Saturday Nightmares: Invaders From Mars (1986)
Tobe Hooper’s Invaders from Mars is one of those films that must’ve traumatized a good percentage of the kids who watched it upon release. Even before it hit video, I remember kids a few classes ahead of me talking about how scary it was. Catching it a year later on VHS, I recall sharing that sentiment.
The movie might’ve faded from memory over the years, but certain scenes remained in my head: The crazed look in Louise Fletcher’s eyes as frog legs dangle from her mouth, Timothy Bottoms’ creepy about-face to sinister father, and the Martian leader’s almost gleeful torment of child hero Hunter Carson at the climax. I had a feeling Invaders from Mars might not hold up to the memory of my seven-year-old self, but this damn DVD has been in my collection for years, and part of my reason for resurrecting Saturday Nightmares was to finally get around to these languishing titles.
It begins well enough: a father and son (Bottoms and Carson) looking up at the stars excitedly in a rather cute and sweet bonding moment. It’s the kind of Norman Rockwellian scene that Hooper might’ve gleaned from his earlier collaboration with Steven Spielberg. This innocuous bit of stargazing catches the earliest glimpses of an alien invasion, setting the movie into motion. Before we’ve got time to get comfortable, Bottoms falls under alien control and immediately tries indoctrinating the rest of the family. It’s a terrifying concept for a child: witnessing every institution of safety and protection (parents, police, and teachers) become something insidious.
Invaders from Mars begins to go off the rails as act two gets under way, resorting to a series of chase scenes involving disgruntled teacher Louise Fletcher's pursuit of our ten-year-old protagonist. From serving up a school bus of Carson’s classmates for Martian processing to chasing him down the street screaming ”I’ll get you for this!”, there’s enough subversion to authority to create a fairly compelling experience for kids. For all you parents out there hoping to ease your children into the genre, Invaders from Mars is packed with enough surface scares that kids will probably really enjoy watching a young hero outwit and defeat an alien invasion.
For the rest of us, though, it’s really a question of whether or not childhood nostalgia is enough to salvage it. And it certainly gets worse as it goes along. By the time James Karen is introduced as a no-nonsense general who takes it upon himself to defeat the alien army, almost all of the tension has evaporated from the story. The Martian invaders are fun and the practical effects that bring them to life are certainly enjoyable, but they're not exactly menacing monsters. And once the boy gets the full might of the military on his side, there’s no longer any reason to fear for him. The climax finds him running alongside an entire platoon of soldiers, blasting any Martians they come across.
This was a notoriously troubled production for Tobe Hooper. The middle film in his “Cannon Trilogy” (bookended by Lifeforce and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2),
The performances are pretty dismal, too. Hunter Carson (Karen Black’s son) never convinces us that he’s really scared, looking more like a kid on a playground than a young boy fighting for the survival of his town. The usually reliable Karen Black turns in one of her worst performances here, punctuating most of her dialogue with a thud. And what a criminal waste of James Karen! This guy single-handedly kept Return of the Living Dead Part II afloat, lest anyone doubt his talents. But here he seems as bored with the material as we are. Only Louise Fletcher looks to be having any fun. As silly as her role grows to be, the movie suffers a fatal blow once she’s removed from it.
Technically speaking, it’s a great-looking slice of mid-80s genre filmmaking. Production design is truly impressive (the subterranean alien lair is a real stunner), Stan Winston’s aforementioned creature FX are a delight, and all of the action is captured through the impressive lens of the always-reliable Daniel Pearl (some of the disorienting cinematography helps implant the film’s ‘twist’ ending early on). Christopher Young’s score is effective when it’s not shamelessly ripping off Jerry Goldsmith’s First Blood work (reportedly, Invaders was temped to Goldsmith and the producers wanted Young to mimic it).
If nostalgia isn’t enough to salvage the experience of Invaders from Mars, it does produce fond memories for the era in which it was produced. One of the most endearing aspects of 80s horror is how often a child took center stage as the hero: Critters, The Gate, Monster Squad, Lady in White and even Halloween 5 (to name a few) offered pint-sized protagonists, peppering even the most mean-spirited movie with a degree of innocence/sweetness. It’s a trend that seemed to die out of American horror throughout the early 90s and now seems relegated almost exclusively to the domain of the animated film (as Monster House and ParaNorman might suggest).
In the span of his six-decade career, Invaders from Mars falls squarely in the middle of Tobe Hooper’s canon. Far from his best, it’s not nearly as bad as the majority of his output that followed. It’s a feeble attempt at updating a sci-fi classic for a then-fresh audience. Proof that history often can repeat itself, this sucker is every bit as forgettable as many of our modern day rehashes: Slickly done but hollow and trite. Unless, of course, you’ve got fond memories of Louise Fletcher and those frog legs. Then it’s just another movie that probably should stay in your memory banks. It’s hardly worth rediscovery now.
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