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Invaders from Mars: 50th Anniversary Special Edition

There are two schools of thought about Invaders from Mars, a semi-legendary low-low-budget 1953 story of a young boy who sees a spaceship land near his back yard, after which his parents and others transform into possessed, soulless saboteurs with tiny control devices implanted in their necks. One school regards this peculiar little film as dreck of the cheapest sort, a kiddie matinee of paperboard sets, oaken dialogue, actors who'd be more at home in local car lot commercials, an irksome reliance on stock footage, and silly Martian "synthetic Mutants" costumed in green velour footy pajamas with visible zippers up their backs. Pure Mystery Science Theater 3000 fodder. On the other side of the aisle, there are those who honor it as a textbook Cold War paranoia alien infiltration psychodrama, as a flawed yet mesmerizing masterpiece of expressionist design and symbol-rich photography, a movie that spins its meager resources into a metaphorical dream-state tapping universal childhood fears of otherness and personal powerlessness. Dr. Caligari with rayguns. And you know what? They're both right.

Invaders from Mars has acquired quite a reputation over the years, thanks to the hand of its director/designer William Cameron Menzies, whose bona fides included a designer's Academy Award for Gone With the Wind and director credits such as Things to Come and The Thief of Bagdad. With a budget less than $300,000, he and cinematographer John F. Seitz (Sunset Boulevard, The Lost Weekend) used minimalist sets and forced perspective to lift otherwise merely juvenile claptrap into something … if not extraordinary, then at least by no means ordinary. Menzies' idea that we see everything from a small boy's dream point-of-view offers such striking compositions as a child's idea of a police station (stark and stretched, as if designed by Dali), of a scientist's lab (towering test tubes frame the image like jail-cell bars), and of the principal set, an oddly foreshortened grassy knoll, on the far side of which loved ones are taken body and soul. The boy, David (Jimmy Hunt), is around 12 years old and says "Gee!" a lot, but he's a smart and observant amateur astronomer who wakes to a world where all of the supposedly safe adults, even policemen, are dangerous enemies. Of course, the U.S. army rolls in brandishing tanks (and WWII stock clips) to attack the Martians' underground lair, but it's David who finally saves the day.

Those who've looked beneath the occasionally Ed Wood-like surface of Invaders from Mars report seeing sideshow mirror-distorted reflections of America's Red Scare fears. The national phobia of a subverting Communist menace, of enemies hidden within normal-looking people, rattled at fever pitch through the 1950s and found its most famous expression in Invasion of the Body Snatchers ('56), a classic owing more than a little to Invaders from Mars. Or is David, as some suggest, an abused child? That interpretation sees this "dream" manifesting a textbook subconscious playing-out of trauma filtered through an imagination fueled by what his mother derides as "those trashy science fiction magazines." The people who populate his nightmare (or is it? Cue weird music) are an odd assortment. Mom (Hillary Brooke) is plastic and passive even before she's taken over; the Martian-controlled dad (Leif Erickson) is belligerent and physically violent and threatens the boy to keep silent about it. David's saviors are outsiders: astronomer Dr. Kelston (Arthur Franz) — whose magic telescope and bizarre all-knowing prescience have already divined the scheme behind the "synthetic mute-ants" near the "hush hush" rocket base where Dad works — and beautiful Dr. Pat Blake (Helena Carter), a protector who's not a parent and therefore can be simultaneously safe, lovingly physical, and chastely sexy. (That off-the-shoulder rip in her dress is telling.)

David's parents are telepathically controlled by the trippy "Martian Intelligence," a disembodied green head with tentacles encased in a glass globe. It wordlessly puppeteers the adults and several hulking pop-eyed, green-pajama mutants (the chubby one is good for a chuckle) until its destruction comes in a drawn-out, hallucinatory climax that defies all reason except dream logic. When David wakes only to see the spaceship land in his backyard again just as in the dream, has he experienced a precognitive vision of things to come, or is he trapped in an ever-looping nightmare forever? Either way, it's a suitably weird cap on a series of weirder off-kilter scenes.

Invaders from Mars really is laughably camp and an often goony 79 minutes, but if that were its totality it would be utterly dismissed like so many of its kin today. Instead, to many viewers — especially those who first saw it at the age of eight or so — its effect is unnerving and memorable. This deliriously stylized snapshot of early-1950's ideas and attitudes is good for any suitably impressionable eight-year-old, or for indulging the eight-year-old, or "Media Studies" student, within you.

*          *          *

Image Entertainment's Invaders from Mars: 50th Anniversary Special Edition delivers the best home version of the movie yet released. The source material is scratchy and blemished, but it's made from the original 35mm Cinecolor print master and is far superior to the dreadful 1998 DVD from UAV. Color, contrast, and detail are quite good. The audio is an exceptional monaural Dolby Digital 2.0.

Extras include the movie's full alternate British release, which cuts the "dream" ending quite awkwardly, and an eight-page booklet featuring a terrific essay on the movie (discover why decorating a Martian tunnel with hundreds of inflated condoms is a good idea). A sub-par photo gallery and the theatrical trailer are also on board. Keep-case

—Mark Bourne

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