Invaders From Mars

In the ’80s, lots of people were trying to make Steven Spielberg movies. And obviously POLTERGEIST is Tobe Hooper’s Steven Spielberg movie. Or Steven Spielberg’s Tobe Hooper movie. These days it sounds like they should’ve just been credited as co-directors if it had been allowed. Accounts vary. So let’s forget all that and call INVADERS FROM MARS his version of a Spielberg movie, but not a regular Spielberg movie. It’s the type that the weirdo who directed LIFEFORCE would make. And that Golan and Globus would produce.

It was, in fact, Hooper’s followup to LIFEFORCE (which the kid is watching in part of the movie – lenient parents) and has a screenplay by the same duo. That would be the great Dan O’Bannon (ALIEN, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) and the mysterious Don Jakoby (DEATH WISH 3, ARACHNOPHOBIA, DOUBLE TEAM, VAMPIRES – how is the writer of all of those not legendary?) Hooper was still editing this when he started TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, so by my calculations this is right near the peak of feverish Hooper creativity.

Spielberg was nostalgic for old serials and shit, and made his own updated homage. Hooper looks back at a flying saucer movie rushed into production to beat WAR OF THE WORLDS to the screen. He restages it with 1986 effects but without entirely abandoning the broad 1953 tone. The music alternates between creepy synth dirges like Hooper’s own score for CHAINSAW 2 and big, thrilling military anthems by Christopher (HELLRAISER) Young.

Hunter Carson (son of L.M. Kit Carson, who was about to write CHAINSAW 2) stars as David Gardner, an eleven year old kid who wakes up in the middle of the night and sees a spaceship landing over the hill. His dad (Timothy Bottoms, UNCLE SAM) promises to investigate in the morning and after he does he acts bizarrely, as if he doesn’t really know how humans behave. It’s a body-snatcher story, with David trying to stop the martians from taking over the town. No one believes him except for, for some reason, the school nurse Linda (Karen Black [HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES], Carson’s mother in real life).

It’s one of those paranoid sci-fi stories – David keeps seeing people acting oddly and realizes they’ve been, you know, colluding with Mars. The teacher Mrs. McKeltch (Academy Award winner Louise Fletcher, VIRTUOSITY) is clearly out to get him, although she’s also just a jerk anyway. David has to get out of class, convince Linda that something is going on, bring her to the Martians’ secret underground tunnel, etc.

Within this classical story structure there are bursts of bizarre imagery. The people taken over by aliens all have a cut on the back of their neck, which turns out to hide wiggly little tentacles that light up at the end like E.T.‘s finger. (By the way, did anybody ever bring this movie up when theorizing about the Band-Aid on Marcellus Wallace’s neck?)

Stan Winston’s studio worked on this at the same time they were doing ALIENS. The websight for the Stan Winston School of Character Arts says the idea for the Martian drones came out of what they were doing with the Alien Queen, and it has a pretty great Winston quote about it: “I wanted to create an alien invader that didn’t look like a guy in a suit. So I came up with this idea of putting a little person on the back of a big guy who would stand and walk backward.”

Sorry to say the slow, plodding movements of the drones make them a little comical, but man do they look weird in a good way. It’s a welcome laugh when they eat a certain character. Even better is the leader of the martians, a huge brain with a face on it that’s on the end of a long tentacle. He looks kinda like Krang from TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS. This is a gore-free PG-rated movie, and these guys are almost as cartoonish as the aliens in EXPLORERS, but they’re such an imaginative illustration of the-crazy-thing-no-human-is-supposed-to-know-about-but-you’re-standing-there-looking-at-it-and-now-they-see-you-seeing-them that I bet this gave nightmares to many of the 300 kids that saw it.

Spielberg has his famous Look of Awe – shots of Elliot looking up at E.T.’s spaceship, or our heroes seeing the dinosaurs for the first time in JURASSIC PARK, or etc. Again and again Hooper does his version: a Look of Horror. So many shots of this kid’s reaction as he sees some crazy ass shit that no earthling has seen before. I think some people might find Carson an annoying kid actor, and it’s certainly not a Henry Thomas level performance, but I think he’s great at making these oh-jesus-christ-what-am-i-looking-at expressions.

