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The Nostalgic Attic: Late Night Frights: Invaders From Mars (1953)

12 December 2014

Late Night Frights: Invaders From Mars (1953)


"The heavens. Once an object of superstition, awe, and fear. Now a vast region for growing knowledge."


Awakened by what is mistaken for a thunderstorm, young David (Jimmy Hunt) makes it to his bedroom window in time to see what looks like a spaceship landing on the hill behind his house. After telling his parents, his scientist father heads out to investigate, only to return the next morning somewhat altered. His personality has become cold and aggressive, and David notices a bloody puncture wound on the back of his neck.



Terrified that something sinister has happened to his father, David goes to the police, but notices the same puncture wound on the chief's neck. He is taken into custody by physician Dr. Blake (Helena Carter), and slowly but surely, she begins to believe his crazy story. Many of the townsfolk have begun to act strangely, and with the help of a local scientist, Dr Stuart Kelston (Arthur Franz) they convince the army that an invasion from Mars is happening on their doorstep. Will it be enough to stop these invaders? Or will they all become slaves to these terrifying creatures?

Coming out the same year as the much more highly regarded War of the Worlds, Invaders From Mars manages to hold its' own in the 50's invasion/paranoia genre, despite the less-than-stellar reputation. One of the highlights is that the story is told from the point-of-view of a child; quite common for both modern science fiction and horror, but not so in 1953. This helps create a real sense of terror in the film; for once it's not just scientists and military men who are the main focus (though there plenty of those, too) but an actual child, reflecting probably the vast majority of the film's viewers. This goes beyond just the story, as eagle-eyed viewers will notice that this point-of-view is translated into the production design and shot decisions also, with some sets seemingly taller than necessary, whilst there are much more shots from lower angles than usual for this sort of film. It really does help sell that unique sense of childhood fears, which were expanded upon nicely in the themes itself.


Coming across as a kids more action-packed version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (despite coming out several years before the much-celebrated Don Siegel film), it makes great use of childish paranoia; is there anything worse than believing your parents have been replaced by something alien, or perhaps been brainwashed and stripped of their love and compassion? And while this idea was expanded upon to much greater effect in the Body Snatcher films, it is quite effective here, and adds especially to the nightmare-ish tone of the film. Add to this the sights of seeing both adults and children disappearing into the sandpit on the hill, and you'll have yourself some terrified kiddies in the audience.

Despite these great points, there are a few issues. Firstly, the film suffers from a minuscule budget, meaning the martians themselves are not only limited in screen time, but by special effects too. It's a pity, as the 'mutants' are clearly men wearing green clothes, though the leader is interesting looking enough, but compare that to the martians and award-winning effects in War of the Worlds. The film does feel like it runs out of steam at around the 60 minute mark, as we spend a lot of screen time with the plot to destroy the military plant. Some of it is exciting, but it feels like the pacing takes a wrong turn. Many also feel that the ending is laughable, and while I won't spoil it here specifically (most people who haven't seen it have heard of similar endings from many terrible storytellers in their lives), it is silly, but within the context of the film it seems to work quite perfectly, leading to a bleak finale that was enough to ruffle feathers in the UK at the time, forcing them to re-shoot footage and alter the climax.



The acting is reasonable across the board, with young Jimmy Hunt doing well despite his age. As mentioned above, the film does feel a bit more action orientated than other science fiction from the era, especially in the second half, but it builds to a fairly effective climax that really does bombard the viewer with explosions and martian death rays. What the film lacks in budget and effects it more than makes up for with atmosphere, and those shots of young David running in terror while bombs explode are some of the most memorable for me in the genre. Special mention should be made of the unusual score by Raoul Kraushaar; it is full of strange tones and vocal pieces; not quite what you'd expect, but once again, seems fitting for the 'bad dream' vibe the film is shooting for.

Effectively directed by William Cameron Menzies, who was an accomplished art director, the film has suffered from not-so-great prints over the years, and it hasn't really done the Eastmancolor negative much justice. The colour palette alone would look incredible if it was to be cleaned up, as it makes great use of greens and reds. I'm a huge fan of the Tobe Hooper remake from '86, but it would be great to see this one given the lavish restoration it deserves. Highly recommended for fans of 50's sci-fi.



