Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Weird Fantastic Beings Of A Super Race!

Invaders From Mars(1953)
Director: William Cameron Menzies
Cast: Helena Carter, Arthur Franz, Jimmy Hunt

Science fiction films of the 1950s often dealt with several underlying themes, whether they be the threat of nuclear war and atomic testing, the red scare and the growth of communism or any number of social and economic fears. One of the most potent of these films dealt subtly with the fears of childhood and growing up and still remains the one of the finest science fiction films made. Of course, i'm talking about Invaders from Mars, which has to be one of the best remembered and ccertainly most unique of the 1950s sci-fi flicks. It contains many of cheese elements that would later become genre staples and perhaps ample ammunition for the hecklers, but the film's emotions and concepts are still valid nearly sixty years after it's initial release.
The film begins as a little boy, David Mclean(Jimmy Hunt) who is awakened one night by a strange sound that turns out to be a flying saucer landing in his backyard, over a sandy hill! His father(Leif Erickson) goes to investigate and does not return until the next morning, where he appears agitated and strange. He is violent towards his son when David thinks he sees a strange wound on the back of his neck. Soon David notices lots of strange things occuring throughout his small town. A little girl down the street is now cold and emotionless and appears to have set her house on fire, before mysteriously dropping dead. David goes to the police station and finds some of the officers, including the Chief, in the same emotionless state. Frightened and panicky, he is locked up and cared for by Dr. Pat Blake(Helena Carter) who believes that he is in some serious trouble. When his mother(Hillary Brooke) comes to collect him she appears to be different and cold as well, prompting the doctor to make up a story to keep the boy at the station under quarantine. They than go to Dr. Stuart Kelston(Arthur Franz) who works at an observatory and is friends with David, who used to go there to use the telescope. He believes the story and thinks that this may tie in with some of the peculiar sightings and readings he's had at the observatory.

Soon the military is contacted and Col. Fielding(genre stalwart, Morris Ankrum) is put in charge and investigates the area, losing a man in the process, Sgt. Rinaldi(Max Wagner) who gets sucked under the sand. Immeditaely the military is organized to combat the martian menace and they discover that people have been taken over by electrical implants placed at the base of the neck, which makes them perform terrible acts. The Chief of police and a General of the army are both killed attempting to sabotage a military base and two officers are killed after burning down a munitions factory. David's father is sent out to assasinate a leading scientist, but fails in his task, being captured by the military police. Investigating the area, a hole is opened and David and the doctor are taken below by huge green skinned martians who  attempt to enslave them, though David breaks free and lashes out at the leader, the Supreme Martian Intelligence. The army get below and battle the invaders, including one instant when Col. Fielding is picked up and thrown, only to have the spry soldier rebound by picking up a Tommy gun and mowing down the martian! The aliens are licked and decide to hightail it out of there, but not before the military have set explosives inside the ship. Trying to get back to the surface, David picks up a martian's ray gun and blasts a hole and allows everyone to escape. Images of the film play back and David awakes. Was it real or was it a dream? David goes to his window and sees a flying saucer landing in his backyard...

Few films have been able to capture a child's view of the world with as much accuracy and paranoia as this film was able to do. Director William Cameron Menzies, who had been an art director dating back to the silent era, including films like The Thief of Bagdad(1921) and later, and most famously, Gone with the Wind(1939), utilizes his low budget to fulleffect, creating oversized sets and setting his camera to make everything appear two times larger and more distorted. This is a nightmare world filled with shadows and the appearance of everything closing in on it's protagonists. The film may have frightening moments for adults, certainly a loss of identity and alienation proving very terrifying, but the movie is brilliant fodder for the young and impressionable and is one of the definitive examples of childhood fear captured on film. Even the cheap color photography gives the film a strange, unnatural look that actually enhances the proceedings.

The cast perform believably, led by frequent genre stars, Morris Ankrum, who always plays a general or some military leader and Arthur Franz, who seems to always play a scientist! Helena Carter is something of a babe as the doctor and fits nicely into the role of requisite hot chick who has to be carried off by the monster, though she does prove herself beyond mere eye candy. Jimmy Hunt is very good as David and is easy to root for and care about as his character is never strained or made annoying by the youngster's sheer likability. It's easy to relate to his plight and remember how enlarged fears were when one was younger and this is handled well by the young actor. The monster suits are both laughable and creepy, if that makes any sense. They certainly look odd, though this is the film with the classic example of a monster with the zipper down the back! The Martian intelligence is an inspired creation though, even though the wires pulling his tentacles are all too visible now. Not that it all matters, since the film's really scary parts are provided by the character's reactions and the actions made by those under martian control.

The film was released in two versions, one in the United States and one in Great Britian. The British one has extended scenes but actually changes the ending of the US version! Wade Williams, who bought the rights later on, compiled both versions later on to incorporate the best of both worlds, including that unforgettable ending from the original US version. The film has been imitated many times over the years, as well as seeing a remake by Tobe Hooper in 1986 that had very few things to reccomend it. Invaders From Mars is one of the true seminal films of the 1950s, a nostalgic trip for those who were around then and a real treat for those who weren't! It's a deceptively complex film with themes that were later explored in other genre works, but rarely touched upon as well or let alone, equalled. The film can work on different levels as we grow older, being the child's nightmare when we are young, the fear of adolescence and approaching adulthood as we get older and that anxiety that we may become alienated and dehumanized by modern day struggles as we become adults. It provides real food for thought and that's what good sci-fi is all about.

1 comment:

  1. Great write up on a movie that was way ahead of it's time.