Strange Invaders (1983) **½
Huh. Looks like I was first exposed to a consciously retro filmmaking sensibility a lot earlier than I realized. I just didn’t have the background or perspective necessary to recognize it at the time. I’m not sure I ever watched Strange Invaders all the way through in one sitting before, but it was one of those movies that used to play constantly on cable during the mid-80’s, and I must have seen one part of it or another dozens of times when I was a kid. I’d also seen plenty of the 30-year-old alien invasion films that Strange Invaders riffs on, but in 1984 or thereabouts, I had no real concept of how long ago Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Man from Planet X, and the like had been made, or of how far the state of the sci-fi moviemaking art had moved beyond them. Black and white meant old, color meant new, and any nuance that would modify the rule would be lost on me for a few more years yet. Whether one picks up on it or not, however, Strange Invaders is as thorough and deliberate a throwback as any I’ve seen, so much so that it seems almost unbelievable that it came out as early as it did. It’s the sort of thing that I associate more with 2003 than with 1983.
In 1958, aliens landed in the small town of Centerville, Illinois, and did some antisocial stuff that we don’t get to see. Obviously that’s going to be a development of some importance in a film called Strange Invaders, but you couldn’t prove it by the first several scenes following the main titles. Those follow Columbia University entomology professor Charles Bigelow (Paul Le Mat, from Grave Secrets and American History X) around as he goes about the daily business of his life. One evening, when he has a young woman over at his apartment who could equally well be a student, a research assistant, a girlfriend, or some combination of the above, he is intruded upon by his ex-wife, Margaret (Diana Scarwid, of The Possessed and Psycho III), who announces that her mother has just died, necessitating an immediate trip back home. That in turn means that Charles will have to look after their daughter, Elizabeth (Strange Behavior’s Lulu Sylbert), for a few days, as Margaret is reluctant to bring her along for some reason. Now perhaps you’re wondering what any of this has to do with those aliens coming to Illinois 25 years ago— I certainly was. It all becomes clear, though, as soon as Margaret mentions the name of her hometown: Centerville. If she’s going to Centerville, then it’s only to be expected that something peculiar is destined to befall her, so none of us, I’m sure, will be surprised that Margaret neither returns when she said she would nor phones to inform Charles and Elizabeth that she has been delayed. After a few days stretch into more than a week, Charles drops off Elizabeth with his mother (June Lockhart, from Troll and C.H.U.D. II: Bud the C.H.U.D.), and goes in search of his ex.
Unfortunately for Charles, Margaret never mentioned where she was planning on staying, where the funeral was to be held, or anything at all, really, about the logistics of her visit to Centerville. All Charles has to go on is his ex-wife’s maiden name, so the first thing he does upon arriving is to look up “Newman” in the local telephone directory. Fortuitously, Arthur Newman (Kenneth Tobey, of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and The Thing) runs a boarding house where Charles can rent a room; rather less fortuitously, he claims to have no relative by the name of Margaret, and to know nothing about any other Newman clan in Centerville who might have buried a matriarch within the past week or so. Newman also takes a marked— and markedly suspicious— dislike to Bigelow’s dog immediately upon meeting the animal. I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking “pod person.” I also get a pod person vibe off of the waitress at the neighborhood diner (Fiona Lewis, from Blue Blood and Dr. Phibes Rises Again), and from all of her sullen, incommunicative customers, too. Then Bigelow’s dog goes missing, the fuel pump in his car craps out without warning right after a pedestrian gives Charles the hairy eyeball, and people on Centerville’s streets start pulling weird disappearing acts. Yeah, that sounds like trouble to me, too. Finally, the Centervillians show their true colors, attacking Charles with electrical discharges fired from their hands and forcing him to steal a car that still works in order to get away. Bigelow gets a look at one of the townspeople in their true form, too, while making his escape. The aliens are wrinkly and scrawny and brown, with leathery skin, bald heads, and huge, jet-black eyes. If one of the Close Encounters aliens ever lost its job, had an ugly divorce, and started spending its days drinking up its welfare checks at the Cantina Café, it might get to looking like one of these guys after about fifteen years.
Bigelow goes home to New York more than a little flustered. The first person he talks to about his Centerville adventure is his department chair, Professor Hollister (The Invisible Woman’s Charles Lane). Hollister doesn’t exactly believe him, but he does give Charles the phone number of a woman he knows who sort of specializes in such things. Her name is Benjamin (Louise Fletcher, from Exorcist II: The Heretic and Firestarter), and she heads up the US government agency in charge of investigating UFO reports and such. Bigelow arranges to meet with Benjamin, but while she treats him with a certain amount of respect and professional courtesy, she still blows him off in the end with a few “reassuring” platitudes. At his wits’ end, Charles is reduced to visiting the offices of the National Informer, in which he places a certain amount of hope after serendipitously spotting a photograph depicting one of his spacemen on the latest issue’s front page. Imagine his shock and dismay when Informer staff writer Betty Walker (Nancy Allen, of RoboCop and Forced Entry) explains that she made the whole story up, and that the photo was just something that her assistant dug up in one of the paper’s correspondence files. Betty invites Charles to stop by again tomorrow and have a drink with her, but that isn’t exactly what he came for. There’s one point that Betty’s denials don’t address, however. She may not have taken that picture on the front page of this week’s Informer, but somebody sure as hell did.
