Like Lifeforce, Tobe Hooper’s Invaders from Mars is a trip. The 1986 picture is a remake of William Cameron Menzies’ 1953 original, with Richard Blake’s screenplay reworked by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby. Blake’s story, for the record, was itself based on a tale by John Tucker Battle. This is Hooper’s second of three movies for Cannon Films.
If Lifeforce was a teenage dream, Invaders from Mars is a childhood dream. The picture is packed with offbeat humour and over-the-top elements, with everything from the acting to the special effects overdoing it. Things spiral from the creepy to the absolutely silly, all while Daniel Pearl’s camera swoops around like a visitor from another world.
Hunter Carson stars as David Gardner, a nerdy kid who loves to watch the stars with his dad George (Timothy Bottoms). Life at home is relatively fine, with mom Ellen (Laraine Newman) completing the idyllic family unit. One night, David thinks he sees a spaceship. His father goes out to investigate and returns a shell of his former self, with subdued emotions and strange behaviour ruining breakfast.
Soon, others start behaving strangely. David runs in on his teacher (Louise Fletcher) stuffing a frog in her mouth. She, like the others, has a questionable mark on the back of her neck. David seeks the help of the school nurse (Karen Black) and they try to figure out what the hell’s going on. Before long, David is face-to-face with aliens and the United States Marines are trying to save the world.
Right from the outset, Hooper sets the tone. The credits whoosh in over a space backdrop, with the orchestral score pounding away. David is shown excitedly talking about space with his father and their world is enjoyable and free of complication. It’s a 1950s, white picket fence scenario with all the background concerns of the mid-1980s.
David’s world is soon turned upside-down. He sees the aliens and for a time Invaders from Mars is about the everlasting quest for a kid to be taken seriously in the adult world. He screams his head off, tries to get his mother to worry about his father and tries to get the nurse to really consider what he’s saying. True to fantasy, many adults – including the fanciful General Wilson (James Karen) – do listen.
Because of the surreal quality of Hooper’s flick, it stands to reason that things spool out from fear to understanding to conquest. People seek David’s counsel because he’s learned a lot about space. He knows what he’s doing. Carson doesn’t exactly offer much in the role, but he qualifies as a know-it-all kid.
The other performances are torn from 1950s science fiction, with Black spilling around as the alarmed nurse and Fletcher absolutely running away with the movie as the dowdy teacher. She has some of the best lines and scenes, like when she stands in the road and shouts “I’ll get you yet, David Gardner” while shaking her fist.
As Susan Sontag explores in her essay on the subject, “camp” is effectively a love of the unnatural. It is an affection to artifice and exaggeration. In that regard, Invaders from Mars qualifies as an affectionate look at a world in which something is decidedly off. And considering the source as the man who delivered The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, viewing things through that lens seems apt.
The reputation of Hooper’s Invaders from Mars isn’t good. It was hammered by critics and found itself nominated for two Razzies, which Fletcher somehow securing a nomination for Worst Supporting Actress. But if a film or a performance or any piece of art exists in quotation marks, as Sontag’s essay would suggest, did it really miss the mark?
Without question, Invaders from Mars is unconventional. Whether it’s the alien that looks like Krang or the abundant phallic symbols or the child wish fulfillment, there’s something hysterical going on here. It’s as far from prim entertainment as one can get without needing a special license, yet an oblique affection for the original is laced throughout. It’s partially an enigma, but it’s still a damn trip.