. That one.

What if David had been played by some sort of child actor prodigy? What would that have looked like? Would a genuinely terrified, committed performance have felt out of place in a movie this dependent on artifice? Or would it have given Invaders from Mars a different kind of crazy energy, the way Michael Moriarty's performance in Q: The Winged Serpent is almost at odds with the material and makes the movie something special in the process?

The rest of the adult actors are pretty fun in a stunt-casting way. Karen Black has a genre pedigree, but mostly seems involved so she can act opposite her son. Louise Fletcher does a variation on her iconic Nurse Ratched performance and (spoilers) gets an exit worthy of an Academy Award winner. James Karen shows up as a cigar chomping general and is great because he's James Karen. Bud Cort plays a scientist who shows up to investigate the alien disturbance. Even Jimmy Hunt, who played young David in the original '53 version, gets a cameo as the chief of police. All of these actors know exactly what movie they're in, pitching their performances just this side of parody. The movie is yet another example of people assuming Tobe Hooper made a bunch of mistakes, but he knew what he was doing.

Eventually the film moves underground into the alien lair -- an series of subterranean tunnels seemingly lit by mostly red bulbs. Movie after movie, Hooper seems fascinated by The Bad Place, in which the horror is confined to a single location from which escape is unlikely. It's the houses in both Texas Chain Saw and Poltergeist, or the motel in Eaten Alive. It's the funhouse in The Funhouse and the apartment building in Toolbox Murders and the underground lair of the Sawyer family in Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, which shares a lot of DNA with the alien tunnels of Invaders from Mars. All this stuff should be the coolest in the movie, because it's where all the effects work really takes center stage and we get to see a lot of the aliens, including their leader played by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' Krang.
Unfortunately, the movie runs out of steam just as it should be getting really crazy. Yes, the sets are cool and watching the marines go head to head with those big goofy aliens is kind of fun, but there's just not enough energy or urgency to it. Critics of the movie tend to take issue with the film's tone, but that's not the problem. The problem is in the pacing. We can forgive so much of Lifeforce's eccentricities because it gets bonkers by the end -- it sticks the landing. In this, Invaders from Mars is less successful.

And then there is the ending, which is shitty. I may have spent 1,500 words making excuses for Invaders from Mars, but I can't avoid the reality that the ending sucks. Sorry about that.

Rewatching Invaders from Mars again, I had an epiphany. Could this entire movie be made in response to the Poltergeist controversy? Is it all one big middle finger to Steven Spielberg?

Everyone knows the story by now. Steven Spielberg hand-picked Tobe Hooper to direct Poltergeist, which he co-wrote and would closely produce. The movie came out and felt so much like a Spielberg film that everyone began to question who really directed the film. Conflicting accounts have come out in the years since, with even people who were on set disagreeing about who was in charge. Though Spielberg backed him up (in public, at least), Hooper has never been able to shake the stigma.

Now I suspect that Invaders from Mars is like one big meta-commentary on the whole experience. Think about it. Kid protagonist. Suburban setting. Intervening authorities that arrive in uniform. Only instead of the sweet, cuddly alien of E.T., we get these ridiculous, bulbous monsters (what the main character describes as "huge, ugly, slimy Mr. Potato Heads"). Instead of curious scientists who want to make contact with other life forms, we get ineffectual goofs who are quickly reduced to piles of ash -- Hooper was making Mars Attacks! years before Tim Burton made Mars Attacks!. There is a zoom-in-dolly-out shot about a half hour into the film that's so on the nose it can't NOT be a parody of Spielberg style: Karen Black stands in the hallway of the school talking to David's parents as the background closes in on her for the ENTIRE SHOT. It goes on forever. Sure, you could make a case that it's a moment designed to close the space between Black and David's parents, who by now have been taken over by the aliens, thereby creating some intimidation without having them actually step towards her. I read it as "Hey, like that famous shot from Jaws? Well HOW ABOUT THIS?"

None of this is probably accurate, since I have no way of knowing if Hooper bears any ill will towards Spielberg. The theory is what we in the business call "crackpot."

So what is Invaders from Mars? Is it the work of a hack who had gotten lucky once or twice but never had any real talent? Is it the point at which a once-talented filmmaker completely lost his way? Is it a loving homage to '50s B-movies, or a sly send-up of said genre? The original movie was clearly dealing with the fear of Communism. It was about something more. That subtext is gone from the remake. Hooper made a sci-fi movie about being a sci-fi movie.

I don't mind, because it's a fun one. It has neat practical monsters and a terrific sense of humor. I don't know how anyone could watch James Karen attempting to comfort a kid by telling him "Don't be so worried, kid. We're not out of options yet. Marines have no qualms about killing martians!" or yelling out "Great Scott! Hasn't anybody got a penny??" at the film's climax and think that we're meant to take the movie seriously. The film plays better now than it did in 1986, when critics and audiences alike assumed it was all intended to be taken at face value. It never was. Hooper made a movie that's goofy and fun and best viewed by imaginative 10-year olds who can place themselves in David's shoes, have a healthy skepticism about adults and understand that it's all kind of funny. That was me at 10.

Hell, that's me now.



1 comment:

  1. I've never seen this, despite the fact that I've owned it for something like a decade on a double-feature disc with Strange Invaders, which I had also never seen until Junesploitation. Looks like it's time to rectify that, if only to complete the Cocaine Trilogy. TCM 2 is still my favorite Hooper movie and I never realized it was released so close to this one. Sounds like it's worth checking out, for sure.

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