Invaders from Mars [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Shout! Factory
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (22nd March 2015).
The Film

The films of Tobe Hooper have long teetered on the precipice between compelling schlock and wasted opportunity – at least up until around 1986. He hasn’t made a worthwhile feature film in nearly thirty years. Setting aside “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974) – which is so perfect it’s like a fluke in his filmography – and “Poltergeist” (1982) – because… you know – the rest of his output during those twelve years is a mixed bag. “Eaten Alive” (1977) is a snoozy, campy creature feature. “The Funhouse” (1981) is arguably the second-best film Hooper has directed; it’s creepy and filled with menace. Post-“Poltergeist”, Hooper got set up with a plum deal over at Cannon Films, where mega-producer Menahem Golan signed him to a three-picture deal on the agreement that one of the films he made was a sequel to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”. The first of that pact, “Lifeforce” (1985), is frustratingly mediocre given the story has such a killer concept. And the merits (or lack thereof) of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” (1986) have been widely debated in the years since its release. Despite doing a full turnaround from the original film, dropping the abject horror and veering the franchise into slapstick gallows humor territory, it’s refreshing to see a rare sequel which doesn’t hew so closely to its predecessor.

His second picture, “Invaders from Mars” (1986), is a remake of the 1953 sci-fi classic of the same name. The screenplay, co-written by Dan O’Bannon, is a faithfully reworked version of the original story written by John Tucker Battle. One night during a meteor shower, young David Gardner (Hunter Carson) sees a U.F.O. land in a field just over the hill from his house. He excitedly runs into his parent’s room to tell them what he’s witnessed, but his exclamation is written off as a plane or a meteorite. His dad, George (Timothy Bottoms), offers to go investigate in the morning. When David awakens, he heads downstairs where he’s met by his dad, who says there wasn’t anything to see over the hill. David’s curiosity only grows, however, when he sees a strange bruise on the back of his father’s neck. George is also acting… strange, and eventually he goes missing for a day, prompting David’s mother (Laraine Newman) to call the cops. They decide to check for George over the hill. You can see where this is going. George has turned, the cops have turned, and now David’s mother has turned, too. It isn’t long before David isn’t sure who he can trust, unless he sees their neck first.

At school, David manages to befriend one of the few people to believe his story; the school’s nurse, Linda (Karen Black). He and Linda escape the clutches of turned citizens trying to bring them into the alien fold, eventually making their way to military headquarters and alerting the Marines. Led by Gen. Climet Wilson (James Karen), the soldiers set up base camp at David’s home and begin an all-out assault against the invader’s spaceship, which is buried deep under the dirt just over the hill.

Hooper has described his “Invaders from Mars” as a “kid’s film”, and that seems appropriate given how much I enjoyed it as a kid. As an adult, however, the picture’s deficiencies become glaringly obvious. For starters, the direction is wholly bland and uninspired, like Hooper printed every first take and put little effort into bolstering the film with energy or tension. Right from the start, this picture slogs along until the finale. The middle, in particular, is a vast wasteland of ennui galvanized only by the appearance of impressive FX work from masters Stan Winston and John Dykstra. Were it not for their contributions there would nothing to prevent this from being an all-out disaster. There’s no sense of wonder, no excitement of discovery.

It also doesn’t help that Hunter Carson is a terrible actor. Hollywood nepotism is the likely culprit here, as Carson is the son of writer L.M. Kit Carson and Karen Black, one of this film’s stars. Carson ranges from mediocre to terrible, sometimes within the same scene. The biggest issue is he never quite gets into character; every line he reads sounds like he’s acting, or trying to, leaving his dialogue cold and stilted. And he’s in just about every single scene.

The film’s saving grace is in the production design and creature effects. The subterranean alien ship is vast and labyrinthine, with dusty drilled-out walkways sporadically populated by ad hoc rooms set up for “turning” human subjects, weaponry and a command center of sorts. The tunnels have a wide berth to accommodate the bulky alien sentinels, who looks like meatballs with mouths. It’s an awkward design that perfectly fits the sci-fi mold of cheesy and creative. Once you learn the suits were operated by having a dwarf strapped to the back of a regular-sized person, who was walking backward, it’s almost impossible not to imagine what’s going on inside whenever they walk. The head alien is rather phallic, with the head set upon a long, er, shaft that pushes out from behind an equally-genital-like opening. All of these aliens are completely impractical and ineffective from a world domination standpoint, but on film they look pretty cool. And, again, they’re the film’s highlight.

