Gee whiz, sci-fi sure was simple in the early ‘50s, wasn’t it? Slap a little Red Scare subtext here, a damsel in distress there, scientists, the military, and of course aliens rounding out the films that beamed from every drive-in on a Saturday night. One of the earliest (and best) of the bunch is Invaders from Mars (1953), which sets itself apart by employing a unique viewpoint and having spectacular and surreal production design. Don’t write this off as a cheap time waster, you whippersnappers.
Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox near the end of April, this independent production received some favorable notices and made a swift return on its $290,000 budget, for good reason – seen through a child’s eyes, it captures that imagination and runs with it for 78 minutes, shoddy getups and all. Invaders from Mars is told with the fervor of an excited youth playing catch up with an exploding imagination.
Little David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt – Sorry, Wrong Number) is a burgeoning astrologer; at night he peers out his bedroom window through his telescope to peruse the stars in all their mysterious wonder, much to the amusement of scientist dad George (Leif Erickson – On the Waterfront) and mom Mary (Hillary Brooke – The Woman in Green). One night he awakens to the sound of thunder and sees a luminescent saucer land in the sand dunes beyond the backyard forest; frightened, he wakes up pop, who investigates – as he should, for his top secret government project is held within the area. George doesn’t return until the morning however, and when he does, he’s distant and very belligerent towards David; he’s also the proud new owner of a surgically implanted device on the back of his neck that doesn’t escape David’s view.
After witnessing a little girl get sucked into the pit and coming back lacking sunshine and roses, he turns to the police for help; alas, even the chief has succumbed. Who can poor Davey turn to for help? Who will believe him? Why, more scientists, of course, this time from the observatory: Dr. Stuart Kelston (Arthur Franz – Monster on the Campus) and Dr. Pat Blake (Helena Carter – The Fighting O’Flynn) make their way to David and lo and behold, they believe him! Before long the Pentagon is contacted, tanks are paraded while providing gratuitous explosions, and everyone heads underground to smoke out the aliens. Can the earthlings defeat the felt-green monsters and their *checks notes* disembodied-in-a-fishbowl-with-tentacles leader? Only the stars can say…
Imagine an 11 year old using every toy and craft at his or her disposal to create this narrow and limited landscape and you’ll get an idea of Invaders from Mars’ charm; a lot of the early sci-fiers use simplespeak, but Invaders actually feels like it came pouring from the brain of adolescence. The film starts off as an intriguing The Boy Who Cried Wolf scenario (the unmovable trope of body snatching stories) before turning into The Boy Who Is Right, and quite early in the picture to boot.
It’s an unusual yet effective move that transitions all sympathies toward David, who up to this point is mired in fear, anxiety, and terror; one of childhood’s biggest boogeymen is not being believed by grownups and being seen and called dishonest – especially in the eyes of your parents and authorities.
This is where director William Cameron Menzies really shines; coming from a background in production and set design (see Gone with the Wind; not to mention helming 1936’s terrific Things to Come), he shoots through David’s POV for maximum effect; for instance the police station that David visits appears cold, blanketed in oppressive white with walls that never seem to find a ceiling and a desk that feels ten feet too tall for a boy to approach. Or the observatory, which seems exactly as a child would envision it: sparse, except for the telescope and another unseen closure beckoning David to be engulfed in its wonders. Menzies has control of Richard Blake (Counterplot)’s barebones script right from the start; it’s really the aesthetic and palpable unease that sells the story, not the conventional dialogue. Again, if a kid was making this, it wouldn’t be the words highlighted, it would be the actions.
Which works out well for our cast of good looking folks, led by Carter as Dr. Pat, and she commands every scene she’s in with her breathtaking visage and level-headed approach to the events at hand. Erikson leans into the Bad Daddy routine with relish and little Hunt makes a likeable and smart protagonist. The rest are pro forma ‘50s stick figures, although Morris Ankrum (Rocketship X-M)’s eyebrows lead the charge any chance they get.
The Red Scare subtext is there like every other sci-fi film of the day – them Russkies are trying to take over! Again! – but Invaders from Mars chooses to focus on the fears of the young, right through to the eye-popping underground finale. And for those youngsters in the audience, it offers an upbeat ending (before a rug pulling coda) that vindicates the fear with the only means necessary for an 11 year old: a ray gun. The next time your kid says there’s a monster in the closet or an ogre under the bed, don’t be so quick to scoff; instead maybe grab a ray gun of your own and help them out.
Invaders from Mars is available on DVD through Amazon from United American Video.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: HORROR HOSPITAL (1973)