Invaders from Mars (1953) ****
Okay, we’ve all seen the publicity stills of the aliens in this movie. Those terrible green velour bodysuits with the obvious zippers running up the back, the ridiculous plastic goggles with the horizontal slits in the lenses, the absurd mitten hands. The Martians’ leader is even worse— just a shaven-skulled, squash-shaped head in a lucite bubble, with blue-glitter skin and lots of little branching tentacles growing out of the neck. Not only that, in the backgrounds of these shots, there’s rarely a single piece of scenery to be found. As for the story, we all know the main character in Invaders from Mars is a little boy, and that’s never a good sign. All the usual signs say “beware,” and the film’s comparatively strong reputation in mainstream circles might also be seen as a warning. But this is one instance in which you will be led astray by following the usual signs. For all its undeniable cheesiness, Invaders from Mars is one of the finest sci-fi movies of the 1950’s.
David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt) is the son of Dr. George MacLean (Night Monster’s Leif Erickson— who I must say is looking awfully good for a 1000-year-old Viking sailor...), a prominent scientist in the fields of rocketry and atomic power. Late one night, David is awakened by a loud booming noise and a blinding flash of light. The boy doesn’t think much of it at first (booming and flashing do tend to accompany thunderstorms, you know), but before he can get back into bed, he spots something hovering over the trees near the sand pit behind his house. He only sees it for a few seconds before it drops to the ground and disappears from view, but it certainly looks like a flying saucer. Jimmy runs to rouse his father, who takes a surprisingly non-dismissive attitude to the boy’s story. After assuring Jimmy that he was, in all probability, dreaming, but that they will nevertheless go to the sand pit and investigate in the morning, George MacLean is able to get his son back to bed. But then George does something very curious indeed. He tells his wife, Mary (Hillary Brooke, from the 1941 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), that he’ll be back shortly, and goes out to the pit himself!
When he still hasn’t returned come eight o’clock the next morning, Mary figures something is definitely wrong. She calls the police to report her husband’s disappearance, and in short order, a pair of cops are out at the sand pit, poking around for any sign of Dr. MacLean. One of the officers finds a man’s slipper in the sand, but before either he or his partner can do anything to follow up on the discovery, both men are pulled down into the sand by some powerful force. George shows up at the house a short while later. There’s clearly something the matter with him, though. Sure, we haven’t exactly had a lot of time to get to know the man, but the George who returns home from his trip to the pit is practically a zombie. He seems dazed, confused, and short-tempered, and he acts as though he were hiding something, snapping viciously at Mary and David when they ask him where he’s been. And when the cops come back to the MacLean house in another few minutes, they’re behaving just as oddly as George. There’s something else all three men have in common, but only David notices it. On the back of each man’s neck, just at the base of the skull, is a small puncture wound, about the same size as a leech-bite. George’s defensiveness when David asks him how he got this peculiar injury only adds to the boy’s sense that something is very seriously wrong with his father, as does the obvious lie MacLean tells by way of explanation. When George orders David off to one of his friends’ houses, the kid is only too happy to oblige.
On the way over to the other kid’s house, David takes a few minutes to watch the sand pit with his binoculars. While doing so, he sees a girl he knows— the daughter of one of his neighbors— disappearing into the sand in exactly the same way that the policemen had earlier. David races over to the girl’s house to tell her mother what he saw, but the “vanished” girl returns home with a hand-picked bouquet for her mother while the flustered boy is trying to explain her disappearance. No matter what the mother thinks, though, something is definitely amiss, because the girl acts as though she has been zombified just like George MacLean. Not only that, as he leaves his neighbor’s house, David notices a huge plume of oily, black smoke billowing up from the basement. Mother’s little darling, it seems, has set her parents’ house on fire with a can of gasoline from the garage, and by the time David gets anyone’s attention, it’s already too late to do anything but watch the place burn.
So David does what any little boy in the small-town 50’s would have done when confronted with such strange and sinister goings-on. He runs off to tell the police what he knows. But when he does so, he finds that the chief of police has been turned into a sand-pit zombie, too! The chief has the kid locked up, and then goes off to summon David’s father to deal with his “unruly” offspring. The cop at the front desk realizes that David’s panic is no act, however, and he calls in a psychologist named Dr. Pat Blake (Helena Carter) to have a look at the boy while the chief is out. After a look at the back of Dr. Blake’s neck convinces David that it’s safe to talk to her, he unloads the whole strange story. Blake isn’t sure she believes David, but she is certain that the boy believes his own tale. She places a call to Dr. Stuart Kelston (Arthur Franz, from Flight to Mars and The Flame Barrier), a friend and co-worker of George MacLean, and asks the scientist if he has ever known David to be given to wild flights of fancy. When Kelston vouches for the boy’s exceptionally rationalist turn of mind, Blake’s inclination to believe at least part of David’s story intensifies. And when David’s parents (Mary MacLean is now infected as well) come to collect David, Blake instantly realizes that something about them isn’t right. Thinking fast, she concocts the plausible lie that David has begun to exhibit all the symptoms of early-stage polio (still a major public health problem in 1953), and takes David into her custody on that pretext. Outmaneuvered, the MacLeans grudgingly go home, leaving their son in the doctor’s care.
