The horror community was dealt another sad blow with the death of Tobe Hooper. He will always be synonymous with THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and the way that film revolutionized the horror genre and still influences movies to this day, and rightfully so. CHAINSAW is a singular work and it simply cannot be overstated how important it is in the history of cinema. That said, the Hooper oeuvre as a whole deserves attention from ardent fans of the man or just of genre entertainment. Whether it’s the gonzo funhouse of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, the melding of genres with LIFEFORCE, the seedy exploitation of EATEN ALIVE, the creepy slasher entry THE FUNHOUSE, or his (forever debated) work on seminal suburban fright flick POLTERGEIST—Hooper was more than just Leatherface. Perhaps Hooper’s most misunderstood film (particularly to its producers at Cannon Films) is INVADERS FROM MARS.
Being a child is terrifying. Romantic nostalgic for the wondrous days of discovery or carefree moments before mortgages and taxes and the daily grind makes people forget that. There is certainly wonder in a child’s life as their sphere of understanding grows with each passing day and encounter. However, the dark side of wonder is the fear of the unknown, of discovering or learning about something that’s just beyond your understanding, and how that leads to further doubt about what you believe to be true. To be a child is to be smaller than adults, powerless against their authority and forced to trust in what they say; children know they have limits to their understanding, but what lies beyond those limitations? What else don’t they know? For most children, especially in the mid-80s, there were only a handful of avenues of learning about the world at large: the lessons from parents, the imparted knowledge of teachers, and schoolyard chatter with friends. But what if those tethers to what you know is true start to be severed? While there are certainly joys to be had in growing up, there is a healthy dose of fear mixed in, constantly at the edge that your ignorance could be your doom.
And so that’s the central tenet of Hooper’s remake of the 1953 original INVADERS FROM MARS. Much like PAN’S LABYRINTH by Guillermo del Toro or SPIRITED AWAY by Hayao Miyazaki, it’s a journey of a child beyond the realms of comfort when everything he once trusted has been stripped away and he’s forced to fight alone for the truth, in the possibly vain hope of restoring his world back to the order he once knew. Now that’s some pretty heady stuff— it’s mostly just the subtext of the film—which is instead an engaging kids movie about alien invaders, evil impostors, and some great F/X and creature work by John Dykstra and Stan Winston.
INVADERS FROM MARS concerns David Gardner (Hunter Carson), an inquisitive child who loves his parents, astronomy, and collecting pennies. One night following a meteor shower, he sees a UFO land just beyond the hill in his backyard. After his father checks it out the following morning, he comes back…changed. He acts mostly human and isn’t emotionless, but it’s like he’s taken a fistful of Valium and is eerily subdued. Next, policemen and then his mother go beyond the hill, and come back changed in the same manner. And soon it spreads to others—teachers, people in the military, and so on—until the only person David can trust is school nurse Linda (Karen Black), and a few people left in the armed forces that believe this young man. What lies beyond the hill? Can David and his dwindling group do anything to stop this growing threat?
One of the most memorable scenes that stayed with me since watching it on VHS as a kid was a breakfast sequence with the now-turned parents. Again, much like other remakes such as Philip Kaufman’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) or even John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982), these impostors are not cold automatons, they are simply off in a way that makes David question and worry about his world. His parents do slightly odd things, like over salt a heap of hamburg and then eat it raw while proposing a sudden picnic over the hill. Then there’s the cold, near threatening hug his mother (Laraine Newman) gives him before he leaves for school—her indifferent face its own sort of menace in what should be a loving embrace. Once the scene with the two pillars of his world have been confirmed as altered, what’s the next shot Hooper cuts to?
David locked in, by himself, amidst a jumbling cage of a jungle gym surveying the world around him and trying to make sense of it all.
To call this a children’s movie isn’t to disparage it; it’s vitally important that kids are exposed to frightening elements to learn that they can control and overcome them within their own power. And this was made at a burgeoning time for kids movies, with THE GOONIES (1985), THE MONSTER SQUAD (1987), THE LOST BOYS (1987), and many more to come that showcased children in action as a form of “kid power” that spoke to the Gen-X demographic (and market). It’s just that many people probably expected that Hooper would deliver a depraved revamp of the property, along the lines of Carpenter’s gross out and suspense masterpiece THE THING. Instead he stayed true to the Saturday afternoon matinee spirit of the original and turned in a fun adventure flick in which a kid’s power fantasy of finding independence and fighting back that danger come to pass. Kind of.
The “Kind Of” has to do with the ending of the film (which is almost identical to the ending of the original 1953 version). It’s an unfortunate cop-out that cheapens a lot of what has happened before and was a well-worn trope even in 1986. But probably not for children—outside of seeing it in THE WIZARD OF OZ, they probably thought it was a real shock twist (I know I did as a kid), that pulls the rug out from under viewers not once but twice. I won’t spoil it here for the uninitiated, but being an adult and seeing the film is a bit of a letdown; however, through the eyes of a child, it could be a revolutionary moment in learning about narrative possibilities.
Released by The Cannon Group, Inc., the film was initially a critical and commercial flop. It’s been said producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus hated the film as they wanted a really horrifying and scary film, which is partially how they marketed it (with Hooper’s name being synonymous with fear, of course). But that doesn’t mean it’s not special; it’s just a misdirect that Cannon often did when they didn’t understand what they had.
Every year a new generation of horror fans are born. Most of them seek out fare filled with weird monsters and unsettling scenes. Some just come for the visuals, others like that thrill of safely enjoying something scary, but for whatever reason they seek out works that shake their foundations and make the shadows a bit more intimidating. INVADERS FROM MARS is perfect for the burgeoning horror hound. It’s fun and campy, but still rings true in its study on the real fears of being a child. The film is a true testament to the abilities of Tobe Hooper: this is a man that understood what scared people. He used his films as ways of prickling the recessive lizard brains of audiences and knew how to tap into their primal fears—often while commenting on society at large—but did so as appropriate for the audience. His one venture into a pure children’s movie produced an under-appreciated classic that strikes at the heart of a child, the desire for adventure and the terror of the unknown, to culminate in a dream-like journey that lets them know they are not alone in their fears.
INVADERS FROM MARS features great performances by Timothy Bottoms, Newman, Black, Louise Fletcher, James Karen, and Bud Cort amongst others. And while Hunter Carson is not a great actor, he really shines in his relationship with his father (Bottoms) and with the nurse (who was played by his real life mother, Karen Black). There are plenty of fun scenes and over the top moments that could only sprout from the imagination of a child and fulfills that burning need to conquer the fears of losing tethers to what you once held as true. Plus some killer F/X work by Dykstra and Winston make it a fun creature feature for monster-obsessed kids. And besides, where else are you going to get a scene of Oscar winner Louise Fletcher monstrously devouring a frog?