On a certain level, you’ve got to feel a little bad for Tobe Hooper. He burst into filmmaking with the genre-defining masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and most folks sadly assume that he was only a one-trick pony. Even his other pop culture defining hit Poltergeist is marred in controversy that will always make people claim it’s a secret Steven Spielberg movie rather than a collaboration. For those who actually take the time to peruse Hooper’s career, it’s clear that everything the man made between Texas Chainsaw 1 and 2 are actually damn fine genre flicks and represent a decade long streak of strong work that few horror filmmakers can match. At the end of this run, Hooper signed a three picture deal with Cannon for two of the biggest productions the renegade trash company ever mounted (Lifeforce and Invaders From Mars) along with a Chainsaw sequel that he wrote while shooting. At the time, they all bombed, but over the last three decades they’ve all grown into cult classics thanks to the deadpan comedic wit that Hooper snuck in between the rubber effects and entrails. This week Shout Factory has finally slid the most forgotten title of the trio Invaders From Mars onto Blu-ray, which will hopefully get the weirdo little movie the audience it has long deserved.
Invaders From Mars was always an oddball project from Hooper pulled from his movie drunk youth. It’s a remake of the almost forgotten 1953 William Cameron Menzies children’s horror flick that used alien doubling as a red scare metaphor a few years before Invasion Of The Body Snatchers made the metaphor iconic. On the excellent making-of documentary included on this disc, Hooper admits that the project might have been a mistake at that point in his career. Everyone was expecting a straight horror movie from the maestro, but he delivered something different. It’s a kiddie genre picture like Poltergeist and one designed to play as a colorful scare factory for kids and a campy send up of 50s genre fare for grown ups. In 1986, that meant that everyone went home disappointed. These days, it feels like a lost classic that never got the VHS rediscovery that it needed at the time.
The plot is fairly simple. One day a young boy notices a flying saucer park behind his house and every time he convinces an adult to go check out the landing zone, they come back as a deadpan alienized double who get up to all sorts of no good. It’s the body snatchers metaphor used to explore the gap between a child’s imaginative point of view and doubting adult authority figures. In the Amblin age, that should have been a potent gateway movie for Goonies fans, but sadly Cannon didn’t know how to get E.T. loving ankle biters into theaters like the great bearded one. They did however give Hooper a Spielberg-ian budget to launch his bizarre matinee throwback and that truly shines in this new HD presentation. Hooper shot in scope and filled his ample frames with remarkable sets and effects. In the early going, this lends the movie a strange feeling of artificiality before the aliens even show up to kick off their doubling shenanigans. At the time, it probably seemed cheesy for unsuspecting audiences, now it’s undeniably hilarious.
Make no mistake, this is not a movie like Alien that took cornball 50s sci-fi conceit and transformed it into a nasty contemporary scare factory (even though movies share the influence of screenwriter Dan O’Bannon). Nope, it’s a movie made for folks who love the cheese as well as the chilling concepts behind old timey B-movies. When the alien threat finally arrives, we get to see some stunning and absolutely massive sets that required an abandoned airplane hanger to contain. The catacomb layer is remarkable as are the delightfully goofy rubber monsters designed by Stan Winston right before he ran off to become an icon for his work on James Cameron’s Aliens. Everything was done practically and on full scale. When you see a group of soldiers get sucked down into a sandpit, you can tell it happened in front of the camera and it’s undeniably impressive. Meanwhile the cast features the likes of SNL’s Laraine Newman and Harold And Maude’s Bud Cort with their tongues jammed so deep into their cheeks that it’s amazing they were able to spit out their dialogue (it’s also the only movie in history to feature Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher choking down a frog, which is a special joy in and of itself). Invaders From Mars is a damn strange little movie, but one that fans of 80s effects and camp comedy are sure to go nuts over. It’s actually surprising that a cult hasn’t sprung up to embrace this movie yet. Hopefully this excellent Blu-ray will help right that wrong.
Shout have cleaned up the cinemascope visuals impressively. The movie is a lightshow, mixing influences from Spielberg and Hooper’s own psychedelic off-camera personal experiences to stunning effect. It’s pure eye-candy in HD, which finally makes up for all the muddy transfers on multi-movie DVDs that Invaders From Mars has been saddled with over the years. The special feature section kicks off with an excellent 36-minute documentary about the movie’s production. Everyone clearly enjoyed the mammoth physical undertaking with Winston’s effects team revealing tricks like a bizarre series of puppets that required a dwarf to piggy back on another man to operate. Hooper is all over this doc, chatting about the joyful production and unexpectedly failed release. He also pops up on a commentary track where he dives into his experience working with Cannon as a whole, since this movie, Lifeforce, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 were all cranked out consecutively in a year and a half. In hindsight, it was the peak of Hooper’s Hollywood career. Too bad the collective financial failure of the Cannon trio also ended that career. We also get a collection of production designs stills narrated by artist William Stout who clearly has fond memories of the freedoms and wacko ideas offered in the shoot. Then to wrap things up, there’s a collection of storyboards, TV spots, and trailers. Overall, it’s quite a nice little package of a forgotten genre oddity packed with special features filled with surprisingly candid honesty in the Shout Factory way. If you’re someone with a special place in your heart for Poltergeist, but never sampled Hooper’s follow up Invaders From Mars over the years, then pick this disc up immediately. It’s probably a movie that plays better for Amblin kids once they’ve discovered irony anyways and the time has come for this flick to finally get the love it deserves.