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INVADERS FROM MARS (1953)

Updated: Mar 7, 2023

Distributed in 4K by Ignite Films

Coverage by Roy Frumkes



I wasn’t a rabid fan of INVADERS FROM MARS back in the mid 50s when I first saw it. It definitely frightened me but, little as I knew about filmmaking and film aesthetics, I still somehow understood that the film suffered from low-budget problems.


In 1971, when my film THE PROJECTIONIST was released, using newsreel footage from past wars and in particular World War II, a few people, mainly older audience members, sang a familiar refrain when commenting on what disturbed them about the film: “Too much Hitler!” With INVADERS FROM MARS that sentiment could easily have been transposed to “Too many tanks” or “Too many aliens running back and forth through tunnels in pajamas”, or what appeared to be “Too many repeat shots of a sand trap sinking into the ground.” If it weren’t for these glaring difficulties, we might have had a film with a different reputation. (One of the things I learned from the meticulous research applied to this release is that the army footage was padded to reach an agreeable running time for foreign theater audiences.)


The Ignite Films release is enrobed in stimulating supplementals. Child star Jimmy Hunt is still with us and glad to recall his time on the shoot, as well as his decision to drop out of the industry following MARS’ release, which he doesn’t regret (but his voice lived on, sort of: Richard Eyer’s voice as the genie in THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD is a dead ringer for Hunt’s). Scott McQueen provides an in-depth booklet full of restorational info, plus an eye-opening visual distillation of the labor needed to restore the film to its original glory (and truthfully, well beyond). Director/Production Designer William Cameron Menzies (1896-1957) is given his due, which includes leaving us with a fascinating question to ponder – what would the film have been like if the storyboards hadn’t disappeared the day before shooting commenced! Sure, he probably had them memorized, but the cast and crew didn’t, and time was not on their side.

Other notable personalities who praise the film and its resurrection are film directors Joe Dante (MATINEE), John Landis (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, John Sayles (BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS), Mark Goldblatt (editor of STARSHIP TROOPERS), Robert Skotak (Visual Effects for MARS ATTACKS!), and author James Curtis (Menzies biographer).


With George Pal’s THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, released several months later (August 13th 1953) the recent challenge to Paramount’s preservation department concerning Blu-release was getting rid of the wires holding up the Martian machines (check out my review of the four THE WAR OF THE WORLDS disc releases). Here it’s the zippers on the pajamas worn by the ‘mutants’ that challenged viewers to restrain themselves from laughing in the earlier releases, and the restoration has pretty much accomplished that feat. It’s not a complete rescue – the mutants’ wardrobe still remains disconcertingly silly. But it’s a tad less silly now. (And incidentally, in 1955, in Universal’s THIS ISLAND EARTH, Jeff Morrow as Exeter, a big-brained inhabitant of the distant planet Metaluna, identifies the human-sized, pants-wearing menial laboring creatures as ‘mutants,’ pronounced the same improper way (myoo-tant) as it was in INVADERS FROM MARS. I have to assume that someone involved with THIS ISLAND EARTH was paying tribute to the earlier movie.)


Inside those pajamas dwell some towering dudes. One is Lock Martin, whose arms don’t pulsate here like they did in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL while he was having a nervous breakdown inside the Gort robot suit. Even taller than Martin was Max Palmer who played another of the mutants. At 8 ft 2 in, he dwarfed Martin, who measured a nonetheless impressive 7 ft 7. Big guys, but film has a way of smoothing out aspects like height, and the giant thesps don’t really look all that tall. I remember waiting back stage one night to talk with Anthony Quinn after a show he was appearing in on Broadway. He came out, accompanied by his wife, Katherine deMille, and I was stunned to find him tall (6 ft 1) and thin. Having seen so many of his films, I was sure that he was, if not squat, then at least of less than moderate height. Not so. Celluloid chose to diminish him…in terms of height at least, and it works its contradictory charms on the Martian humanoids in INVADERS FROM MARS.


