There’s a book to be written about how America in the 1980s, in the thick of a deregulated corporate boom, might have inspired a few of its filmmakers to remake certain horror movies of the 1950s that reflected a past society similarly gripped by anxious, consumptive conformity. The wave of 1950s-era horror remakes that were released in the 1980s might constitute a prolonged coincidence, but it’s a revealing one, as the films of both decades are informed by an understandable distrust of the sacrifices of personality that are necessary to yielding the insidiously comfy fruits of suburbia. (Remarkably, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the oft updated, go-to tale of disenfranchisement and conformity, wasn’t remade in the 1980s.)
Tobe Hooper’s Invaders from Mars is one of the runts of this litter of 1950s/1980s horror cross-fertilizations, as it’s nowhere near as powerful, ambitious, or (re)defining of its source material as John Carpenter’s The Thing, David Cronenberg’s The Fly, or even Chuck Russell’s The Blob. But the film, at its best, evinces an updated anxiety with Americana that’s strikingly reminiscent of Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s similarly themed, vastly superior Poltergeist (an original production that nevertheless epitomizes the subliminal cultural dialogue between “the great generation” and the boomers).
Like the other movies Hooper directed in the 1980s, Invaders from Mars appears to be an experiment designed to test how far one can push against the tonal boundaries separating a horror film from a comedy before the enterprise collapses into shrill, self-conscious camp. At roughly the halfway point in its running time, the film becomes a blur of inventive yet wearying creature effects that are reminiscent of bloated kid-flick debauches like Howard the Duck. Hooper attempts to distinguish the atmosphere of his Invaders from Mars from the streamlined, elegantly irrational nightmare world of William Cameron Menzies’s original film by steering it into the opposite direction of hyperbole. Hooper’s ungainly giant Martians, who suggest a fusion of an elephant with a bullfrog and are presided over by a leader that coincidentally resembles the villainous brain Krang of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles if it lived on the tip of a large phallic tongue, have nothing on Menzies’s hulking green brutes. Or especially on that terrifying thing in a glorified aquarium tank that governs them (glimpsed briefly in this film’s background in one of its many in-jokes).
To be fair, Hooper clearly positions his Invaders from Mars, with its litany of E.T. references, as a cracked children’s film—a hallucinatory Lifeforce for audience members who haven’t discovered sex yet, which is kind of a WTF proposition for true-blue Hooper fans accustomed to less fettered outrageousness. The first half of the film, though, is a creepy and stylish expression of social alienation that serves to partially compensate for the mess that’s eventually made of things. A plucky little boy’s (Hunter Carson) discovery that Martians are enslaving his small town is initially staged by Hooper as a series of comic Dada-esque gags; the director’s literal-minded vision of the creatures is transcended by his playful sense of the oxymoronic “otherness” of suburban sameness. Many of the early images have a subtle fishbowl shape that separates foreground from background, suggesting a third dimension as well as pointedly estranging the boy from his surroundings, which are often obviously sets to begin with, particularly the Martian-infested hill, dotted with ironic picket fence, that’s quoted directly from Menzies’s film.
Colors also call one’s attention to the painterly artificiality of the cinematography, affirming yet again the dream quality of the child’s ordeal: School buses, occasionally creeping in the background of the images, are an almost putridly bright yellow, and the bowels of an elementary school are purplish and swampy, equating the institution to the Martian’s lair. Hooper and cinematographer Daniel Pearl are at their most inventive when likening a child’s fears to a sick Looney Tunes sketch, which is why the film’s plunge into overtly elaborate monster hijinks, despite the abundance of embedded sex symbols, scans as dispiritingly ordinary. Still, committed horror nerds and conspiracy-minded liberals alike will find fleeting suggestions of the canny parable that nearly manages to surface.
There are some flaws here and there in the image, such as the occasional blips and cracks that suggest a recycling of an older restoration. The picture is largely attractive though, boasting soft, era-appropriate grain structure and rich colors that affirm the film’s deliberate sense of time-warp dreaminess. The special effects, partially courtesy of guru Stan Winston, also hold up surprisingly well for a 30-year-old creature feature receiving Blu-ray treatment. Perhaps the image’s flaws serve a higher aesthetic-preserving purpose after all, as a more intrusive refurbishing might inadvertently pull at the seams of aging illusions. The two sound mixes are unambiguously well-rendered, which is particularly obvious in the sonic oomph that’s accorded the various set pieces that figure into the noisy third act.
Tobe Hooper doesn’t appear to be much of a talker, but his audio commentary is still a diverting listen that refers to quite a few of the rumors surrounding the film’s troubled production, shedding light on the culture of working for the infamous Cannon Films, which is an experience the filmmaker generally seems to have enjoyed. More interesting are "The Martians are Coming!: The Making of Invaders from Mars," which rounds up surviving cast and crew members for a series of reminiscences that are traditional to Shout! releases, and especially the original production illustration gallery that’s narrated by artist William Stout, who discusses promising concepts that were regrettably abandoned (such as Hooper’s desire to portray the spaceship as one large living entity). TV spots, the theatrical trailer, and original storyboards round out this enjoyable collection of supplements.
Invaders from Mars is a strange case of Lifeforce-lite that will probably only play to fans of weirdly loopy, inadvertently resonant monster-movie extravaganzas. Those folks, however, should be pleased with this affectionate and aesthetically pleasing Shout! release.