The aliens are far from the only weird thing in this movie. I’m fascinated by the scene where David gets up in the morning, pulls a Dr. Pepper out of the fridge and drinks it right in front of his mother (Laraine Newman, who does indeed get to do a Coneheads voice in one scene). She’s not a martian drone yet but she doesn’t blink an eye. I’ve noticed from the CHAINSAW 2 making-of stuff that Hooper drank Waco’s own Dr. Pepper all the time, but it’s still kind of hilarious to see a kid crack one open first thing in the morning.

But there’s a possible explanation: in the end we find out that this whole story is (SPOILER) a dream, and I think this is the reason for much of the oddness. It may sound like a silly excuse, but there are other elements of the story that show this is an alien invasion story as it would be dreamed up by a little boy. The best example is its treatment of the military. In E.T. the government forces are mostly faceless and completely ominous – a threat. But David is not old enough for that cynical view, so in this story the army are ready-to-roll asskickers who automatically show him more deference than the space marines ever show Ripley. David knows a general (James Karen, POLTERGEIST, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) so he goes to him and tells him about the martians and the general listens. Later he does not when David says “I have an idea, you should try to talk to them and–” but only because he gets distracted. He doesn’t seem to think it’s ridiculous for a kid to be giving him suggestions in his fight to save the earth.

This child’s reality makes INVADERS FROM MARS unique. I can see how it’s tuned to a frequency that most people can’t get. It’s not entirely surprising that it got terrible reviews and two Razzie nominations. But for me on this latest viewing it really cooked. I kinda love this one now.

This entry was posted on Thursday, October 5th, 2017 at 7:15 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

23 Responses to “Invaders From Mars”

  1. When this came out I thought it looked cool but then I was too influenced by supposed critics. Of course later Burton did Mars Attacks but he was raked over the coals. I hope Hooper will continue to get critical re-evaluation, like Romero is getting (e.g., Scout Tafoya’s Unloved Part 44: Survival of the Dead).

  2. That movie scared the shit out of me when I was a kid. Looking back, it was the first Hooper movie that I ever saw, of course not knowing who he was. Anway, it scared me so much, I refused to walk on soft ground, like a sandbox or a lawn for a while, in fear of getting sucked into the ground and martianized.

  3. if only those critics who panned Mars Attacks had been able to see what grim offerings the Tim Burton of their future had in store.

  4. Masters of the Universe production designer William Stout designed Invaders’ alien parts, and Stout/Cannon reused the alien ship set for the Grayskull throne room. Notice iris opening proto-Krang comes out of opens up behind Skeletor to turn him gold. Too bad Daniel Pearl was not hired for Masters with the theatrical lighting he used on Invaders.

  5. I think I meant to say Burton’s Mars Attacks! was NOT raked over the coals like this one.

  6. @Psychic Hits – Burton’s later work being terrible doesn’t change that Mars Attacks is totally awful. I still get kind of furious about how thoroughly plotless, unfunny, poorly-acted, lame-looking, and half-assed it is. When it came out a friend of mine tried to rationalize its terribleness by saying, “He wanted to pay homage to those old bad movies, so maybe he made it bad on purpose.” And I was like, “Thank God Spielberg didn’t use that logic when making Raiders.” (Since then I’ve seen Vern espouse a similar sentiment about Summer Movies not needing to be good, just entertaining – why can’t they be both, like Die Hard?) Anyway I hate Mars Attacks. That’s the real moral of this story.

  7. I loved MARS ATTACKS! the randomness accentuates my appreciation. We’re talking about a movie where Nicholson gloriously dies twice and Jim Brown, Lucasa Haas and Tom fucking Jones end up saving the day. That’s bold as fuck and even if you did hate it you can at least admire that.

    INVADERS FROM MARS was one of my unsung childhood favorites. Just like *batteries not included. Yes it very much has Amblin like moments. However it’s also quite clearly both a Hooper and Cannon film. A lot of the tropes that they used best in the 80s like precocious and curious main character in over their heads, beloved character actress stealing the scene, working within obvious budget limitations etc.

    I think the creatures were some of Stan Winston’s greatest achievements. Which is saying a lot cause as we all know he was no slouch. Also always loved how it packed a wallop of a horror movie ending when it could’ve easily gone with a more saccharine 80s kid in peril sci-fi/adventure happy ending. That in itself is it’s most Hooper-esque element.

  8. MARS ATTACKS! is one of those movies, that was seens to be more beloved by European critics (and audiences) than Americans.

