Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, July 10, 2016

Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (1986) Part 1

8. Invaders from Mars

Tobe Hooper had two film to go on his contract with the Cannon Group. Though “Lifeforce” would become a cult favorite, it didn’t exactly clean up at the box office. This trend would continue with Hooper’s remake of “Invaders from Mars,” the biggest bomb of the three films he made with the studio. On paper, it probably seemed like a sound decision. The eighties produced a minor trend of talented, critically acclaimed directors remaking classic sci-fi films of the fifties. John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” David Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” and Chuck Russell’s “The Blob” had already been released. Not all of those were hits but they’re all pretty great. Steven Spielberg, Hooper’s old “Poltergeist” partner, was originally offered the remake of “Invaders from Mars.” Perhaps Hooper chose the project in hopes that it would recreate that film’s success. Hooper’s “Invaders from Mars” wasn’t well received at the time but it too has developed a small following over the years.

David is a young kid who enjoys star-gazing with his father, a fellow astrology buff. One night, he sees a huge alien spaceship fly above the house and land over the hill behind them. The next day, his father returns home acting strangely. After his dad takes his mom over the hill, she acts odd too. David notices that many of the adults around him - his teacher, some cops, his dad’s co-workers - are all acting strangely. He begins to suspect an alien invasion is going on. He’s right. Martian invaders have tunneled under the hill and are now taking over the town. With the help of the school nurse, David contacts the local military, taking the fight to the Martian threat.

Unlike many of the other eighties remakes of fifties classics, “Invaders from Mars” follows the original’s story fairly closely. Many of the plot points are identical. You have the young boy spotting the alien invasion before any one else. His parents being taken, befriending an adult nurse, and calling in the marines are all from the classic version. The Martian control probes being inserted through the back of necks is maintained. The original’s iconic image of a ball of light descending behind a hill is maintained. The Martians are led by a round overmind, senseless minions doing most of the work. Despite Mars being revealed as a lifeless planet, “Invaders from Mars” thankfully doesn’t change the invaders’ planet of origin. These are Martians, you guys. Naturally, 1986’s remake also keeps the original’s well-known twist ending. The penultimate scene reveals the events of the film have all been a dream… Unless they aren’t, as the final minutes suggests.

So what elements does the remake change? The gee whiz, pro-science tone of the original is gone. David’s dad is no longer a scientist but just a telephone company employee. The original’s biggest weakness, a long scene in the middle devoted to explaining the Martian’s society, is thankfully ejected. His school teacher becomes a more sinister figure, helping to infect a number of children during a field trip over the hill. In the original, the people taken over by the Martians acted like stilted robots. Here, they are more sinister, obviously hinting at their altered mind. In short, “Invaders from Mars” keeps most everything that was memorable about the original while ironing out some of the bumpier patches.

The original “Invaders from Mars” is usually interpreted one of two ways. Like all fifties sci-fi, people like to say the insidious Martian invaders are symbolic of the creeping threat of Communism. Considering the aliens rob people of their free will, maybe that was intentional. However, I prefer the reading that “Invaders from Mars” is the paranoid nightmare of a child. In this dark dreamland, David’s parents become soulless automatons. What’s a worst nightmare for a child then that, his beloved parents turning into things that mean him harm? The gist is the same but 1986’s “Invaders from Mars” changes the context a little. The eighties David is more paranoid, his nightmarish vision more extreme. The entire town turns against the boy, with even fewer people he can trust. The eighties remake represents the more severe concerns of a more severe decade.

Despite Steven Spielberg not directing “Invaders from Mars,” the famed director still had an obvious influence on the remake. The early scenes of familial bliss, as well as the sense of boyhood adventure, are all obviously meant to emulate Spielberg. Take a listen to Christopher Young’s score. Among the appropriate vibrating, threatening strings, there’s some souring, John Williams-style melodies. This is most observable during the opening credits, when the titles fly over the audience’s head. After the Martian menace reveals itself, “Invaders from Mars” dials back on the Spielberg impression. This is probably for the best. Despite their association, Hooper and Spielberg have very different styles.

