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Thursday, October 23, 2014


I've said it before and I'll say it again: A horror story is a horror story, no matter what genre trappings it may be disguised in. Be it a musical, a western, a comedy, or what have you, the impulse of fear still remains. That aspect has most often been put to the test in films that are ostensibly science-fiction efforts, but look at movies like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956 or 1978) and ALIEN (1979) and try to convince yourself that they aren't straight-up horror. Another excellent case in point is the original INVADERS FROM MARS — the less said about the ill-advised remake, the better — which is at first glance a standard alien invasion flick from the flying saucer-crazed 1950's, but is in actuality a story of sheer, nightmarish terror told from the point of view of a child.

The waking nightmare begins in the wee hours when young David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt), an aspiring astronomer, witnesses a glowing green flying saucer land behind a hill near his house, settling in a large sand pit. David's father (Leif Erickson), himself a scientist, goes to check out his son's claims and disappears for a few hours, only to return bearing a face that reveals little or no emotion and a mean, angry demeanor that is the polar opposite of his established persona. In short order, David's mother, a neighboring little girl, and some of the local authorities also disappear into the sand pit, to the accompaniment of an eerie almost-choral sound, only to return as blank-faced, emotionless drones, each bearing a strange penetration mark on the back of their necks. The adults are clearly not to be trusted, so David seeks help at the local police station, where he meets Dr. Pat Blake (Helena carter), a health department professional who, thankfully believes the lad's story. Also on hand to believe and lend assistance is Dr. Stuart Kelston (Arthur Franz), an astronomer who knows David and now does work for the military. Kelston surmises that the alien presence is only the first wave of an invasion from Mars and that their point of arrival was strategically located near the site of a nearby experimental rocket base, so he alerts the military to what's going on. Things only escalate from there, with more alien takeovers of Earthlings (and the deaths by cerebral hemorrhage of those who are in danger of being caught), the active involvement of the military, and descent into the subterranean saucer where the descriptor "alien" doesn't do the environment justice. It's a close encounter of the most dire kind when our heroes meet the Martian intelligence and the hulking "mu-tants" it controls,  so what hope does mankind have against malevolent intent and super-science from across the stars?

Two of the Martian "mu-tants"...

...and the intelligence they serve.

If INVADERS FROM MARS was intended as a mere matinee time-filler for Fifties kiddies, I honestly wonder if the filmmakers realized they'd unleashed a film so unabashedly terrifying upon the audience of just over six decades ago. Looked at from an adult perspective it's still pretty good, but to really get the film's impact one either has to be a child when first encountering it or be able to look at it from a kid's perspective. The altering f mom and dad and other trusted, security-assuring authority figures is bad enough, but the film visually renders its proceedings with the look and feel of a particularly vivid nightmare one might have while majorly whacked-out on cheap Jamaican cough syrup. Familiar interior sets tend to be starkly designed and accented with the kind of bright lighting one finds in hospitals — a location and aesthetic that can trigger a response of dread — and what's supposed to be an all-natural hill and sand pit surmounted with a picket fence resembles something out of a German expressionistic painting. The interior of the Martian vessel is lit in greens and stark white, with smooth and virtually featureless surfaces, somehow simultaneously generating a feeling of open space and claustrophobia, perhaps in an attempt to convey an un-human sense of dimension. If Dr. Seuss had eschewed whimsy and embraced a Chesley Bonestell sensibility fused with Gahan Wilson's queasiness, the saucer's confines are what you'd get.

The cast is uniformly perfect for this narrative and special props go to Jimmy Hunt as David. His is an wholly-believable performance that never once falls into the kind of nauseating precociousness or cutesy bullshit that I so despise in the majority of kid actors' performances of its era. No tear-jerking, no mugging for the camera to appeal to grannies in the audience, just a boy caught in a fantastic and horrible situation, and he responds as any real kid would.

David (Jimmy Hunt) rages against the master Martian.

If memory serves, I first saw INVADERS FROM MARS when I was around five or six, just the right age for it and during my formative years as an addict for this kind of stuff, and its imagery and kinder-paranoia stuck with me for years afterward. I also saw the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS around that same time, and it was very interesting to absorb two very different takes on the horror of people we love losing their humanity; one from a viewpoint fueled by grownup Cold War nerves, and the other from the most hard-wired sense of childhood security, only to have that parental/authoritative reassurance inexorably shattered. Though rooted in the early 1950's, INVADERS FROM MARS is a timeless exercise in fear and being forced to deal with things that one simply cannot handle, so sit your little ones through it as soon as possible. It's a dark 20th century fairytale that doesn't bullshit its audience, and it was that respect for its young audience that endeared it to me so long ago. Sure, it has an ending that is one of the handful of definers of its particular trope, but just when you're ready to get pissed off, it manages to pull off a double-twist that redeems what would have otherwise been a lame climax. That, dear readers, is what I call artistry, and INVADERS FROM MARS is absolutely a solid work of nightmare art.

Poster from the original theatrical release.

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