  9. You guys hate Mars Attacks but love Transformers the Last Knight? WTF guys. lol

  10. Stephanie Llewellyn

    October 5th, 2017 at 12:38 pm

    double feature with The Stuff

  11. I don’t personally know anyone that hates MARS ATTACKS!. The idea that Daniel hates it so much is surprising to me. I would get it if he was mixing it up with the more serious-ish but way less fun (to my tastes) INDEPENDENCE DAY.

  12. The double-shot of ED WOOD in ’94 and MARS ATTACK in ’96 was Burton’s peak. It was a smart movie pretending to be a stupid one, when the opposite approach is sadly more accepted.

    I should give INVADERS FROM MARS another shot. I was liking it fine, but just didn’t get around to finishing it for whatever reason.

  13. Hunter Carson, known for this film and almost being Bud Bundy. I remember enjoying this film for what it was when it came out, but haven’t revisited it since.

  14. This movie scared me as a kid, especially karen Black eating that frog, I should give it a rewatch.

    Also, I’ve always had a soft spot for MARS ATTACKS, I like that movie a lot.

  15. what i remember most about seeing this as a kid (1st grade) was the oppressive atmosphere of dread and paranoia and mistrust of adults, it had a huge impact on me at the time and scared the shit out of me. i’ve been meaning to revisit it ever since i discovered it was a hooper film (i didnt even know who he was when i first saw it) so thanks for the reminder!!!

  16. Another one I always liked when I was younger and didn’t know what the issue was. I do now though, it was a remake of a beloved (and still holds up great in my opinion) classic movie. Funnily I think the original is way more unnerving and ‘scary’ than the remake but the remake wins with all the crazy stuff it throws at you and much cooler monsters/aliens (no disrespect to the head in a jar from the original).

    Stern: I have room in my heart for MARS ATTACKS! and TRANSFORMERS MEET THE LAST KNIGHT

  17. Jareth Cutestory

    October 8th, 2017 at 7:36 am

    I’ll court controversy and propose that some of Burton’s later films are just as good as his early films, and that some of his early films aren’t without their problems. He’s always been hit and miss, even within a single film like BEETLEJUICE and (especially) the BATMEN.


    And ED WOOD, while fine, is over-rated. It’s by far his most conventional film, and it suffers for it.

  18. Never liked SLEEPY HOLLOW but BIG FISH is without a doubt one of his very best.

  19. Vern, just wanted to point out that of the two posters you posted, the second one lists a different duo of screenwriters in the “written by” credit.
    What gives? Can you do some detective work on that?

  20. I have an answer to your question. According to the book “Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre” by John Kenneth Muir, O’Bannon and Jakoby were hired to write the original script. It was then re-written by Stuart Shoffman and then that screenplay was re-written by the two assistant director’s on the film, David Womark and David Lipman. My guess is that poster is an earlier poster they used before the official credits of O’Bannon ad Jakoby were settled on.

  21. I remember watching the 1953 version of INVADERS FROM MARS and ’55’s THIS ISLAND EARTH back to back on BBC television when I was 9 or 10. They were the first movies that made me understand I could watch something not from my era and get just as big a kick out of it as any contemporary made film.

  22. I can relate, I think my awakening for that was watching a Universal Monster marathon on Sci-Fi Channel back in the day.

  23. Well, I finally saw this one and I guess you have to see it as a kid because I almost turned it off. I obviously wasn’t expecting TCM or Poltergeist, but even Hooper’s energetic nuttiness from TCM2 or Lifeforce is missing – this is just a bad, boring movie, full of garbage looking effects and terrible, porn-level line deliveries. It’s not scary or funny or interesting enough to be “so bad it’s good”, with the exception of the scene Vern talked about where someone gets eaten by the creatures and it looks like they messed up their first take and decided to just keep it in the movie. This is some Tommy Wiseau-level filmmaking on display here.

    Also – I don’t think anyone can keep calling Jake Lloyd from Phantom Menace or Austin O’Brien from Last Action Hero the worst kid performance ever, especially while this lead performance exists. This is one of the absolute worst acting jobs I think I’ve ever seen, period. I’m sure the kid grew up to be a nice guy and shouldn’t have been put in this position, but man, what a terrible, embarrassing thing to have preserved on film for the rest of time.

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