If “Invaders from Mars” has any apparent flaw, it’s the central actor. Hunter Carson plays David. He is the son of the film’s lead actress, Karen Black, which suggests some nepotism. Carson is okay in the part. He shows a certain child-like spunk. When sneaking around the Martian’s underground lair, he has a likable edge to him. However, Carson is ultimately not a good enough actor to carry an entire film. When forced to be panicked or be frightened, his shtick brushes up against comical. Even if “Invaders from Mars” is a kid-friendly horror film, its threat should never be less then serious. It’s also hard to buy Carson once he starts giving orders to marines. Carson is also kind of homely, which means the close-ups on his screaming face don’t do the kid any favors.

What about Karen Black? By all accounts, Black was always a reluctant scream queen. Despite her deep association with the genre, she never seemed to like horror very much. However she might have felt about the movies she made, Black was never less then a professional. She’s actually quite good in “Invaders from Mars.” As the school nurse, she brings a nice energy to the part. She’s the first one to believe David because she’s seems willing to see things the way a child does. The two form a plausible bond, which I suppose makes sense since the actors are mother and son. Black’s likable performance is one of the aspects that make “Invaders from Mars” enjoyable.

The remake also has the benefit of a solid supporting cast. Timothy Bottoms and Laraine Newman are both enjoyable as David’s parents. Both have a cute chemistry with the kid. I like Bottoms sharing his penny collection with his son and Newman playing with the toy robot. Bud Cort has a nice part as the scientist that tries to befriend the aliens, which plays well to the actor’s natural eccentricity. However, two actors really own the film. Louise Fletcher goes gleefully over the top as the evil school teacher. She starts out as someone who is merely strict. By the end, she is the evil overlord of the aliens. Considering everybody had at least one teacher like that, it’s a fun choice. Fletcher is having a ball. Also entertaining is James Karen as the military leader who believes the boy’s story. Karen is nicely hammy as a gung-ho guy who doesn’t suffer fools very well.

“Invaders from Mars” has its share of decent, thrilling sequence. From a safe distance, Black and Carson watch two innocent men pulled into the sands by the Martians below. That’s something the remake definitely does better then the original. The image of people being pulled under the sandy hill is far more horrific here. I also like the extended chase scene through town, when Fletcher’s teachers comes after David, forcing him to flee onto the road. Probably the most intense sequence in “Invaders from Mars” involves the boy and the nurse chased into the boiler room beneath the school. The infected cops corner them and it’s only through a freak accident that they survive. (In a cute in-joke, Jimmy Hunt – the David from the original “Invaders from Mars” – plays one of these cops. The original Martian Overlord also has a cameo in the same scene, if you look quick enough.)

Truthfully, I may be predisposed to like “Invaders from Mars.” After all, I love gooey monster effects. And if there’s anything this movie does well, it’s monster effects. The original movie’s monsters are iconic but undeniably stiff. The shaggy green mutants have been traded out for bizarre Drones. They have huge mouths, full of gnashing teeth. They have two sets of legs. One set is stubby. The others are in the back and are long and spindly, acting as secondary arms. It’s a bizarre, memorable monster design. The Martian leader also gets an impressive make-over. Renamed the Supreme Intelligence, the monster is now a massive brain, a squished-in face with starring blue eyes in the center. Stan Winston and his team contributed the monster effects, the same year he was working on “Aliens.” While they can’t compare to that movie, they’re still fantastically squishy.

Another way the remake of “Invaders from Mars” is superior to the original is in its final act. When the original sent in the marines, it settled into a repetitive groove too quickly. The remake at least keeps things more exciting. The entirety of the Martians’ lair is red and flesh-like, a suitably unnerving image. The Martians’ ray gun, a strange orb that is powered by copper, is another variation I like. Another cool moment has a character being yanked to safety from the underground drilling device. The finale features a character nearly getting needled in the neck and another being eaten whole. “Invaders from Mars” wraps up in a way that is as fun and pulpy as the film that proceeds it.

“Invaders from Mars” is flawed. It’s definitely a minor film and not a major work in Hooper’s library. It seems unlikely that the remake will ever overshadow the original’s enduring cult status. I’d argue that it actually does a number of things better, even if it can’t quite capture the same dream-like tone. It’s a must see for Karen Black fans. If nothing else, Hooper’s “Invaders from Mars” features some pretty cool monster effects. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to make me happy. As the middle chapter in the oddball trilogy of films Hooper made for Cannon, it’s certainly fun. [Grade: B]

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