The story of INVADERS FROM MARS concerns the possible nightmarish vision of a flying saucer landing practically in a 12-year-old boy’s back yard. Panicked, he urges his loving father to investigate, and the father returns possessed by alien technology. An surgical implant in the back of his head suggests what has been done to him, and the boy sees evidence of these implants appearing all around him – his parents, his neighbors, the local gendarmes, military personnel. He’s the only one in a position to alert the authorities, but the Martians are ahead of him in their efforts to create slave labor. Finally he recruits a man and woman, scientists whose personalities are still untainted, and together they attempt to persuade unpossessed humans to take up their cause. Eventually the boy and the woman are sucked down into the Martians’ domain, (kind of like the Vietcong caves during the Vietnamese war) and she’s about to get a needle in her neck, when suddenly the tables are turned, and the kid is (not too convincingly) assured that his parents will be okay, but we (the audience) are never quite sure if this entire adventure was real, or if it was all a dream, or if (3rd option) it is repeating itself - an endless childhood nightmare version of GROUNDHOG DAY.


There are films like INVADERS FROM MARS that are aimed consciously at children of impressionable ages. Another, well regarded, is Don Coscarelli’s PHANTASM franchise (1979-1998), a perfect collection of nightmare films for 14-year-olds. I don’t like the PHANTASM franchise personally, but I can certainly appreciate its effectiveness, and its narrow target audience. Carol Reed’s THE FALLEN IDOL (1948) is another juicy flick in which a child witnesses strange goings-on in his household and has to interpret them for himself as the scenario becomes more and more sinister. Perhaps the closest film in narrative and tone to INVADERS FROM MARS is the much cherished noir THE WINDOW (1949) from a book by Cornell Woolrich, in which a boy who is given to crying wolf witnesses a murder in an apartment across from his, and soon has the murderers on his case.


Even more directly, INVADERS FROM MARS takes its place in the sub-genre collection of anti-Commie cinema that flooded the industry during the 40s and 50s, often with no real knowledge by the filmmakers that they were doing so. Check out THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (emotionless pod people replacing the citizens of a dreamy rural town), ENEMY FROM SPACE (one of the terrific Quatermass films from the UK, with basically the same peril, minus the pods. Roger Corman’s IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, again same idea, but with a riotous performance by Lee Van Cleef who has been duped into letting the aliens come down from outer space to conquer us. And it isn’t limited to sci-fi horrors. Remember HIGH NOON. That one helped get the screenwriter kicked out of the country. INVADERS FROM MARS contains a heavy dose of anti-Red subconscious paranoia. Perhaps this is one element that makes it still powerful. The belief in the paranoid subtext is quite creepy. Also this was the first sci-fi film to display anti-American fears as subtext – the idea of enemies from space taking over people in powerful positions.



The elaborate restoration of INVADERS FROM MARS was overseen by Scott McQueen. The process, and its challenges and pitfalls, are covered in length in the 20-page pamphlet authored by McQueen, as well as by the visual essay presented as one of the supplementals. Seeing a side-by-side analysis is always a staggering experience. I remember how much I enjoyed McQueen’s work on the Lon Chaney version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA back in the very early days of superior home theater. (“superior” meaning not VHS). Later we crossed paths when I was editing THE PERFECT VISION, and later yet he was at the Disney studios preserving all their film materials. And now there is this project, carefully detailed on the disc and its accompanying insert book (though regarding the red fonts used to describe the content under the illustrations I could have used an electron microscope…). He describes having to deal with ‘debris,’ ‘contaminated colors, ‘flaring’, ‘jitter’, ‘magenta hash marks’, ‘synch marks,’ ‘blue flashing,’ ‘grain softening,’ etc., all the emblems of a film sinking into irretrievable disrepair. There is always the inevitability, with a title like this, that some deterioration has gone too far to save. But fortunately such is not the case here. The restoration reclaims the original look, and then goes beyond it. At the restoration screening last year, Jimmy Hunt extolled the print as being better than the one he saw in 1953 when the film originally opened. I’m with Jimmy. The image you are seeing is something I do not believe audiences saw even in its original playdates. Is this 4K version 10% richer? 20%? That I can’t say. Is it, however, better than the original theatrical release? That I can testify to.


If Menzies wanted the film to display the luscious insanity of a nightmare, well he’s got it now.





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