In this remake of the 1953 sci-fi classic, young David Gardner (Hunter Carson) spies a UFO land and burrow beneath the sandpit behind his house. The next morning his beloved Dad (Timothy Bottoms) starts behaving strangely and after a walk in the sand dunes, Mom (Laraine Newman) is also possessed by alien invaders, whose sole trace is mark left on the back of victims’ necks. Pretty soon, the whole town is under Martian control, from the local police force (including original child star Jimmy Hunt) to David’s stern science teacher (Louise Fletcher). Aided by his sympathetic school nurse (Karen Black), David races against time to foil the Martian plot.
Just as this decade was inundated with Seventies horror remakes, the 1980s were an era where baby boomers re-imagined the science fiction movies of the Fifties as big-budget blockbusters juiced up with whiz-bang visual effects. Some were worthy successors, e.g. The Thing (1982) or The Fly (1986), while others were not so lucky. Production on Invaders From Mars was instigated by Wade Williams III, the millionaire exhibitor and sci-fi fan who bought the rights to the original in 1978, but the real force behind the remake were our old friends, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, in their latest attempt to turn Cannon Films into a major studio. Working with the same team behind their recent debacle Lifeforce (1985) - director Tobe Hooper, screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby and visual effects supervisor/2nd unit director John Dykstra, plus Stan Winston on monster duties - Golan and Globus yet again managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
While the original plays like every child’s worst nightmare, Hooper over-eggs the horrific undertones without keying them to the anxieties of a new decade. Louise Fletcher swallows a juicy frog and drives a van seemingly furnished by Leatherface. Stan Winston’s elaborate monster effects are outstanding (bulbous laser-blasting quadrupeds with gaping jaws, and a supreme intelligence brain with a face) and almost Lovecraftian in nightmarish intensity. And in place of the original jokey ending, Hooper concludes with an unsettling freeze-frame on David’s screaming face. All of which suggests this is a children’s movie from people who really didn’t want to make one.
Certainly Hooper fails to draw an engaging performance from child lead Hunter Carson, the real-life son of Karen Black and screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson, who won acclaim for his role in Paris, Texas (1984). David Gardner comes across as another of those Eighties kids concocted by screenwriters who either don’t like or don’t know how to write children, or else genuinely find foul-mouthed, smart aleck brats amusing. They’re everywhere in Eighties cinema, with producers chasing the big bucks raked in by E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982) yet clueless how do it with grace. Strangely, where Menzies was forced to tack on the cop-out ending and pad his film with military stock footage, Hooper restages both flaws. There are in-jokes aplenty, from David watching Lifeforce on television to a cameo from the original Supreme Martian Intelligence as a Christmas ornament in the school basement (!), but the tone veers from silly (especially Fletcher’s prim schoolmarm chasing David down the road, arms flapping inanely) to nasty. Still, it’s worth a chuckle when the Martians gobble up David’s least favourite teacher with a great gurgling laugh.