“Invaders from Mars” is exactly the kind of film I loved as a kid, so it’s disappointing that love doesn’t extend to my adult years. In more capable hands this might have been an 80's update of a 50's classic that nailed the tone, brought some tension and moved at a consistent clip to keep audiences invested. While Hooper’s vision is by no means a bad film, it’s simply a mediocre one that shows its age and constantly reminds viewers where things go wrong. Solid supporting roles filled by veterans like Black and Karen add necessary gravitas, but the task of carrying the film is placed upon Carson’s diminutive shoulders – and he buckles under the weight.

Video

Previously issued by MGM on a muddy DVD in their now-defunct Midnight Movies line, Scream Factory brings “Invaders from Mars” to Blu-ray with a 2.35:1 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded image that totally blows away that old release. Shot by cinematographer Daniel Pearl, the picture seen here is atmospheric and nicely captures a suitable 50's aesthetic in terms of shot composition and scope. Grain is much finer than on the DVD release, looking very filmic aside from a few interior shots where it spikes, becoming a bit noisy. Colors are bold and well-saturated, much more so than the DVD. Black levels are stable and dark. There is an inherent softness to the edges of the frame, due to the anamorphic shooting process, a minor problem that sometimes extends to the entire shot. Still, this is a major improvement over what came before and fans will be very pleased to see the film looking so sharp.

Audio

The original sound mix for the film was mono, and the last DVD has an Ultra Stereo track, but this new Blu-ray edition one-ups that with an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound track (48kHz/24-bit), as well as an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 option, too. The multi-channel option is the clear winner, offering a fuller, robust listening experience. Composer Christopher Young’s score sounds like he’s channeling John Williams at times, lending Hooper’s pic an air of Spielberg to some degree. Wouldn’t be the first time… The track is clean and clear, free from hisses, and offers nicely separated effects across the front end. Rears don’t come into use much, if at all. Subtitles are available in English.

Extras

The usual suspects of Scream Factory appear here as extras – audio commentary, extensive making-of featurette, theatrical trailers & TV spots – but this disc does drop two vintage featurettes that were found on MGM’s DVD. These were actually pretty decent extras and it’s a shame to see they’ve been excluded here.

Director Tobe Hooper sits down for an audio commentary, wherein he slips into his casual Texas demeanor and languidly fields questions pertaining to his dealings with Menahem Golan, the genesis of the project, casting decisions and so forth. He comes off a bit spaced out at times, but his information and recollection are both sound.

“The Martians Are Coming! The Making of “Invaders from Mars”” (1080p) is a featurette that runs for 36 minutes and 33 seconds. Hooper, FX creature man Alec Gillis and other members of the cast & crew were recently interviewed for this piece, looking back at the time spent on set. Gillis, in particular, has some amusing anecdotes regarding the creatures he helped operate. Featurettes like this are the Scream Factory supplemental bread & butter, and this one is just as good as any other.

The film’s theatrical trailer (1080p) runs for 1 minute and 28 seconds.

A TV spot (1080p) runs for 32 seconds.

“Production Illustrations Gallery from Artist William Stout” (1080p) gallery features glimpses at the art designed for the film, with the artist discussing how each piece fit into the film. There’s some really great stuff in here.

A collection of storyboards (1080p), set to the film’s score, runs for 4 minutes and 16 seconds.

A still gallery (1080p) finishes off the extras, featuring 27 images and running for 2 minutes and 12 seconds.

Packaging

The single disc comes housed in a standard Blu-ray keep case, with cover art that is reversible.

Overall

It’s always a shame when a film doesn’t hold up to revision after a period of not having seen it, which is exactly how “Invaders from Mars” played out for me. Hooper has always been a “good enough” sort of director, never really putting the extras oomph into his pictures to make them truly classic, with only one real exception. Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray release is, however, a great presentation both in terms of a/v quality and supplemental material, even if a couple worthwhile features were dropped.

The Film: C+ Video: B Audio: B- Extras: B Overall: B-

 


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