Invaders From Mars (1953) [31 Days of American Horror Review]

Following on from his on “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and May, and his “31 Days of American Horror” in August and October, Jules is fixing to round out 2018 with 31 more days of classic American Horror movies.

So brace yourself, folks.  It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Director: William Cameron Menzies
Starring:  Jimmy Hunt, Helena Carter, Arthur Franz, Morris Ankrum, Leif Erickson, Hillary Brooke

1953 was the year when American horror cinema really started to embrace its new obsession with the Fear of the Other. Invaders From Mars is a prime example of the concept but with its own, unique spin. Rushed into production to pre-empt George Pal’s War Of The World’s adaptation, it would be the first UFO/aliens film seen in colour, but it would set itself apart with the brilliant conceit of viewing it through the eyes of a child.

An alien invasion leading to the local population falling under their control and turning into drones is already an unsettling idea. Seeing these visitors from another planet and the effect they have on authority figures via the perceptions of a young boy who looks up to and trusts give it a much more nightmarish and upsetting atmosphere.

Awakened one night by a thunderstorm, young David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt) sees a huge flying saucer land in the sandpit behind his home. He tells his scientist father George (Leif Erickson) who goes to investigate, but comes back the next morning a changed man. He’s cold and aggressive to his son, who begins to notice other townspeople acting in the same way.

When he sees his neighbour and schoolmate Kathy Wilson disappear underground while walking in the sandpit, it’s the final proof David needs that something is badly wrong in his town and he flees to the police station, where he is placed under the care of the health-department’s Dr Pat Blake (Helena Carter)who ends up believing his story.

Alongside Blake and fellow believer Dr Stuart Kelston (Arthur Franz), David realises that this is only the beginning, a spearhead from space that heralds a full scale invasion from Mars…

Invaders From Mars is one the one hand as standard as these films get, but it’s got a lot more to it than a basic alien invasion film. The UFO looks great, the tall green mutant footsoldiers are gloriously of their time but no less effective for it and the Martian overlord is a great early example of the floating head trope, all metallic paint, tentacles and surreal, alien menace.

It’s the child’s eye view that really sets this one apart though. Right from the off, Richard Blake and John Tucker Battle’s story established his comfortable, secure world before they go on to destroy it. His relationship with his father is clearly loving and close, sitting up late bonding over astronomy even if his mother thinks he should be asleep. They’re as close as any father and son could be and Leif Erickson is totally convincing as a natural parent, so when he comes back from the UFO site hostile and indifferent, it’s immediately jarring. When he angrily hits his son though? That’s a genuinely shocking moment and is given so much more impact with Jimmy Hunt’s brilliant response to it. You really feel for the wee guy and it brings home how severe the situation is. I’d go so far as to say it’s heartbreaking, with the camera lingering on his face, an awful mixture of fear, confusion and a dawning realisation that this is not his father.

From then on in, the authority figures he can trust start dwindling, increasing the general paranoia of the film, but brilliantly director William Cameron Menzies chooses to shoot many of his shots from a lower angle, giving us literally a child’s-eye view of the terrifying events that are unfolding in this sleepy American town.

Low angles make adults appear as giants, while the mutant Martians seem even more imposing and a multitude of adept tracking shots bring the whole thing to vivid, alarming life, due in no small part to John F. Seitz’ wonderful cinematography.

Even the production design becomes more nightmarish as it goes on (again by Menzies himself who had a long and successful career in that area with films like Gone With The Wind), where innocuous locations like the rooms of David’s house and the trees behind it gradually become more alien. It’s not just the alien menace or the humans in their control, the very world around him is threatening now.

It’s that dreamlike quality that really sets Invaders From Mars apart. That unearthly green glow that bathes the Martian spaceship, the newly twisted and warped trees that surround it, the malevolent but ethereal sound design as the aliens capture new victims, it all feels like one big hallucination or nightmare, a hazy fever dream of the end of the world.

Which, in the original American version it was. Horribly, the poor audience in the USA got a Bobby Ewing in the shower ending and a “Gee whiz!” when David’s dream started to really happen at the end. Urgh.

The British version has not just new scenes added but fixes the conclusion in a satisfactory way that won’t have you putting your foot through the screen and that’s the one that’s being reviewed here.

So not quite a classic for me, but a very important, intelligent and massively enjoyable early look to the stars. There would be plenty more to come, but few would have the imagination of Invaders From Mars.

Rating: 4/5.

JULESAVThe Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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