While stargazing one night, little David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt) looks up at the stars with wonder, encouraged by his loving father, a scientist. But should they be regarding the heavens with fear instead? After he has gone to bed, David is awoken by what sounds like a thunderstorm, and goes over to the window, then witnesses a glowing, green flying saucer land in the fields behind his house, disappearing into the large sandpit. He rushes into his parents' bedroom to wake them up - but will regret asking his father to investigate the area out back of their home, for he returns a changed man.
This archetypal, paranoid, alien invasion movie of the 1950s was written by Richard Blake, and directed by celebrated art designer William Cameron Menzies, one of a handful of odd, low budget films he directed during his career where he showed a better grasp of design than he did with actors, yet his visuals could be as vivid on their lower budget than anything in a would-be blockbuster. A colour counterpart to It Came from Outer Space with a more malevolent edge, this was obviously aimed at the kids of the time, with its juvenile hero who has trouble making adults believe that aliens are taking over the bodies of important people to sabotage Earth's space race, but actually has appeal to sci-fi fans of all ages.
Menzies also handled production design duties on Invaders from Mars, and his simple sets give a dreamlike quality to the film - look at the police station, which consists of a long, white corridor, an stark office and a jail cell, the word "POLICE" on a tall lamp the main indication of where we were, other than the desk sergeant. The nightmarish atmosphere is heightened by having authority figures, notably the boy's parents, turned into gruff, malevolent saboteurs; even a little girl victim burns down her own home. We know when characters have been taken over because we are treated to sinister closeups of their unfriendly faces, and in a remarkably callous development the aliens kill their hosts once they have no further use for them, including that previously sweet little girl.
The 1950s love of technology is there, but only if it's in the right hands, i.e. not in the hands of the Communists, er, I mean, Martians. Military hardware is fetishised with much stock footage of tanks and missile launchers as America rouses itself into action against its attackers - the aliens want to stop us Earthlings getting into space and taking over, you see (this situation is imminent, according to the film). Plenty of science fiction of this decade went to the well of stock footage many times too often, and Plan 9 from Outer Space has perhaps ruined the effect by setting it as ridiculous in the minds of movie buffs curious enough to check it out, but something about Invaders from Mars's desperate situation truly sells the bad dream it depicts with ingenuity on slender means.
David gets surrogate parents in the shape of a kindly doctor (Helena Carter) and a helpful astronomer (Arthur Franz) while his own mother and father are under the influence, but there's a reassuring ending where everything returns to normal... or does it? Depends which version you see: the European version wished to downplay the terrifying implications of the shorter original and cut the twist, though added an extra scene in the observatory. The 1980s remake from Tobe Hooper at Cannon had a bigger budget, but none of the hallucinatory power of the original, overthinking the bizarre purity of a premise a child could have concocted themselves, with the towering Martians in their green suits and with their bug eyes ordered around by the superintelligent head in a bowl - it looks freakier than it sounds. Music, including an unforgettably creepy, discordant choir whenever victims are sucked beneath the ground, is by Raoul Kraushaar.