Thursday, February 11, 2010

Invaders from Mars (National Pictures/20th Century-Fox, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I finally did watch a movie last night: the original 1953 version of the film Invaders from Mars, a low-budget Cinecolor science-fiction film directed and designed by William Cameron Menzies, photographed by John F. Seitz (who began at Metro and shot Rudolph Valentino’s breakthrough film, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, then went downhill in the 1930’s but made a blazing comeback shooting Billy Wilder’s 1940’s classics for Paramount) and written by Richard Blake from a story by John Tucker Battle. The cast is considerably less illustrious than the behind-the-camera talent; the top-billed stars are Helena (non-Bonham) Carter as Dr. Pat Blake and Arthur Franz as astronomer Dr. Kelston, who take charge of young boy David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt) when he flees his parents, George and Mary MacLean (Leif Erickson and Hillary Brooke).

It begins with David and George peering through a telescope at 4 a.m. — much to Mary’s consternation; she insists that they go to bed at once — and subsequently David, unable to sleep, returns to the window of his room and sees a Martian spacecraft land in a nearby sand patch. Though the spacecraft itself is the usual saucer-shaped thingie dangling crudely on wires, the Martian technology is apparently sophisticated enough that the spaceship is able to burrow through the sand and set up a trap so that David’s parents, the two police officers called in to investigate when George disappears, the local police chief and anyone else who ventures too close to the sand patch is sucked into it as through quicksand and ushered into the Martians’ surgery lab, where a little piezoelectric device is implanted in the back of their necks. The device, whose presence is revealed by an X-shaped scar the implantation process leaves behind, immediately destroys the willpower and mental independence of the victim and renders him or her subject to Martian mind-control — until the Martians have no more use for them, whereupon a signal from Martian Central zaps a charge into their brains through the device, killing them instantly.

The Battle-Blake script is sufficiently well constructed that we learn all this in dribs and drabs, and it’s probably the sheer obsessiveness of the piece that has made Invaders from Mars a cult classic even though I don’t rate it as highly as some of the other early-1950’s sci-fi pieces (the Universal film It Came from Outer Space, though in black-and-white, strikes me as a much more successful film on the same theme). Invaders from Mars is one of those frustrating films because it almost works — it’s sporadically effective and brilliant, but it’s also surprisingly dull in stretches, at least in part because the big action climax inside the Martian spacecraft is shot so appallingly darkly that it’s often difficult to tell just what is supposed to be going on. The Martians are a bunch of lean, green figures, carefully kept in shadow most of the time —which may have been Menzies’ Lewton-style artistic decision to make them seem more frightening by not getting too close to them, or a budget limitation, or both — ruled by a multi-armed head in a glass globe (supposedly played by a little-person actor, Luce Potter, though the extra limbs are all too obviously supported by wires).

What sets Invaders from Mars apart from the other sci-fi cheapies of the time is that it probably marks the first use of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers gimmick in a science-fiction film — though the idea of a person captured by mind control was already an old one in printed science-fiction (I remember a 1930’s story from the book Rivals of “Weird Tales” about an incredibly charismatic person who was hypnotizing people en masse to join his fascist movement and ultimately become dictator of the world — at a time when Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Huey Long and Charles Coughlin were all alive and at or near the peaks of their powers, obviously that sounded a note with the Zeitgeist), it’s used in Invaders from Mars three years before Body Snatchers was filmed for the first time and, I believe, two years before the Jack Finney novel on which Body Snatchers was based was published. The mind-control gimmick in Invaders from Mars probably had its own real-life resonances in the Zeitgeist of 1953, as it was the year the Korean War ended and the first so-called “brainwashed” prisoners started to be released — and no doubt a lot of 1953 moviegoers drew the association between the mind-control victims in the movie and the “brainwashed” servicemembers describing how they’d been controlled in Chinese prison camps and led to betray their country.

The other aspect that makes Invaders from Mars more interesting than most of the contemporary films in its genre is Menzies’ surprisingly stylized direction — he turns an ordinary suburban setting of the period into a nightmare vision of forced perspectives and suggests a lot of his interiors (particularly in the police station) by simple props and railings — at least part because the film was supposed to be shot in 3-D (and the style in which the film’s title appears in the credits — in big red block letters with dimension lines trailing behind them — is a dead giveaway that this film was planned for 3-D), only producer Edward Alperson ran out of money and couldn’t get access to a 3-D camera in time. There’s also an “exterior,” pretty obviously built inside a soundstage, that’s a virtual plagiarism from one of the most impressive outdoor sets in Gone With the Wind (for which Menzies was production designer).

Invaders from Mars is a frustrating film because it could have been so good and it’s so uneven — it contains plenty of powerful moments (to me, the most frightening scene is the one in which the zombie-ized father crudely and suddenly back-slaps the son who’s been reaching out to him with affection and love, knocking him across the typical suburban living-room floor, the stereotypically warm, comfy, family-nurturing suburban home suddenly turned into a scene of terror and hate; that seemed scarier than all the cheaply done would-be fright scenes in the Martian spaceship), and yet a lot of it just seems dull. Menzies’ strength as a director was his visual imagination; his weakness was a problematic sense of pace — and both are readily evident in this film. Invaders from Mars had such a cult following that sci-fi specialist Tobe Hooper remade it in 1986 — but that, too, was a surprisingly dull film in between the highlights — and like the remake, the 1953 version is good in spots but doesn’t hang together all that well as a whole. Interestingly, it’s presented on the current DVD in two versions: the original 79-minute U.S. release and the 83-minute British version; we screened the latter, which has a longer establishing scene set in Dr. Kelston’s observatory and a shorter ending; apparently the U.S. version makes it clear that the main events of the film just represent a dream of the boy David MacLean, while the British one just has a brief shot at the end that hints that.