Back in the 80’s, Cannon – the cash hemorrhaging super studio – offered horror director Tobe Hooper a lucrative three picture deal with the understanding that one of them would be a Texas Chainsaw sequel. The other two movies Hooper would have carte blanche over what he wanted to make and so he immediately rewarded studio heads Golan & Globus with the insanely phantasmagoric Lifeforce, a hugely expensive sci-fi horror that gravely told the luridly ludicrous tale of a vampire infestation from space that crashed more spectacularly than Evel Kinevel after downing a few bottles of peach schnapps – which is why it’s so baffling that Cannon let Hooper dive straight into another science fiction invasion story.
However, things should have been different because this time, not only was the director remaking a sci-fi classic but he also was tempering his horror roots with the more Spielbergian tone he hinted at in Poltergeist (if you don’t believe the legendary rumours about who actually directed the supernatural blockbuster) to turn in a more PG themed film. Ultimately history tells a different story; Texas Chainsaw 2 is now fondly remembered as a leftfield, gaudy, freakshow whereas Lifeforce is a legitimate trashy masterpiece of so-bad-it’s-good filmmaking… yet no one remembers or discusses Invaders From Mars. What is it about this bloated but forgotten epic that marks it out as so so-so where his others have become infamous?
David Gardner is your typical precocious kid in your typical 80’s movie; middle class and loving parents, a bedroom laden with pop culture toys and a keen mind with a marked interest in space; but one night he spots an alien spacecraft choose the prime real estate behind his house to snuggly park it’s UFO butt away from prying eyes. The next day David’s father, normally a warm and engaging employee of NASA, is now acting suspiciously distant and is sporting an unusual scar on the back of his neck which makes the child two and two together to make ALIEN INVASION!
At school, things are worse – his shitty teacher, Mrs. McKeltch, hates him more than ever and not only does she have the same scar as his father, but David catches her scarfing down a dead frog meant for dissection (DEFINITE red flag). It soon becomes apparent that David’s paranoid deductions are correct and the aliens living behind his house are tunneling under the town and fixing anyone that can get their claws on with mind controlling screws that drill into the base of the skull in a fiendish plan to steal our copper (yep, you read that right) and sabotage any planned missions to Mars. Accompanied by kindly school nurse Linda, David manages to get the army involved with remarkable ease as soon a full scale incursion is mounted to scour the labyrinthine underground tunnels in order to locate the alien spacecraft and take out the very squishy looking Supreme Martian Intelligence.
Considering how blatantly the mind controlled humans act, it’s fairly obvious that the Martians don’t have a word for subtle; but then again neither do the filmmakers as Invaders From Mars suffers from a wildly inconsistent tone that manages to alienate it (pun intended) from all kinds of audiences. Seemingly too goofy at the time for horror fans expecting Hooper’s usual intensity and too fucking weird for the general audiences who couldn’t get their head around things like the gonad shaped Martian foot soldiers chuckling hysterically through their yawning rubbery jaws. Another thing that couldn’t have possibly helped is that considering it contains multiple scenes of well-armed soldiers running through dark tunnels shooting at goopy, Stan Winston created extra-terrestrials, Invaders From Mars had the added misfortune of being released in the same year as James Cameron’s flawless Aliens which tackles similar scenarios better than any other movie that exists.
Taken purely as a kids movie (albeit one co-written by Alien and Return Of The Living Dead’s Dan O’Bannon) a lot of Hooper’s broad choices make sense in a cartoonish sort of way. The Gardner clan (pre mind control) are so steeped in saccharine Americana they make the Poltergeist family look like the Bluth’s from Arrested Development and David’s bedroom looks impossibly wholesome, like a bomb filled with 80’s memorabilia went off inside it (seriously, what the hell kinda kid casually keeps an UNOPENED bag of M&Ms next to his bed?). Some of the performances are equally lacking in subtlety with Karen Black playing the screamy school nurse and cult fave James Karen plays an unusually sensitive General who flies into histrionics when he loses a man, but it’s Louise Fletcher, Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest herself, who is honoured for her Oscar winning career by having to swallow a rubber frog and in turn is swallowed whole by an alien invader like she’s a lump of taffy in a tacky green dress.
We can’t wrap things up without mentioning the vastly impressive sets and the truly out there creature designs by the late, great Stan Winston which, while appearing faintly ridiculous, are genuinely orginal and resembling nothing else I’ve seen in a movie before or since. The Martian foot soldiers surreal design has elephantine feet that barely support a bulbous body and feature the kind of full, pouty lips that would score you an unfair advantage in Ru Paul’s Drag Race while it’s upper limbs bend backwards like ski poles. You genuinely and openly wonder how the fuck they fit a person in there (actually it’s a weightlifter walking backwards with a little person strapped to their back – OBVIOUSLY) and the Supreme Martian Intelligence is essentially a face on a tentacled brain and looks distractingly like Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Cool monster designs aside, you ultimately can’t help but side with the audience in agreeing that Invaders From Mars is a hot mess in that it’s production values are great but it’s execution is dopey as hell but you feel that nowadays it may ironically play better as a ironic throwback to shows like Stranger Things which also feature smart arse brats thwarting lumpy paranoia monsters in the era that style forgot.
Definitely watchable, but nowhere near Hooper’s (or Cannon’s) best or even weirdest creation by far.
File this invasion under cancelled.