Most people question the intention behind doing a remake; is it for money (always), or so an IP won’t revert back to original ownership (sometimes), or is it to improve on an interesting concept but poor delivery (it’s happened before)? These are the normal scenarios. But then you have a legend like Tobe Hooper, who decides as the middle flick in a three-picture deal with Cannon Films, to do a sincere remake of Invaders from Mars (1986), the 1953 minor cult classic. Why? Because you can tell he genuinely loves the original, and he leaves enough Dr. Pepper fingerprints so you know you’re in Hooper Town.
Released in early June, Invaders lost money and wasn’t a critical success. Surprise! Unfortunately, most Hoopers’ aren’t built for the era they occupy; it’s not often his work was appreciated in his time.
Yet look at what he did in a two year period – three films; in ‘85 the OTT and truly bizarre Lifeforce, in ‘86 this one quickly followed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 a mere two months after. Now, that’s productivity. And I think to gain a better appreciation for this film, we have to look at the period as a whole.
Lifeforce was the “prestige” project, and TCM2 was the one he had to make to seal the deal with Cannon, leaving Invaders from Mars in the middle, and to me it feels the most personal of the three films.
But how about some story first, yes?
If you’ve already seen the original (and I did a Dust Off on it here), you’re basically treading the same, sandy turf: a boy, David (Hunter Carson), witnesses a glowing meteor crash on the dune behind his coastal home. His father (Timothy Bottoms) goes over the hill in the morning to check it out, and seems… strange when he returns.
At school, David fares no better; it seems the science teacher (Louise Fletcher) has already been to the dunes, and when David sees her scarf down a frog in the back room – without a creamy sauce to accompany it – he runs to the only person he can think of: the school nurse (Karen Black). Once she sees for herself – and now wanted for kidnapping, even if the coppers have already been turned – her and David contact the military (led by James Karen) to send them Martians back to where they came from – Mars!
That’s it, and it hews pretty close to the original; Black’s character is updated from scientist to nurse this time around, in the tradition of the “trustworthy” adult that helps David. Other than that, the significant changes are really down to the special effects; having John Dykstra (Star Wars) and Stan Winston (The Terminator) on board the project was a big get, and a testament to the love that Hooper held within the horror community. Everyone always rooted for him to succeed. But there’s always a bit of sneaky bugger in Hooper; these effects are not meant to show the latest in technology, but rather the colorful and kitschy designs from 1953, merely updated. Those expecting an effects extravaganza on point with others of the day may be disappointed; those who get what Hooper is going for will appreciate it. Or not! I know many Hooper fans who are a little cool on this one, and that’s fine; there are plenty of flavors of him to go around.
I’m in because the tone is exactly the same as the first; Hooper, with a script by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby (Lifeforce), essentially updates the decor, but keeps the demeanor of the characters in “gosh-golly” land, resulting in a ‘50s sci-fi picture with a new paint job, simplistic military and all. This undoubtedly perplexed audiences at the time, who were probably hoping for a smart aleck kid (and friends) saving the day with some boundary-pushing gore gags at their side. Nope. It’s more or less David and the Nurse doing the heavy lifting – the good news is, Black gets the assignment; the bad news is her real life son, Hunter, is pretty uneven. Oh well. At least they got to spend some quality time together.
The rest are game as well; Fletcher and Karen go for the rafters, and Bottoms and Laraine Newman as mom and dad underplay effectively. The problem is this is simply not the movie for the multiplexes of the ‘80s.
So, in between the lavish behemoth of Lifeforce, and before the gonzo blitzkrieg of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, Tobe Hooper decided to make an affectionate tribute to ‘50s sci-fi, of a film he clearly was fond of, as perhaps a reminder to why he pursued film in the first place. And if you view these films as a trio, or of a piece (if I’m waxing fancy), then you’ll see at the center a confident – if slightly sloppy and haphazard – Hooper, who seemed to be having his cake and eating it too. That almost never happened for the legend; I hope he found it delicious. He more than earned it.
Invaders from Mars is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Scream Factory, but is OOP and will cost you more than the price of a raygun.