what i watched last week
blu-ray series #3: naked (mike leigh, 1993)

by request: invaders from mars (william cameron menzies, 1953)

Robin gets the honors here … we thought we’d watch a crappy, short sci-fi movie, and she chose Invaders from Mars.

Invaders from Mars has a special place in the memories of a certain group of baby boomers, the ones who watched sci-fi and monster movies on TV when they were growing up. Nearly everyone who saw it then can remember it now. It sticks with you. Seeing it in 2013, the flaws are far more obvious than they were when we watched it in 1963, yet it still has the power to grab us.

The movie is directed by William Cameron Menzies, who made his name in art direction and production design. He won the award for Art Direction at the very first Academy Awards in 1929, and received an honorary award from the Academy “for outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood in the production of Gone with the Wind.” He directed the occasional movie, but had a reputation as someone who didn’t work well with actors. His budget for Invaders from Mars was a little over $250,000, which explains much of what makes the movie so ridiculed. There are endless scenes of stock footage of military exercises, the special effects are cheap, the Martians look like humans in pajamas … it’s the kind of movie that gets called a “classic” to signify that it’s a piece of cheap junk that we grew up on and thus have a fondness for.

All of this is true, but it does nothing to explain the hold Invaders from Mars had and has on a viewer. Glenn Erickson, the “DVD Savant”, has written extensively on the film, and he leaves me with very little to talk about. This is definitely a case where you are better off reading his piece and skipping mine. Part one begins here.

There are two primary reasons why Invaders from Mars affects young viewers (which then carries on into their adult lives). First, the story is told from the point of view of a ten-year-old boy, which makes it easy for a youngster to identify with the events as they are told. Young David has perfect parents who suddenly turn into mean-spirited, robotic adults. He goes to the Chief of Police; the Chief has been taken over by Martians, too. For a while, it seems like the only grownups in David’s post-Martian world are those who don’t believe his fanciful tales of a saucer landing, and those whose minds have been taken over by those Martians.

More than this, it is Menzies’ remarkable production design that takes the film to another level. Here is Erickson:

Menzies appears to have put the majority of his resources into one very large, very special set, the hill leading to the Sand Pit behind David's house. It is one of the most remarkable sets ever made, for a number of reasons. A slightly curved path winds up the hill between some leafless black tree trunks, followed by a broad plank fence. Atop the hill, the blackened fence dips out of sight into the largely unseen Sand Pit beyond.

The hill is 'deceptively artificial.' On first impression it reminds of the bridge in the 1919 Cabinet of Caligari, the bridge over which Cesare the Somnambulist kidnaps his female victim. The Invaders hill appears to be a similarly flat-perspective, diorama-like design. In static shots it resembles a painted backdrop. But when an actor walks up the path, all sense of perspective goes haywire. The hill is like a 2-dimensional painting, but 3-dimensional people defy visual logic and diminish as they walk 'into' it. It's a 'reverse forced-perspective' optical illusion. George MacLean seems to get smaller than he should as he reaches the top of the hill, and it takes a lot of steps to get him there. But the trees at the rear of the set don't give the right 'perspective clues,' so it almost looks as if George MacLean is shrinking as he walks. It is a subtle effect that is more easily perceived on a large screen.

I’m telling you, it is impossible to get that “Sand Pit Hill Set” out of your mind, once you’ve seen it.

Erickson is also onto something when he mentions Caligari. Much of the way the film is shot and framed seems borrowed from German Expressionist silent films. When little David goes to the police station, the walk to the front desk is endless, the room is enormous but almost bare, and the desk itself is much bigger than David. It’s just plain odd, and when you are a ten-year-old kid in 1963, watching this thing on a black-and-white TV, you don’t know anything about German expressionism … all you know is Invaders from Mars doesn’t look like other movies you’ve seen.

It is still a cheap, flawed movie. But it is also very special. 7/10.

There are several other films you might watch, if this one appeals to you. Any of the classics of German expressionism would work (Caligari is as good as any). For another 1953 sci-fi movie about Martians invading earth, you can’t do better than The War of the Worlds (not the Spielberg version). And Invaders from Mars was remade in the mid-80s with Tobe Hooper at the helm … I haven’t seen it since it came out, but my memory is that it had a good feel for the nostalgia of the original, without actually being any good.

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