From the DVD case:
A young boy is awakened during a storm to witness a flying saucer land in the field behind his home. No one will believe his story as, one by one, the townspeople are captured and put under the control of sinister forces from the planet Mars.
Brilliantly created by visionary set designer and director William Cameron Menzies (designer of Gone with the Wind and H.G. Wells’ Things to Come) with a haunting musical score by Raoul Kraushaar. Surreal imagery brought to terrifying life in a Cinecolor world just beyond our nightmares! (1953, color)
The great thing about watching Invaders from Mars as a kid is that the story is told from a child’s point of view. David (Jimmy Hunt) doesn’t just stand around while the adults battle the aliens. Instead, he tips off the adult world to the invading presence; he’s right there when important military strategies are discussed, and he even works the alien blaster ray when the army is trapped in the underground caverns. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The most striking element of Invaders from Mars is its fascinating visual quality. William Cameron Menzies has always been an amazing Production Designer (as noted in the DVD description, Menzies was responsible for the visual style of Gone with the Wind and the 1936 sci-fi classic, Things to Come). In Invaders from Mars, Menzies creates an alternate reality based on the surreal quality of a child’s nightmare. The sets are eerily simple and effective, and the Cinecolor only adds to dreamlike quality of the film.
In his book, Keep Watching the Skies, Bill Warren comments on Menzies’ approach to the movie:
By far the most visually impressive film of Menzies’ later years is the modestly budgeted Invaders from Mars. Once the decision was made that the film would have an it’s-all-a-dream ending, Menzies’ imagination was apparently freed. None of the sets are realistic, except those most central to the boy’s own life: his room, his parents’ room, and the rest of their house. Things more and more peripheral to him become less and less detailed, until they are almost schematic or surrealistic.
Menzies was careful not to create sets that were overly bizarre, as not to give away the “it was only a dream” ending. Of course, it’s David’s awakening from his nightmare that brings all the fantastic elements of the story together as a cohesive plot device. As a literal nightmare, the oddly surreal sets and storyline make sense.
I should note here, the British version of the film (which is included with the 50th Anniversary Special Edition DVD that I own) has a significantly different conclusion. In the British version, David’s plight is not a dream. Because it was believed that European markets would not accept the “it was all a dream” ending, members of the cast were brought back for a few days of additional shooting. Instead of being awakened from his nightmare, David is simply told that his parents are going to be all right and his long ordeal is over.
Though I’m not usually a fan of the “it was only a dream” ending, in this case I believe it works well. For me, the original version of the picture is the superior cut. Otherwise, we have no explanation for the bizarre sets, and we are left to believe that David, a young boy, really was in on the execution of important military plans.
The premise of Invaders from Mars is similar to other “paranoia films” of the era (see It Came from Outer Space (1953) and 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Important authority figures in David’s life are kidnapped and returned as nefarious agents of an alien race. David, a budding young astronomer, actually witnesses the spacecraft land in his own backyard.
The abduction scenes are particularly frightening for a child. First, we hear an unworldly chorus of voices (16 voices, to be exact, scored by Raoul Kraushaar) and then the ground literally opens up and swallows the victim. After the victim has been successfully snatched, the ground reseals, leaving no trace of the abduction.
Leif Erickson (I Saw What You Did) plays George MacLean, David’s father. MacLean is the first victim of the aliens’ mind control device (which is implanted at the back of the neck, leaving a noticeable X-shaped scar). Erickson’s portrayal of a man whose mind is no longer his own is utterly entertaining. His friendly countenance changes to a suspicious and insidious unblinking zombie-like stare. His mannerisms are equally suspect, especially as he tries to conceal the tell-tell X on the back of his neck.
David’s mother (Hillary Brooke) already looks vaguely sinister to me, but after the change she is even more frightening. In a heartbreaking scene, David runs to his mother for comfort, and as he hugs her, we see by her emotionless facial expression that she in now an unfeeling agent for the alien invaders.
Other victims include police officers, military personnel, a police chief, and a little neighbor girl, Kathy Wilson, played by Janine Perreau. Of course, only David is wise to the changes at first, and a fair portion of the film is devoted to David trying to convince the adult world that an invasion is taking place.
Eventually, David persuades Dr. Pat Blake (Helena Carter), a psychologist, that his story may be true. Dr. Blake is further convinced when she speaks to local astronomer, Dr. Stuart Kelston, played by Arthur Franz (Monster on the Campus, The Atomic Submarine). Dr. Kelston knows David and his family, and vouches that David is an honest and down to earth child.
David’s story, backed by Dr. Kelston and Dr. Blake, is related to the military, who eventually witness abductions for themselves. Troops are rushed to the scene. Actually, I shouldn’t say “rushed,” as the movie is padded here with what seems to be countless minutes of stock footage of tanks and jeeps preparing for transport. B-movie fans will undoubtedly recognize Morris Ankrum (Beginning of the End, Kronos) in the role of military commander, Col. Fielding.
Finally, we are taken to the Martians underground lair where we encounter the “Mu-tants” which do the bidding of the “Supreme Martian Intelligence.” The Mu-tants are rather comical beings, wearing what appear to be green, velor pajamas with zippers down the back. One of the Mu-tants is played by Lock Martin, who also played the robot, Gort, in The Day the Earth Stood Still.
In contrast to the Mu-tants, the Supreme Martian Intelligence is more startling in appearance. It appears to be a tentacled head encased in some sort of fish bowl. It communicates to its Mu-tant lackeys through telepathy and is truly a disturbing image, especially as its eyes dart back and forth. In reality, the Supreme Intelligence is played by little person actor, Luce Potter, who you may know as Violet from Jack Arnold’s classic, The Incredible Shrinking Man.
The underground lair scenes are marred by the same shot of the Mu-tants running through the tunnels over and over again. Like the stock footage of military tanks being prepared for transport, these looped segments of the running Mu-tants only slow the picture down.
The climax of the film is a montage as David races wildly from the alien ship to escape its explosion. As David runs, images from the film are superimposed over his face. Some of the scenes are played backwards, giving the montage an even more nightmarish quality. When the ship finally explodes in a fiery climax, David awakens from his nightmare to find himself shaken, but safely returned to his room and the loving arms of his parents.
Though Invaders from Mars could use some editing (it only clocks in at 79 minutes, but seems longer) it is still a powerful film. I can’t imagine that anyone who saw this movie as a child has ever forgotten it entirely. The brilliant imagery conceived by William Cameron Menzies, in combination with the unique child’s point of view, create a wonderful piece of cinematography that should please sci-fi/fantasy fans of all ages.
Scene to watch for: David asks his dad one too many questions about the mysterious X on the back of his neck and receives a serious whack for his curiosity.
Line to listen for: “You’ve got to hit them right in the puss if you want to stop ’em, Major!”
Trivia: In the 1986 remake of Invaders from Mars, Jimmy Hunt makes a reappearance as a middle-aged cop. One of his lines: “I haven’t been here since I was a kid.”
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! out of 5.