Long live Michael Laughlin. Two years after he released one of my favorite early ‘80s oddities, Strange Behavior (I wrote about it here), he was back to unleash the next chapter in a proposed ‘Strange’ trilogy, Strange Invaders (1983). And while the former is a tribute to Mad Scientist films of the ‘50s via an updated Slasher take, the latter tips its fedora to the great Alien Invasion films of the same era. It may not reach the same dizzyingly weird heights, but Strange Invaders is an affectionate romp that captures the feel of those bygone drive-in classics and solidifies Laughlin’s unique voice.

A co-production between EMI Films and Lone Wolf McQuade Associates, Strange Invaders was released by Orion Pictures in mid September stateside to positive reviews and lackluster box office. Returning only a quarter of its $5 million plus budget, this was the Way of the Laughlin – everyone liked his movies, but no one went to see them. He’s only directed three films in total (the third being 1985’s Mesmerized), and his two Strange films have left a quirky, distinctive mark in genre filmmaking.

Our film opens in Centreville, Illinois in 1958; a normal, idyllic, Midwestern town until a spaceship hovers over the area and zaps everyone with electrical current. We then move forward to modern day New York, as entomologist Charles Bigelow (Paul Le Mat – Puppet Master) learns that his ex-wife Margaret (Diana Scarwid – Psycho III) has to leave town to attend her mother’s funeral back in Centreville, leaving their daughter Elizabeth (Lulu Sylbert – Strange Behavior) in his care while she’s gone. When she doesn’t return as scheduled Charles heads to Centreville, where he discovers…a town trapped in 1958, from the Formica countertops in the diner, the classic automobiles, to the men lathered in Brylcreem and the women in ankle length skirts. He flees the town after witnessing his car explode from a strand of lightning and passes an alien in human clothing as he speeds away back to New York.

No one believes him, except leery-at-first tabloid editor Betty Walker (Nancy Allen – Carrie), whose paper ran the photo of the alien Charles describes. The photo leads them to the man who took it, Willie Collins (Michael Lerner – Godzilla), whose wife and kid were abducted while they passed through Centreville. Of course, Willie is currently residing in a mental hospital as no one has believed him up to this point. (It does sound pretty far fetched, Willie. Eat your pudding.) Meanwhile, it seems the aliens have followed Charles back to New York, as they’re not too fond of loose ends – you see, they’re ready to return home and Elizabeth is on the passenger list. Back to Centreville it is then, to rescue Elizabeth, stay alive, AND outsmart the meddling government led by Mrs. Benjamin (Louise Fletcher – Brainstorm). Will the gang pull it off, or will Elizabeth have to make a whole new set of friends in space? (Uprooting is such a drag for kids, especially to another galaxy.)

Make no mistake, Strange Invaders is not a spoof of long forgotten Sci-fi tropes; instead it’s an extension of (and a homage to) the classic films of the ‘50s that Laughlin and co-screenwriter Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) hold so dear. It’s a similar trick they pulled off on their first film; but instead of offering an anachronistic jumble of past and present shot through a post ‘80s slaughter prism, Invaders lifts and separates its aesthetic so it becomes a crucial plot point and gives a better focus to the small town world. By having the aliens stick to (or rather, stuck in) the era when they landed, it basks the film in a warm glow of nostalgia that highlights the charms of a simpler time in not only cinema, but life (I’m sure times were shitty then too, but they sure looked nicer). When the two time zones clash as the aliens head to the big city, the inherent humor in the script comes to the forefront, aided immeasurably by the terrific performance of alien Fiona Lewis (Strange Behavior) disguised as a prototypical Avon Lady, one of the ultimate symbols of female independence in the ‘50s. This was a necessity, as the script originally had a big set piece in the middle involving an airbase that had to be cut due to budgetary restrictions. Many critics found the middle sagging because of this lack of action; I find it allows for some great character moments not often afforded the drive-in flicks that Laughlin adores.

And this is a cast filled with great characters and character actors; Lerner’s sub plot with his abducted family is poignant and so well played, Le Mat and Allen have a good solid chemistry, and in a great nod to the past, the iconic Kenneth Tobey of The Thing from Another World (1951) offering a calm menace as our head alien. And if you’re a fan of Laughlin’s previous effort, there are some fun cameos strewn about. (Keep your eyes peeled during the opening.) Le Mat’s affability is a big part of the film’s success; he takes things about as serious as they need to be in a film where aliens shed their human skins like tearing off a tight sweater. (And I know from tight sweaters.)

Those effects are pretty good, too; Brian Wade (Fright Night Part 2) and others adding gooey texture to the unmasking, or shall I say unpeeling of their earthly disguises – something the modern sensibilities add to an age old tale. Even here Laughlin’s intentions are clear; the alien design is right out of Amazing Stories or any other dime store comic, all bulbous heads and eyes, birdlike and fearsome. He needs us to never forget these relics from a different time; and even though that was only 25 years ago then, the likes of Alien (1979) and The Thing (1982) had already given the genre a more grotesque sheen to its monsters – these aliens may have the appearance of a traditional gossip rag drawing (“ALIENS ABDUCTED MY GRANDMOTHER AND MADE HER LATE FOR BINGO!”), but now the technology could match the talent, and it does.

Sci-fi has always been a great hiding place for societal concern, and in the ‘50s that ranged from fear of the bomb to neighborly paranoia. So what’s Laughlin trying to say, if anything? Does he inject the material with a timely message? Not that I could see; Government bad? Check. People can’t be trusted? You bet. But these are already embedded in the time worn fabric of cinematic history, and it’s hard to pay homage without bowing to those particular conventions. Which I guess answers my own question: Laughlin just wants to show that these tropes can still resonate in a modern setting, no extra layers needed, thank you very much. I guess when we can finally trust the government, this filmic truism will seem outdated and old fashioned? I’ll just wait over here.

Strange Invaders holds up because like the films that Laughlin so lovingly emulates, it isn’t cynical or jaded - how easy would it be to mock those movies instead of elevating them? – but instead celebrates, emulates, and calibrates (check out the glorious, sweeping symphonic score by John Addison) so to be of a piece with the rightly remembered zippered fiends of yesteryear. As for Laughlin, he’s been MIA almost as long as this film has been around. Perhaps he’s hiding out in Centreville, afraid to be exposed? Come back Michael; I’ll even pick you up if you need a ride. The only thing I want to expose is your talent. You can keep the skin on if you like.

Strange Invaders is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957)
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.