Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Invaders from Mars

Technically, I didn't really watch this film, engaged as I was having my hair dyed at Salon de Kim. But scenes from this film have stuck with me as much as those from my latest cinema outing, I have loved you for so long. So how does a 1953 alien invader film have this sort of impact?

One stormy night, young David sees a flying saucer land in the sandpits near his home. His scientist father goes to investigate and disappears, returning later, not quite the loving dad he once was: cold, rigid and hostile, with a mysterious mark on the back of his neck. David comes to realise that his dad isn't the only one acting strangely... Aliens from Mars are taking over the bodies of the town folk, under the control of a mysterious tentacled head - a silent being in a glass dome, with eyes that unceasingly roll and twitch. When appearances can't be trusted, who can you turn to for help? David joins up with a sexy lady doctor and a brilliant local scientist and the trio soon encounter the aliens from the sandpit, in a network of tunnels running under the peaceful town.

Invaders from Mars belongs to a particular genre of films that deals with infiltration in an extremely paranoid way (see It came from outer space 1953; Invasion of the body snatchers 1956; The brain eaters 1958). This genre is often said to reflect social anxiety about Communism in the Macarthy era. Mankind is threatened, not by external forces, but by subversion of society from within. Typically set in small town America, it is the next door neighbour, the little girl down the road and the friendly policeman that pose the threat. The alien infiltrators are awkward and robotic, raising questions about the difference between a real human and an impostor: what quality sets us apart? In these films there is not always the reassurance that authority figures (government, military) will fight and triumph on the side of humanity. (Check out Bob Mitchell's essay for discussion of 1950s American science fiction films and the Cold War)

There are a number of things that make this film so memorable. Firstly, having a child as a main character heightens the sense of powerlessness. Authority figures become sinister. There's that horrible nightmarish desperation to to tell people something urgent - people who simply will not listen to you. And when the enemy is friend and family, who can you trust? Sinisterly, the aliens are in some way passive, relying on their human agents to betray others and lead them to their doom. The ending is particularly surprising: David wakes up (yay! it was just a dream!), then you hear the sound of a space ship landing (uh-oh!). Was it all a dream? a premonition? or a recurring nightmare from which we can never escape? (Interestingly, the European release re-filmed key scenes to give it an oh-it-was-just-a-dream happy ending.)

Director William Cameron Menzies was an Oscar winning art director (Gone with the wind and The thief of Bagdad for instance) and the sets here are remarkable. The outdoor scenes look extremely fake - almost hyper real - with great use of background mattes. (Apparently the colours are remarkably garish - but I'm sure I saw this in black and white. Given that I no longer notice what language a film is in I think we'll just gloss over this bit.) The path that climbs out through the bare trees to the sand dunes is reminiscent of the German Expressionism of The cabinet of Doctor Caligari. There is some pretty freaky spatial distortion going on here. Scientific equipment towers, both impressively large and menacingly efficient. The police station appears oversized, furniture looms and the prison cell dwarfs young David. These forced perspectives are so heightened as to emphasise just how fragile and powerless tiny David is in an adult world in crisis. (Though the evidence is unclear, it has been suggested that the movie was originally planned to be filmed in 3D, and so the sets were constructed accordingly. Whatever the intention, the effect is disconcerting.)

Super spooky is the music - lots of choral 'ah ah ah's quavering up and down the scale. It's extremely loud too and its discordancy is disturbing. This is just one of the many things that contribute to the film's sense of dislocation. Yes, the film is B grade. Production values are low and even the most sophisticated techniques of the time are bound to appear hokey to current audiences. This campness can be appealing in itself, but I believe you need to show respect and watch these films in the spirit in which they were made (which makes me a bit of a killjoy at Cinematheque). In this case the low budget features only add to the oddness of the film. Sure you can see the zips on the alien costumes but consider these images: a hilltop of sinking sand in which people disappear, telltale marks of alien infiltration on the back of victim's necks, oversized furniture in the police station, a silent alien leader with restless eyes, bewildering catacombs beneath the town, friends you can no longer trust.

This is a strange, haunting film. At one level all B grade 50's schlock - and at another, an eerily off centre, unnervingly surreal experience.


donnasoowho said...

Does that mean that Kim dyed your hair for you?

paranoia agent said...

That was an insightful piece on cold war sci fi! The film is still giving me the heebie geebies. Clearly I am blogging about the wrong things. Yes, hair stylist Kim gave me a makeover. Do your parents really have an arsenal of firecrackers?