TOBE HOOPER WEEK: Invaders from Mars (1986)

Following the failure of Lifeforce (at least commercially, I’m on the side of it being an interesting affair), Tobe Hooper turned to a remake of 1953’s Invaders from Mars. After several writers took a shot at the script, Dan O’Bannon (the USC film student who famously created Dark Star with John Carpenter, left for Europe in the hopes of making Dune with Alejandro Jodorowsky, then came back to the U.S. to write AlienDead & Buried and Total Recall, write and direct Return of the Living Dead and then die way too young from Crohn’s Disease) and Don Jakoby.

Instead of the adult oriented gore and sex that Lifeforce presented (which shows up here as a movie within a movie, main character David is watching the film and man, he’s super young for that movie), Invaders is a return to the themes of 1950’s science fiction. That said — whereas the originally intended directed Steven Spielberg would have focused on the sweetness with a slight edge, Hooper delivers plenty of edge. In fact, this entire film feels like a nightmare that the main character, David Garden (Hunter Carson, the son of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 writer LM Kit Carson and Karen Black, who we’ll get to in a minute) can’t wake up from. It’s unnerving the sheer torture that this kid goes through!

After watching a meteor shower, David sees a spaceship land behind his house. Throughout the film, the entire town gets taken over by aliens, including his parents (Timothy Bottoms and SNL’s Laraine Newman). It’s true terror — what child doesn’t have the fear that his parents will no longer love him? It’s even worse when they coldly plot your doom.

They’re not the only ones — every teacher is against him, none more than the meanest teacher in school, Mrs. McKeltch. She’s gone from that to something much, much worse — the human face of the alien invasion.

The only person who believes David is the school nurse, Linda Magnuson (Karen Black, The Pyx, Burnt Offerings, Killer Fish and so much more). Together, they rally the Marines, learn how the alien guns work, defeat the Supreme Intelligence and blow up the UFO.

Or do they? Much like its 1953 inspiration, David wakes up and the entire movie is revealed to be a dream. However, this isn’t a William Cameron Menzies film (the director of the original, whose name is given to the elementary school in this film); this is Tobe Hooper, who ends the film just like it began. David sees the UFO land again, runs to his parent’s bedroom and screams as an alien noise is heard. There is no resolution — just the return of abject terror.

This part is particularly interesting to me, as I’ve had the same dream of a UFO showing up outside my window since I was a child. I always wake up screaming, knowing that I’m looking at an object made from pure evil.

Invasion is an odd duck. Horror buffs wanted to see Hooper make another Texas Chainsaw Massacre (they’d get their wish, but probably not in the way they’d want it within a few weeks). Moviegoers didn’t know who Hooper was enough to be a mainstream draw (Poltergeist was made three years before Hooper got his three picture Cannon deal). And fans of the original probably wouldn’t be pleased with the darker bent of this remake (despite original star Jimmy Hunt making an appearance as the police chief and the original Supreme Intelligence showing up on a warehouse shelf).

That’s not to say it’s a bad film. It’s packed with elaborate practical effects from Stan Winston (who was working on Aliens at the same time) and John Dykstra, including the amazing alien drones. The drones are literally two actors walking independently under a suit, so their movements feel more feel than today’s computerized creatures. The Supreme Intelligence doesn’t look silly; instead it’s a mix of menace and cartoony evil, like a Mars Attacks! trading card brought to life. And the film is replete with references to other films — it takes place in Santa Mira, home to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (and Halloween 3: Season of the Witch) and the house that the Gardners live in was built for 1948’s Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.

This movie lost a lot of money — it made $4.8 million on a $12 million dollar budget. You know who did make money on this? Science fiction fan and sometimes writer/producer/director Wade Williams, who bought the original film in 1978. Airing the original film via television, cable and video releases made plenty of money. Add in the rights to this — Williams got a producer credit — and he may have made up to fifty times what he paid for the film. This isn’t the only film in the Wade Williams collection. He also owns the distribution rights to the films of Ed Wood, Robot MonsterThe Killer Shrews, Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World and a near infinite amount of other films.

Maybe that’s why Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, those insane masters of moviemaking that made up Cannon, hated the film. They claimed it was nothing like what they were promised. That said — Hooper often spoke favorable of his time with Cannon, comparing it to the old studio system days.

With two films down and his back to the wall, Hooper had to turn back to some old friends and his old neighborhood. Within a few weeks (he made the film in June and it was released in August), he’d make the film everyone wanted to see anyway — Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. But that’s a story for another time.

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