What a gloriously stupid movie. Invaders from Mars, from screenwriter Richard Blake and director William Cameron Menzies, is a rather prototypical example of the films featured in this month’s Horrorshow. It’s cheap from the first frame to the last, and lacks self-awareness. What do I mean by that? The filmmakers took a look at how the bad guys were costumed — in skin-tight green fleece onesies — and decided that was acceptable. Seriously, that is what passes for aliens in this flick. But that’s not all. They also have faces painted green to match, with gigantic prosthetic noses and snow goggles. Tall men were cast in the roles, and Menzies had them run around the set like toddlers with arms held unmoving at their sides. It’s so silly that it becomes part of what makes this film memorable.
Released in the spring of 1953, Invaders from Mars tells the tale of young David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt). David is a bit of an amateur astronomer, and early one morning he witnesses an alien spacecraft land and conceal itself nearby. His father, George (Leif Erickson), a scientist at a hush-hush government project, thinks his son just had a bad dream. But he trusts his son enough that he decides to investigate. He heads out to the sand pit where David saw the craft land and is sucked into the ground. Later, after much fretting from George’s wife, Mary (Hillary Brooke), George returns to the house, only he’s…different.
In fact, he’s turned into a huge asshole. George has become short with his wife and abusive with his son. David notices a small wound on the back of George’s neck, and sees the same mark on other townsfolk who are also acting strangely. David becomes convinced that an alien intelligence is directing these peoples’ actions. But, since he’s a kid, he can’t convince anyone to take him seriously. He runs all over town screaming bloody murder, and it isn’t until he’s taken into custody and seen by a doctor, Patricia Blake (Helena Carter), that someone really listens to what he says. Enlisting the help of another scientist who works at the secret project, Dr. Stuart Kelston (Arthur Franz), Dr. Blake discovers that the townsfolk with the small wounds have been implanted with a device to control their brains.
The Army is called in!
With extreme efficiency the Army begins to move towards the beleaguered town. We know this because Menzies used gratuitous amounts of stock footage showing tanks being loaded onto trains. And then tanks driving through the countryside. And then tanks firing shells during exercises. Some of this footage looks like it was shot in the 1930s. But, that’s okay. What would a shitty movie from the ’50s be without stock footage being used to pad the running time? Even with the stock footage, and a shameless recap montage at the film’s climax, this flick only runs 77 minutes.
But, why are the aliens here? The secret project turns out to be an atomic rocket capable of reaching Mars in a matter of days. The advanced intellects on Mars got wind of things, and are using the kidnapped humans to sabotage the project from the inside.
Eventually the aliens are tracked underground, and viewers are treated to a final act that consists of groups of people and groups of aliens running through cave tunnels. It goes on and on and on. That makes it sound like a dull sequence, but it’s not. It’s the most hilarious and most entertaining bit in the film, and it’s all down to those aliens. The same four run through a cavern, loping along like they were made for sketch comedy, only Menzies filmed this straight. The aliens, which Kelston calls mutants (pronounced myew-TANTZ), wouldn’t look threatening to a generation raised on Muppets or Teletubbies, but who knows for 1953? Maybe this shit was terrifying for young Master Hunt.
This is, at times, a very surreal film. Most of the exteriors were filmed on a soundstage, and these shots have a Wizard of Oz aesthetic to them (yep, this dog was filmed in color). Meanwhile, the interiors are stark and also very tall. Walls stretch upwards, perhaps in some attempt to mimic how interiors can look from a child’s perspective. That’s only speculation, but it does fit in with the film being David’s story, and also with a maddening twist at the end. Whatever the reason, the interior of the town police station is downright weird.
So much of this film is so, so bad. And good luck finding a decent print. But it has so many charms, as well. Invaders from Mars makes it a decent way up the Watchability Index, nestling itself at #112, right in between Matango and Disaster on the Coastliner.