Producer: Edward L. Alperson Director: William Cameron Menzies Screenplay: Richard Blake Cast: Helena Carter, Arthur Franz, Jimmy Hunt, Leif Erickson, Hillary Brooke, Morris Ankrum, Max Wagner, Bill Phipps, Milburn Stone, Janine Perreau, Bert Freed, Douglas Kennedy, Robert Shayne, Barbara Billingsley and Richard Deacon Distributor: Ignite Films
This modestly-budgeted 1953 sci-fi movie written by Richard Blake, who otherwise had a thoroughly unremarkable career, is basically a mash-up of “War of the Worlds” (George Pa’s film of which appeared later that same year) and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (released in 1956), told from a young boy’s point of view. Had it been filmed in the workmanlike but uninspired fashion of the time by some journeyman director, and shot in black-and-white, it would probably be forgotten today. But instead it was turned over to the brilliant William Cameron Menzies, who employed his own stylized production design and lustrous color cinematography by the renowned John F. Seitz to give it a hauntingly hallucinatory, dreamlike quality that, given its protagonist is a ten-year old kid, resonated powerfully with youngsters. If you saw it in 1953, as some of us are old enough to have done, the experience has probably stuck with you all your life.
In the years since its original release, the film has fared badly; choppy cable showings and inferior VHS and DVD versions undermined its reputation. Tobe Hooper’s mediocre 1986 remake did not help. But now Amsterdam-based Ignite Films offers as its initial release a beautiful 4K restoration, available in both 4K UHD and Blu-Ray, that allows you to see Menzies’ mesmerizing vision in its full glory again.
The story begins with young David (Jimmy Hunt) getting up early to train his telescope on the night sky, only to witness a flying saucer imbedding itself in the sand pit behind his house. His loving parents (Leif Erickson and Hillary Brooke) insist that he’s dreaming, but he’s not, of course. Huge green mutant slaves in the buried ship, directed by a disembodied female head in a transparent globe, are transforming anyone who is swallowed up by the sands into pawns in their plan to conquer the earth. Policemen, soldiers, and even David’s own mother and father are among the victims, and only the boy’s enlistment of adults who come to believe him—a pretty health worker (Helena Carter) and a ultra-serious scientist (Arthur Franz)—disrupts the invaders’ scheme. But is it truly foiled? An ending that circles back to the start leaves the question dangling. Or is the whole story a recurrent nightmare?
“Invaders from Mars” is an example of the paranoia that infected American society in the aftermath of World War II, reflected in the McCarthy Communist-hunting often discussed as the subtext to “Body Snatchers.” But the fact that the person crying wolf is a boy rather than a man, as in Don Siegel’s classic, makes a great difference. David comes to mistrust and fear all authority figures, including his own parents—a theme that was radical for its time, and looked forward to the sixties, when the young generation completely lost faith in the establishment.
But the film is well worth resurrecting not only for what it says but how it says it. Menzies’ use of sets and visual compositions that reflect a child’s perspective, along with the wondrous palette Seitz draws in the rare SuperCinecolor process, give it a special quality, worthy of comparison to that of another cult classic of the fifties, Charles Laughton’s remarkable black-and-white masterpiece “The Night of the Hunter.” Contemporary viewers accustomed to cheap shocks and rapid-fire editing may be disappointed with its reliance on mood and atmosphere over gotcha moments. Both those willing to make allowances for changes in taste will find that it retains a genuinely creepy vibe, and of course those who recall it with affection will find their nostalgic impulses amply rewarded.
Not that “Invaders” is free of flaws. Some of the performances are rather stilted and a few of the choices—like the green outfits worn by the mutant slaves—can cause giggles. The short running time, moreover, led to repetitive shots of the mutants lumbering down underground caverns, and to the overuse of stock footage of military vehicles making their way to the sand pits is regrettable.
But one can easily forgive the lapses in view of the quality of Ignite’s loving release, in which the film’s virtues are restored to their full effect.
The issue is enhanced by an excellent collection of bonus features. In addition to the original 1953 trailer and a new trailer for this release, they include a featurette on the career of Menzies by his biographer James Curtis, who invites the director’s granddaughter Pamela Lauesen to add some personal memories, and another, “Terror From Above,” in which interviewees like directors Joe Dante and John Landis, visual effects designer Robert Skotak, editor Mark Goldblatt and film preservationist Scott MacQueen, among others, discuss the impact the film had on them as well as how it reflected the tenor of its time. MacQueen discusses the restoration process in a separate featurette that offers side-by-side before-and-after comparisons, and an interview features Hunt describing his career as a child actor and reminiscing about the “Invaders from Mars” shoot and his decision to leave the business shortly afterward. Writer-director John Sayles offers an amusing introduction to a Turner Classic Movie Festival screening of the restored film, and there is restored 2K footage of an extended scene and alternate ending shot for the film’s European release. An image gallery complements an informative, well-illustrated booklet discussing technical aspects of the original production and details of the restoration process.
In all, a splendid first issue from Ignite Films that does this imaginative, dreamlike fifties sci-fi classic, the penultimate picture designed and directed by William Cameron Menzies, proud.