After a series of excellent films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist, and The Funhouse, director Tobe Hooper signed on for a three-film deal with Cannon Pictures. The first film in that series was Lifeforce, a successful sci-fi thriller about space vampires. The second, and the subject of this review, was Invaders from Mars, a children’s science fiction film remade from one of Hooper’s favorite films. Unfortunately, Invaders never garnered the same critical acclaim as the rest of Hooper’s output, but it also doesn’t tap the same vein, either. It’s a fantasy movie that caters directly to kids, especially because of Stan Winston’s creature designs and the theme of childlike innocence running throughout. Scream Factory has now brought this classic film to Blu-Ray for other youngsters to enjoy.
Invaders from Mars follows the exploits of David Gardner (Hunter Carson), a young boy obsessed with space, stars, and meteorites. Luckily, the film begins with he and his father (Timothy Bottoms) watching a number of shooting stars streak across the sky. It’s a mesmerizing sight to behold, especially when David’s in the comfort of his humorous loving father, and everyone goes to bed that night happy and content. That is, until the martians land in back of David’s house, over Copper Hill; David watches as it touches down, warns his parents that there’s something out there, and then has his dad check on it the next morning.
Then the film picks up an Invasion of the Body Snatchers vibe, because when Dad comes back, he’s no longer the same upbeat guy he was the night before. Hooper’s direction helps to show the drastic change in the personalities of the characters after they’ve been turned into martian slaves – the opening of the film is loaded with hyperbole and overacting from its stars, and both Bottoms and Laraine Newman as Mom deliver comedic performances, piling on the hammy moments. This allows both of them to adopt a deadpan, zombie-like manner once they’ve been turned.
Hooper’s plot capitalizes on these scary childhood moments. Seriously, what’s spookier than your parents suddenly not being your parents anymore? More than that, it takes away all safe places for David to go. At school, his (already terrifying) teacher Mrs. McKeltch (Louise Fletcher) changes into a stoic alien and persistently chases after him, belting out “David Gardner!” every time she sees him. The way Hooper orders the alien invasion in David’s life – first his home, then the school – makes Invaders from Mars a particularly creepy kids’ movie, eliminating almost anyplace David would go for safety in normal life. Luckily, he has the school nurse Linda Magnusson (Karen Black, Hunter Carson’s real life mom) to turn to, and they attempt to sort out what’s going on in town by going to the Marines base close to their home.
Hooper’s direction becomes a little problematic in the film’s middle portion. Invaders from Mars often dawdles before it really gets to the meat of its plot, lingering on Linda and David running from Mrs. McKeltch and a couple of cops for too long. These are important moments, highlighting adults’ distrust of what seems like a boyish fantasy, but at the same time it simply reiterates what the film has done much more effectively with David’s parents.
It’s not until David ventures into the martian tunnels that Invaders from Mars hits its stride. That’s when the creativity of the film opens up, allowing Hooper to play around with the intriguing martian set. Winston’s creature designs are odd and full of the whimsy that ’80s practical effects evoke, and despite the obvious foaminess of the costumes and serpentine tunnels, the martians are effective because they straddle the line between scary and goofy. The same is true of the Supreme Leader, a snake-like blob that gurgles and bellows from a throne underneath a vast expanse of quicksand.
Invaders from Mars‘ creature designs and its hyperbolic character acting create the charm of this film, but Hooper is able to craft a compelling coming-of-age story as well. The film’s conclusion finds David waking up from a nightmare, his parents sleeping peacefully in their beds; his adventures with martians were all just part of David’s imagination, overreacting after a very busy and exciting day. It allows the viewer to feel complacent, at peace with the fact that Invaders from Mars was just messing with us all along. There’s no such thing as a needle that can turn parents into walking talking aliens, right? Except Hooper reverses that after things settle down, forcing David to recognize that not all things end happily ever after. It’s a vibe that runs throughout the film, one of the most interesting aspects especially based on the age of its intended audience.
Though the direction falters at times, Invaders from Mars is a pleasant sci-fi experience with just the right amount of comedy and horror. This is a movie intended for children, but adults can appreciate the themes in the plot – loss of innocence, the lack of imaginative beliefs in parents, and the fear of losing loved ones – as well as the creative special effects. Hooper’s second film for Cannon was never as successful as his previous ones, but it still holds a place in the hearts of those whom experienced it at a young age, and now, with this crisp Blu-Ray package, a new generation of children can enjoy the fantasy of a threat from outer space.
Scream Factory has loaded Invaders from Mars with quite a few extras. Audio commentary from Tobe Hooper is an optional soundtrack. Most notable is a making-of featurette with Hooper, Carson, and a few crew members including special effects artists and the composer Christopher Young. The interviews go into the Cannon deal, how Invaders from Mars wasn’t well-received despite Hooper’s description of the film as a kids’ movie, and a fire on-set.
Also included is a 14-minute feature with production illustration gallery narrated by artist William Stout, who helped design a lot of the alien creatures. This is a particularly nice inclusion! Finally, a theatrical trailer, TV spot, storyboard gallery, and still gallery are also included, rounding this package out to be a surprisingly packed disc.