Invaders From Mars
To watch Tobe Hooper’s Invaders from Mars is, unfortunately, to discover that the sci-fi/horror film has today become an academic genre.
By this I mean that every almost every conceivable element has become pre-set and rather classical – not only plot moves and character stereotypes, but more alarmingly even the once-interesting undertones, thematic implications, subversive metaphors … all those things which made Hooper’s work from Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) to Poltergeist (1982) so startling and important.
On paper, or as an idea, this re-make of the original Invaders from Mars (1953) must have looked promising. The paranoid nightmare of a young boy, David (Hunter Carson), who stays normal while everyone in town gets turned into zombiefied Martians, the tale resonates with the symbolic trauma of every individual who is carried screaming into adult society, branded with a name, a place and an identity. (The most chilling thing in the whole movie is the way the zombies address this boy throughout: “Come here, David Gardner …”).
Hooper thus plays on the usual register of inversions and subversions: all the ‘decent’ authority figures (parents, cops, schoolteachers) become the bearers of dread and evil.
David’s nightmare is a roll-call of all his fears, but it is also a wish-fulfilment fantasy: a dream of omnipotence in which not only can he talk hard science with the big boys, but also gets to (almost) be a romantic hero complete his beloved, adult teacher as a screaming, in-need-of-saving girlfriend (played by Carson’s mother Karen Black … hmm).
Unfortunately, it’s this boy’s-own-science-project aspect of the film (nodding to many 1950s fantasies including Roy Rowland’s wondrous The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T) that tips it into the dreaded realm of self-consciously kitsch parody.
Hooper seems to have a real problem deciding what tone to adopt for Invaders from Mars, what attitude to take towards his material.
Its opening sets up a suitably Disney-Spielberg, family-album ambience that one expects Hooper to then rip right apart (as Joe Dante did in Gremlins ). However, for the most part, it then becomes complacently soft and camp, milking its weak laughs from deliberately tacky sets and plot-situation clichés (for instance, Bud Cort as the scientist who tries to communicate with the Martians, turns his back and is dematerialised).
Failing to be full-bloodedly either subversive or nostalgic, Invaders from Mars ends up being simply, coldly professional, full of cheap, shock moments and a completely dumb switcheroo ending (even the genre’s greatest auteurs fall foul of these predictable, last-minute surprises).
It all comes apart in the smorgasbord of acting styles, which is the chief index of the film’s scatty problems. Louise Fletcher as the frog-eating schoolteacher plays a villainous role with great relish, but still with control. As a performance it’s great, but as a part it makes little sense: she’s meant to be a zombie, not a hysteric.
The wonderful James Karen (so good in O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead [Dan O’Bannon 1985]), on the other hand, looks like a cartoon character, camping up his General Wilson like crazy – having apparently modelled it on the TV Perry White from Superman.
In the dead centre is Carson, playing a straight role very straight, and producing merely the necessary, frightened expressions. As an anchor for viewer identification, he’s a zero, and this certainly doesn’t help matters.
Tobe Hooper’s career took a majorly distressing dive with the atrocious (and also very confused) Lifeforce (1985). Invaders from Mars doesn’t do much to halt the downhill slide; and little hope is conjured by the news that Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) is played as a horror-comedy … but we shall see.
© Adrian Martin May 1987