Meanwhile, someone keeps calling Bigelow’s mom’s house, as if to form an impression of the schedule over there, and people we recognize from the streets of Centerville are gathering in New York, sporting “disguises” that make them look twice as suspicious as they would have in their country-bumpkin street clothes. Before long, the Midwest’s Most Sinister Waitress appears at Betty’s apartment, posing as a door-to-door sales rep for Avon, and is prevented from doing something terrible to the reporter only by the timely intervention of the building superintendent (Wallace Shawn)— who promptly has something terrible done to him instead. Now on the fast track to becoming a believer, Betty has her assistant pull the rest of the file where he found that photo, and learns thereby the name and sometime address of the man who sent it in to the Informer ten years ago. She shares that information with Charles when he takes her up on the offer to have a drink together, and later that night, she’s on the scene when Margaret unexpectedly reappears at Bigelow’s place. It turns out that Margaret herself is one of the aliens, part of a mysterious reconnaissance mission to Earth, but that she decided she preferred the company of humans to that of her own species. The mission is concluded now, and the aliens are all to return home— “all” including not only Margaret, but her half-human daughter as well. Thus the interest from the extraterrestrials in Charles and his mother, and thus the kidnapping crew sent from Centerville to New York. The aliens strike simultaneously at both Charles’s place and his mom’s, abducting Margaret and Elizabeth alike. Charles and Betty go in pursuit, stopping along the way to learn whatever they can from Willie Collins (Michael Lerner, from Maniac Cop 2 and Godzilla), the Midwesterner whose decade-old snapshot of a creature from space brought Bigelow to National Informer headquarters. Collins has been rather unjustly confined to a mental hospital ever since then, but he busts himself out to join the ad hoc crusade to Centerville once he understands that his uninvited visitors really do believe his story. The trio thus assembled are not alone in rushing to that little town, however. You remember Ms. Benjamin? Well, despite her glib denials, the agency she represents knows very well about the extraterrestrial colony in Illinois. In fact, they’ve been acting almost as an unofficial consulate handling all affairs between the two species throughout the last 25 years. Even the most trivial federal agency has no patience for outsiders meddling in its business, and outsider action doesn’t get much more meddlesome than what Bigelow, Walker, and Collins are fixing to do in Centerville this weekend.
The strangest thing about Strange Invaders is that I can’t quite figure out how seriously we’re meant to take it. It’s among the most detailed homages to 50’s sci-fi this side of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, and it never shies away from formula elements that would have seemed hopelessly campy by 1983. The doppelganger invasion plot is lifted whole and intact from It Came from Outer Space, with only a few token gestures toward modernization (such as the appearance of the aliens, their huge mothership, or the localized atmospheric disturbances the latter creates around it everywhere it goes). Indeed, most of what was added to the old Jack Arnold template came not from anything then recent, but from other 1950’s movies, most notably Not of This Earth and I Married a Monster from Outer Space. The score is straight out of the 50’s, too, with a theramin playing the lead part and the other instruments laboring against a very familiar strain of utterly inane orchestration. The aliens’ landing craft look exactly like Klaatu’s ship in The Day the Earth Stood Still, and that movie and others like it are conveniently on the air whenever anyone turns on a TV. Normally, all this genre-savvy winking would signify a parodic intent, but in sharp contrast to Mars Attacks! or the aforementioned Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, there is little or nothing in Strange Invaders that I can confidently identify as a joke. If Strange Invaders is a parody, it’s one of the most deadpan I’ve encountered; if it’s an earnestly meant homage, it’s one of the most fearless. Actually, I rather suspect that it isn’t quite either of those things, but the product of some kind of dynamic equilibrium between both.
A little more commitment to one approach or the other might not have hurt, though. Strange Invaders has its virtues, but they are often frustratingly muted by its vagueness of tone. Potentially interesting rebuilds of genre cliches don’t go far enough, held back by what looks like a determination to keep the cliches recognizable. Otherwise well-conceived moments of horror get undercut by an intangible sense that we’re supposed to be laughing, while what might be the setups for jokes go to waste when no punchline ever materializes. The hints— but only hints— of parody also make it difficult to evaluate the acting, which might be sending up the performances typical of 50’s science fiction, but might also be simply kind of bad. If it’s the latter, then kudos, I guess, to the casting department for hiring actors who were crummy in ways that add to the period feel much more effectively than the gimmick casting of Kenneth Tobey and June Lockhart. I’ll admit that not being able to tell quite what sort of movie I was watching held a certain amount of my interest all by itself, but I think I a bit more tonal coherence would have held it rather better.