Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Invaders from Mars (1986)

There are two types of people in the world: those who are amused by the notion of watching Nurse Ratched getting eaten by a giant alien Pac-Man and those who aren't. Well, if you're a member of the former camp, I have good news for you because you get to see Louise Fletcher getting swallowed by such a creature in Tobe Hooper's 1986 remake of Invaders from Mars. You also get the added bonus of seeing Louise Fletcher eat a frog.

A remake of the 1953 version, Invaders from Mars (written by Dan O'Dannon and Don Jakoby) is broader, campier, and busier. A lot of money went into making these nasty Martians and their weird technology, and they're rendered in such an exaggerated, over-the-top, bug-eyed manner, the movie is practically a live-action cartoon. It's probably not scary if you're over the age of 12 and maybe it's too weird and lightweight if you're an adult, but in its own way, it's kind of endearing.

The plot's identical, except for a few details. A young boy, David Gardner (Hunter Carson), wakes up one night to see a UFO land in the backyard. Before long, his parents (Timothy Bottoms and Laraine Newman) are taken over by invading Martians, as are the police and his classmates. David recruits school nurse Linda Magnuson (Carson's real-life mother Karen Black) to his cause, and they go to Marine General "Mad Dog" Wilson (James Karen) for help.

Plot-wise, the biggest change is the inclusion of Mrs. McKeltch, played by Nurse Ratched herself, Louise Fletcher. She's the teacher who has it in for David, even before the Martians take her over, and never lets him get a word in edgewise when she accuses of another transgression. She basically plays the respectable, public face of the Martian invaders (though the back of her van suggests she might be Leatherface's more intellectual aunt). She always addresses David by his first and last name and is fond of calling him a bad boy and saying she'll get him.

The paranoia of the original is present here, but it's played more for laughs. After the parents are taken over, they engage in behavior that's a parody of normal, happy family life. Dad pours a bottle of saccharine tablets in his coffee and drinks the scalding liquid in one gulp while Mom serves bacon burnt to a crisp and eats raw hamburger meat. All the while, they speak in stilted, emotionless diction like "This is my wife. This is my son."

Hooper retains some of the exaggerated surrealism of the original (the scary adults loom over David), but he augments them with big-budget special effects and wild, crazy lighting. Inside the Martian spaceship, colors are flashing all over the place, and the aliens, no longer actors in fuzzy green costumes, are elaborate, over-sized drones with lots of sharp teeth (Stan Winston designed the creatures and John Dykstra did the special effects). They're slimy, ugly, and in no way realistic.  There's no way those aliens could be piloting that ship, but the work and detail that went into creating these elaborate, colorful sets is nothing short of astounding. The Supreme Martian Intelligence, basically a giant brain on the end of a  tentacle, has a cool entrance when it descends from a portal in the ceiling.

The movie contains cute references to the original. Jimmy Hunt, the little boy in the original, shows up as a police officer who goes over the hill and remarks, "I haven't been up here since I was a kid." The school is named after the original's director William Cameron Menzies, and the original Martian leader prop turns up in the background. The Marines have some funny quips. "Marines have no qualms about killing Martians," General Wilson assures David.

The movie's main failing is David. Jimmy Hunt had a charming, gee-whiz presence that suited the original's time period. Carson, in the movie's vernacular, is too "spaced" (he also has a weird way of running that's just distracting), and he doesn't seem scared enough to give the movie any sense of menace. At least the adult cast around him has fun.

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