Thursday, July 26, 2012


INVADERS FROM MARS (1953), which I watched the other day, falls somewhere in the middle ground of 1950s science fiction cinema. It's not good enough to be stand alongside the giants of the genre: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, WAR OF THE WORLDS, FORBIDDEN PLANET and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. But it's far better than many of the low-budget sf films of the era. Being produced in color also sets INVADERS apart as something unique and different.

Director William Cameron Menzies made a reputation in Hollywood as a first rate production designer. He worked on the immortal GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) and had previously directed THINGS TO COME, a British science fiction film based on material by H.G. Wells. He directed and designed INVADERS FROM MARS which is a simple, low-budget film in which a saucer ship from Mars lands on Earth, a landing that is witnessed only by a young boy. The next day, the boy's father (Leif Erickson) disappears into the sandpit where the craft landed. He reappears later a changed man. Gone is the tender, loving father. Instead, he's gruff, harsh and belligerent. Oh yeah, he's also got a weird "X" shaped scar on the back of his neck.

More people vanish into the sandpit and reappear with changed personalites. Nobody believes the boy when he cries "alien!". Authority figures (police and military) want to lock him up. He finally finds a sympathetic ear from an attractive nurse and an astronomer and they figure out that there really is an invasion from Mars taking place, with an objective of destroying a U.S. manned rocket base. The military marshalls its forces and defeats the aliens. But the film is not yet over because the  boy then wakes up to discover that it was all a very bad, vivid dream. Or was it?

INVADERS is filmed with dream-like logic and from the point-of-view of a young boy. There are menacing high and low angle shots in which adults dominate young David. The sets (other than his house), are stark, minimal and oppressive. It's a kids' eye view of a threatening adult world. Menzies uses a handful of well-designed sets and maintains the dream flow of events in a consistent manner. It's cheap but effective.

Unfortunately, there's not a lot of meat to this material which plays more like a short story. In order to fill out the running time, tons and tons of stock footage of  tanks and other military vehicles are used throughout the film. The "martians"(with visible zippers in the backs of their costumes) and soliders repeatedly run through the same tunnel sets from left to right, right to left and sometimes with the film image reversed. Special effects are achieved with a lot of footage simply being run in reverse. The "martians" repeatedly back into the scenes with their leader, a tentacled head in a clear plastic bubble. Take away all of this padding and the film comes in at well under an hour running time.

One of the delights of INVADERS is the cast which includes several familiar faces including  Milburn Stone, who would go on to play Doc on GUNSMOKE for many years, as a military engineer. Barbara Billingsley (the future June Cleaver of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER fame) appears in one scene, Robert Shayne (Inspector Henderson on TVs THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN) is a scientist and Morris Ankrum (God bless him), is the Army colonel who leads the attack. Ankrum was the go-to actor for these types of roles in countless 1950s science fiction films.

The film also makes use of a sixteen voice chorale to denote alien activity. It's weird, unique and memorable. The film was remade by Tobe Hooper in the 1980s but it's the original that remains the best iteration of this material. It's well worth seeing at least once if you're a fan of '50s science fiction films. If you saw this as a kid, it's probably stayed with you for a long time.

By the way, the title of this post is a line of dialogue from the film in case you're wondering.

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