*. A movie so strange and singular that I hardly know where to begin.
*. Perhaps one way is to see it as the start of something. In the introduction to my paperback edition of Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, Heinlein biographer William H. Paterson Jr. refers to that 1951 novel as “the first to work [the] aliens-among-us cultural fear.” The ’50s would really run with this, from Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers (first published as a serial in 1954 and made into the classic movie in 1956) to 1958’s I Married a Monster from Outer Space and Ed Nelson’s The Brain Eaters, the latter being a movie that Heinlein sued for plagiarism (The Puppet Masters wouldn’t be filmed until 1994).
*. So perhaps Invaders from Mars, a film based on a story treatment that had apparently been inspired by a dream the author’s wife had, is the first movie to tackle this same theme. I don’t know if it was connected to The Puppet Masters at all, either at the time or since, but the idea of aliens controlling humans by way of a radio receptor implant on the neck is at least similar to where the “titans” (Heinlein’s puppet masters, so called because they hail from Saturn’s moon) attach themselves to their hosts at the beginning.
*. Another first for this film came by way of its being rushed into production to beat George Pal’s War of the Worlds as the first feature to show aliens in colour. As cheesy as much of it looks today, audiences must have been impressed at the time, though the effects can’t hold a candle to what Pal achieved with his much larger budget.
*. These firsts, however, don’t make Invaders from Mars strange, only notable. What makes it strange are two things.
*. In the first place, there’s the look of the movie. It was directed by William Cameron Menzies, best known as an art director (a job title he is credited with inventing). Menzies has some well-known credits, but I don’t know if he did anything as odd as this. And I’m not talking about the fact that it was designed to be shot in 3D and then wasn’t, or any of the alien effects. Actually, the alien ship is kind of dull, a feeling that is not lessened by knowing that the bubbles on the walls were actually thousands of inflated condoms.
*. What I mean by odd is stuff like the set of the hill leading up to the sand pit, which apparently took a big chunk of the film’s budget but that they got a lot of good use out of. It’s odd because it’s so artificial it makes one think of the bizarre landscapes of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I mean, you’d know that much just from seeing a farmer go out to a field behind his house in his slippers. But that link to Caligari comes up again in the police station, with its long corridor and high desk sitting at the end. Where do you think the ceilings are in that station? Somewhere in the arc of the heavens.
*. As another example, look at the lettering painted on the street that says “Restricted Area.” I’ve never seen lettering of that Old West style used in such a way.
*. Of course, as with Caligari the point seems to have been to give the movie a dream-like quality, which ties into the other thing that makes Invaders from Mars so strange: its ending. First we follow David (Jimmy Hunt) running away from the spaceship, which has been planted with a bomb, while a montage of scenes from the movie are replayed over his face. This is weird, and looks weird too, echoing the looping of scenes that leads up to the countdown. But then the ship explodes and David wakes up. It seems the whole thing was a dream. He goes to bed and then the beginning of the movie plays again, as he is awoken by the spaceship crashing, again, into the sand pit. Wait, what?
*. It’s an ending that recalls Caligari, with its boxes-inside-boxes ending. And just like with Caligari the ending was changed in different versions because people didn’t like it. For the British release they cut the final bit out, which I guess made things a bit tidier. But it’s still pretty wonky.
*. Perhaps it’s just me, but I find the Martian head in the glass globe (played by Luce Potter, who had been one of the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz) very strange too. What’s with the tentacles? And her pained, voiceless face is wonderfully inscrutable. She seems performing in a silent movie, with some hidden script. And isn’t that how it should be? One wonders how a Martian would feel about all this. Just a job?
*. The contemporary New York Times review called it a movie for kids, and it has that feel. Those Martian guards in their soft green pyjamas (complete with zippers running up the back) are large but strangely unthreatening. In fact, the scariest people we meet are David’s transformed parents. David’s dad even lays into him at one point.
*. Only 79 minutes, but in this case I can’t really call it tight. There’s lots of stock footage of the U.S. army rolling out the tanks to take on Martian spaceship, which is kind of unnecessary since they don’t actually do anything. I wish they’d left that stuff out, but I guess they needed the extra running time to get a release.
*. The weirdness I’ve been talking about is what recommends the film today. It certainly is odd to look at. I’ve mentioned Caligari but it also reminded me a lot of The Night of the Hunter with its dreamy visuals and threatened children. I think it’s more a freak than a great movie, but its status as an indie/cult classic is well deserved. Despite so many movies that borrowed from it, and even a remake in 1986, it’s never been duplicated in either its look or its spirit, and much of it remains unforgettable to this day.