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6 Comments:

At 12 December 2014 at 12:03 , Blogger Wes M said...

Yeah, wonderful stuff John and a real Nostalgic Attic movie - this one transports me back to a time and place that now seems was lived by another life, but I clearly remember seeing this on TV when I was no more that 7 or 8 and being completely immersed in Jimmy Hunt's predicament - I mean if your Dad can be taken over by Martians, what's stopping them from taking over the world ? I think Invaders From Mars is one of the great films about childhood - it's a child's film but not a childish film and for me seeing the film was a full-throttle experience that taped into some major truths of being a child, like the anxiety over a big storm or the way adults casually ignore children. In ways I could never understand back then, there was a powerful communion between the film and this 8-year old. And in this regard I think the film is part of a lineage of films that includes Curse of the Cat People, ET, and Poltergeist. This film was a real favourite of mine in those formative film-watching years, along with This Island Earth and the original Blob - so much so that, (and you alluded to this in your post) Invasion of the Body Snatchers which I most likely saw around the same time, didn't do much for me ! And years later, when I was discovering all those great early Scorsese films, I was really thrilled to see his wonderful homage to Invaders From Mars in the opening sequence of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. But I'm glad that you enjoyed revisiting this one, I haven't seen the film in well over 20 years now and I often wonder if the film might be best appreciated from this remote vantage point, fearing that the film's singular magic would be spoiled by my adult sensibilities Maybe it's time to find out...

 
At 12 December 2014 at 12:17 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Wes, fantastic commentary - I really do love hearing about other people's experiences with genre films at a young age, and you seem to have walked away with the exact same sensibilities as I did from this one. Those films that really tap into those childhood fears are few and far between - or at least, few that offer anything fresh on it - but you've definitely named off some of the greats right there.

You actually hit it spot on; it's not a childish film in any sense, and in that way, it translates perfectly to re-visiting it as an adult. I was actually surprised on my re-watch with how strong it is; the climax is loud and aggressive (so many explosions and tanks) that the film seems just as much about a nightmare for adults as it was as a kid. I too am a big fan of This Island Earth, but I didn't come to that one 'til I was in my late teens at least.

Definitely dig this one out if you can, would love to hear your thoughts on it as an adult!

 
At 14 December 2014 at 19:58 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

I saw this when it debuted on VHS - none of my local "Creature Feature" shows ever programmed it in. So I'm guessing 1983-1985 - somewhere in there. I had read a lengthy and thoughtful article on the movie when I was younger - most likely in the not-very-well-known Fantastic Films magazine - and I was looking forward to seeing the movie with the emphasis on the boy's point of view in production design and camera work (as you pointed out). I thoroughly enjoyed the movie then - for all the reasons you point out. Because it was trying for - and achieving - something different - it was easier to forgive those pretty noticeable zippers on the green velour jumpsuits pretending to be Martian skin. I also thought the ending was pretty marvelous - certainly it couldn't have been the cliche it's now become back in 1953? I saw the remake in college in the 80's - enjoyed it - and actually need to see it again to see how its held up.

Great post - and sterling comments as well from Wes and yourself!

 
At 15 December 2014 at 01:23 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Thanks Craig! What I was reaching for with my comments on the ending (and probably not getting there - damn my 'no spoilers' policy!) is that although the ending wouldn't have been common in films at the time, I would hazzard a guess that it would have been just as popular in children's story telling as it was when I was growing up. It was a popular enough plot device that kids would use all the time, and definitely would have appeared in many pulp comics in that era and before, too. But as I said, it works within the context - the film is being told from a kids point of view, after all - so it actually adds to the nightmare elements and leaves us with a darker edge to the climax than one might expect from the criticism. Hope that makes some sense!

 
At 7 January 2015 at 20:34 , Blogger Killer Couch said...

I love the 80's version lol

 
At 8 January 2015 at 04:39 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Yeah, BIG fan of the 80's version, myself. Some fantastic FX work, despite the shaky reputation.

 

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