Monday, May 13, 2013

Let's Relive Some Childhood Trauma with INVADERS FROM MARS

Invaders from Mars (1986)
Director: Tobe Hooper
Rating: 6 / 10
Source: Cannon VHS

I was not a brave kid. For evidence, I present to you Tobe Hooper's 1986 remake of Invaders from Mars. I must have been about nine when I first caught this on TV some weekend afternoon. While I clearly remember being riveted to the screen throughout its runtime, I'm pretty sure I didn't sleep for about a week afterwards. If child-me was a boss in Contra, my giant red flashing weak spot would have been stories about extraterrestrials, particularly alien invasions/abductions. This movie was a rocket fired with eagle-eye precision toward that glowing core. For the next year or so after I watched this, I'd check the newspaper TV listings every Saturday to make sure it wasn't playing that afternoon. Because if it was, I couldn't trust myself. I knew I'd end up sitting in front of the TV again, reopening all those barely healed mental wounds. This is why I had to pick this tape up when I saw it for sale. I'm now a firm believer in the notion that facing fears head-on is the best way to dispel them (which probably doesn't mix well with my innate masochism).

One of the things that's sort of alarming about Invaders from Mars is how quickly it gets going. We're introduced to our young hero, David (Hunter Caron) as he watches a meteor shower with his Dad (Timothy Bottoms). Just after he goes to bed that night, David witnesses a monstrous alien craft landing behind the hill near his house. He runs screaming into his room and wakes his parents - a scene similar to that which would occur many times in my own home thanks to this movie.

It was only a dream, they reassure him, and usher him back to bed. But the next morning, Dad's acting sort of weird. He walks around in a daze with a strange wound on the back of his neck. After Mom leaves for work, he pours an entire container of Tic-Tacs into his coffee and gulps the whole mess down like nothing's wrong. He's also strangely insistent that David take a walk with him over the hill behind the house... David flees to school, but soon finds out his teacher (Louise Fletcher, a.k.a. Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) is also acting more strangely than usual. Only the school nurse, Linda (Karen Black) believes him. As the rest of the adults in his life become increasingly sinister, it seems like she's the only one he can trust.

And this is where we're going to drill the hole for the mind control device...
One of the things that stood out to me watching this film as an adult is how deliberately it plays on fears specific to childhood. The idea of your parents suddenly turning on you was one of the things that really got to me as a kid, especially when the secondary adult authority figures began to do so as well. Children are always given lists of people who they're supposed to go to for help - teachers, neighbors, the police - and this movie goes right down that list and crosses them off one by one. Thank god for Karen Black. If it wasn't for her, this movie would leave David on his own. It's also interesting how so many of the typical (and sometimes comforting) kid movie tropes are absent here. David seemingly has no friends in school, no pet, no secret crush - not even a bully that could eventually side with him when shit hits the fan - just his parents, who seem normal enough until the aliens land. Which happens almost immediately. Again, the fast pacing of this film is sort of remarkable.

Would you care for a snack?
There are also an abundance of scares that play on base fears centered around food. In addition to Dad's aforementioned Tic-Tac coffee, there's a scene where mom serves David a horribly burned breakfast and then chows down on raw hamburger loaded with salt. The first time David suspects something is wrong with his evil teacher is when he spots her eating a frog, which is also the movie's first real "oh shit" moment. These are all pretty effective gut-level scares that hit even harder when you're young enough to have to depend on other people for your meals.

And we haven't even talked about the ALIENS yet. It's probably no surprise that David eventually musters up the courage to scale the hill behind his house and check out the beings that are responsible for everything that has transpired. The aliens have established a series of subterranean tunnels, which are typically entered via whirlpools that suck intruders beneath the sand (another terrifying childhood memory). The aliens in all their practical-effect glory look like gigantic ambulatory Deadly Spawn - essentially gigantic toothy maws perched atop warty chicken legs. There's also the boss alien, a little Krang-like fellow who rides out of the ship's central core on a gigantic tentacle. The aliens themselves are well-done, designed by effects wizard Stan Winston, whose work has been featured in essentially every landmark sci-fi/monster movie from the late 80's to early 90's.

Wait a second - is that...?

Oh, hi, Bud Cort!

If there was one detail that stood out in memory even above these creeps (the aliens, not Bud), it was this:

The alien mind-control mechanism is inserted by this giant drill, which we get to see in full operation as it bores into the cerebellum of some poor nameless extra. This, of course, is shown in the kind of terrifyingly bloodless PG-rated style that's sometimes extra disturbing simply because you're not expecting it.

If it were just David and Karen Black vs. the martians, the game would be over pretty quickly, but when David manages to get the military involved, things escalate significantly. I'm not sure how I feel about the final confrontation that occurs inside the alien lair. While it provides an explosion-laden finale clearly targeted at the young boys in the audience, it eliminates a lot of the terror of the first two acts by removing David's responsibility for exposing and eliminating the aliens. He still gets his chance to shine, as all child protagonists eventually do, but it feels like there's less at stake at the end than there was throughout the rest of the film.

The Good

Filled with shocks and scares that still hit a nerve after two decades.

The aliens are creepy as hell and make for some really memorable villains.

The Bad

I'm hard-pressed to believe that Hunter Carson was the best actor Tobe Hooper could find to play David. He tries so hard, but ... wow.

...the Hell?

This movie features what's likely the only instance of Chekhov's Penny.

The Verdict

You can probably tell from my review that most of the enjoyment I got out of this film came from re-living scares that destroyed me as a kid. If I were to see this film for the first time as an adult, I doubt it'd do a whole lot for me. All the same, the paranoia and the aliens are both well-crafted. If there's a youngster in your life who you think needs to be terrified, you could do a lot worse than Invaders from Mars.


  1. Ha! Well, you liked it a lot more than I did, and I worked on it. However, I felt the same way about the original 50s version I saw as a child. That's why I was so keen to work on the remake. You can see what scares I made that are still in your nightmares by going here and scrolling down.

    1. Hi, Stuart - thanks for taking the time to comment! It's really cool to hear from someone who played such an essential role in crafting my childhood fears. Looking through your site was a serious nostalgia trip. Thanks for the link.

      Invaders may not be a classic for the ages, but it will always have a special place in my heart. Fear must imprint itself pretty strongly in the brain, because it's incredible how vivid some of my childhood memories of this movie are. (That needle machine - seriously.) I've since seen the 50's version, but as an adult, and it didn't have nearly the same impact on me. Some things just have to hit you when you're most susceptible I guess.

      Thanks again for stopping by!