She next takes David to see Dr. Kelston in person. David repeats his story for the scientist, who completely floors the boy, Blake, and us in the audience by believing every word. Kelston, you see, has been working on a huge, nuclear-powered rocket ship that, if everything performs as advertised, ought to be capable of interplanetary travel. George MacLean is involved in the project, too. What makes Kelston willing to take David at his word is the fact that reports of UFO sightings (all of them hushed up by the scientists’ military paymasters, of course) have been circulating ever since work on the rocket began. The planet Mars happens just now to be at a such a point in its orbit that a rocket like the one Kelston and MacLean are building could make the trip between there and the Earth in a matter of days. If Mars is inhabited by intelligent beings, and those beings have attained a level of technological advancement comparable or superior to our own, then those Martians would have every reason to look with dismay upon the development of Kelston’s atomic rocket. One might even expect them to try to undermine that development— maybe by using undercover agents to infiltrate the lab. Kelston calls over to the army base where his military overseers are, and lets Colonel Fielding (Morris Ankrum, of Rocketship X-M and Red Planet Mars) in on the scoop.
Fielding’s men have the sand pit surrounded in short order, and the real fun begins. Doctors at the hospital where Dr. Blake works discover that the Martians are controlling the humans they capture by means of little electronic receivers surgically implanted in their spinal cords. These receivers also serve as self-destruct systems, rigged to explode in response to a special signal from the aliens in the event that their hosts are captured or have outlived their usefulness. (This devilish little wrinkle comes to light when the little girl who set her parents’ house on fire dies of a sudden cerebral hemorrhage.) Captain Roth, Fielding’s electronics expert, studies the device from the girl’s neck, and comes up with a way to locate the buried Martian ship by homing in on the transmissions the aliens use to control their human slaves. The soldiers are going to need it, too, because just then, the Martians capture David and Dr. Blake. And while all that’s going on, another bunch of soldiers are busy trying to keep the MacLeans, the police chief, and the other Martian “agents” from sabotaging Kelston’s lab and the rocket being built there. Eventually, it all comes down to a series of firefights between soldiers and Martians in the network of tunnels the aliens have dug under the sand, and a desperate attempt to rescue David and Blake while sneaking a bomb aboard the Martian ship. And as a final treat, we are presented with what may be the only double twist ending in cinema history that is actually worth the bother.
My favorite thing about Invaders from Mars is the way the entire movie has the feel of a childhood nightmare— which those of you who’ve seen the film will, I’m sure, agree is especially appropriate in this case. Unlike so many sci-fi and monster movies with children in the central roles, this movie doesn’t use its child-centric script as an excuse for levity. Instead, Invaders from Mars focuses on one of the scariest aspects of childhood. The story hinges on the dependence of children on the competence and trustworthiness of the adults around them, and posits a situation in which neither adult competence nor adult trustworthiness can be taken for granted. David knows something terrible is going on, but he is powerless to do anything about it by himself, and at first it seems that the only adults who will believe him are those who have already fallen victim to the aliens— and they, naturally, have no desire to see the invasion contained. In the years since this film appeared, the instinctive refusal of grown-ups to take children seriously has become a staple of sci-fi and horror movies in which children have major roles, but it has rarely, if ever, been used to so great an effect as here. And the inherent menace of the situation is further emphasized by the look of the movie. This is one instance in which the tawdriness of the props and stage settings actually works in a movie’s favor. In this context, all the obvious matte paintings and bad composite shots don’t just look phony, they look horribly, insidiously wrong, as though the fabric of reality itself were coming unraveled under the Martians’ influence. This effect is especially evident in color prints from the movie’s initial release. (Some reissue and TV prints are puzzlingly in black and white.) These color prints are simultaneously murky and insanely saturated, giving the entire movie— and particularly the scenes set underground in the tunnels and the Martian ship— a disorienting, otherworldly quality. I was already an adult the first time I saw Invaders from Mars, and too jaded for it to have much of an emotional impact on me, but nevertheless, I am quite sure of one thing: this movie would have scared the shit out of me when I was eight years old. Look beyond the zippers, and try to remember what it was really like to be a kid.