Horror Film Review: Invaders From Mars (dir by William Cameron Menzies)


The aliens have arrived!  They landed one night in the middle of a thunderstorm and now, they’re hiding underground in a sandpit.  Only David McClean (Jimmy Hunt) was awake to witness their arrival.  He was supposed to be asleep but who could sleep through all that thunder and lightning?  (Not to mention the sound of the flying saucer!)  Unfortunately, no one’s going to believe David because he’s only 12 years old!

That’s the premise at the heart of Invaders from Mars, a nicely surreal science fiction film from 1953.

In order to humor David, a few people do go to the sandpit to look for this supposed UFO.  They include his scientist father (Leif Erickson) and a few local cops.  They all return saying that they found nothing.  They also all return in a really bad mood.  David’s formerly loving and humorous father is suddenly distant and rather grumpy.  And he no longer speaks like himself.  Instead, he is now rigidly formal, like someone still getting used to speaking a new language.  Maybe it has something to do with the strange mark on the back of his neck….

David goes into town and soon discovers that several townspeople are acting just like his father.  It’s almost as if something is controlling them!  Well, what else can David do but go to the local observatory and get the U.S. Army involved!?

Invaders from Mars may be disguised as a children’s film about a flying saucer but it actually deals with some very adult issues.  What do you do when you know that you’re right but no one is willing to listen to you?  Do you stubbornly cling to what you believe or do you just become a mindless and unquestioning zombie like everyone else?  Do you remain independent or do you get the mark on your neck?  Of course, it should also be pointed out that Invaders From Mars was made at a time when people were very much worried that America was being invaded from within by communists and subversives, all of whom would rob Americans of their individual freedoms just as surely as the aliens in David’s town.  Invaders From Mars came out two years before Invasion of the Body Snatchers but they both deal with very similar issues.

What sets Invaders From Mars apart is that it’s told from a child’s point of view.  It plays out like a nightmarish fairy tale.  The film was directed by the famous production designer, William Cameron Menzies and he gives the entire film a nicely surreal look.  The town is just a little bit too perfect while the inside of the spaceship is a maze of corridors, all overseen by a ranting head in a crystal ball.

The film’s ending was probably chilling to audiences in 1953.  For modern audiences, it’s a bit of groan-inducing cliché.  Still, the ending itself makes sense when viewed in the context of the entire film.  (It’s literally the only ending that makes sense.)  Still, ending aside, Invaders From Mars is a classic sci-fi film and one well worth watching this Halloween season.

 

The Fabulous Forties #11: The Strange Woman (dir Edgar G. Ulmer)


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The eleventh film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1946’s The Strange Woman.  The Strange Woman is one of those film noir/small town melodrama hybrids that seem to have been something of a cinematic mainstay in the mid to late 40s.

The Strange Woman of the title is Jenny Hager (Hedy Lamarr) and she’s not just strange because she’s got an Eastern European accent despite having grown up in Bangor, Maine.  The film opens in 1824 and we watch as tween Jenny pushes one her classmates into a river, despite the fact that he can’t swim.  At first, she seems content to let him drown.  However, once she realizes that an adult is watching, Jenny jumps into the river and saves his life.

Ten years later, Jenny has grown up to be the most beautiful woman in Maine.  However, her father is abusive and regularly whips her as punishment for being too flirtatious.  Jenny has plans, though.  She wants to marry the richest man in town, a store owner and civic leader named Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockahrt).  Isaiah also happens to be the father of Ephraim (Louis Hayward), the young woman who Jenny tried drown at the beginning of the film.

And eventually, Jenny’s dream does come true.  She marries Isaiah, even though she doesn’t love him.  She just wants his money and is frustrated when the sickly Isaiah keeps recovering from his frequent illnesses.  She starts to flirt with the weak-willed Ephraim, trying to manipulate him into killing his father.

Of course, even as she’s manipulating Ephraim, she’s also flirting with John Everd (George Sanders), despite the fact that John is already engaged to the daughter of the local judge.  Though Everd is a good and decent guy, he still finds himself tempted by Jenny.

What makes all of this interesting is that Jenny isn’t just a heartless femme fatale.  Throughout the film, there are several instances when she wants to do good but can’t overcome her essentially heartless nature.  She gives money to charity and, whenever she listens to one of the local fire-and-brimstone preachers, she finds herself tempted to give up her manipulative ways.

The Strange Woman was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, who is probably best known for directing the ultimate indie film noir, Detour.  He was a childhood friend of Hedy Lamarr’s and she specifically asked that he direct her in The Strange Woman.  As a result, this film represents one of the few times that Ulmer was given a budget that was equal to his talents.  What makes The Strange Woman stand out from other 40s melodramas — like Guest In The House, for example — is that, even with the larger budget, Ulmer’s direction retains the same deep cynicism and dream-like intensity that distinguished his work in Detour.  The film remains sympathetic to Jenny, even as she often suffers the punishments that were demanded by the production code.

In the role of Jenny , Hedy Lamarr is a force of a nature.  She is so intense and determined that watching her as Jenny is a bit like seeing what Gone With The Wind would have been like if Scarlet O’Hara had been a total sociopath.  Even the fact that Lamarr’s accent is definitely not a Maine accent seems appropriate.  It sets Jenny apart from the boring people around her.

It reminds us that, even if she is “strange,” there is no one else like Jenny Hager.

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Horror on The Lens: The Maze (dir by William Cameron Menzies)


For today’s Horror on the Lens, we offer up The Maze, a film from 1953 that originally released in 3D.

Directed by noted set designer William Cameron Menzies, The Maze is an atmospheric haunted castle story, one that will prevent you from ever looking at a frog the same way again.  A few months ago, I watched this with my friends in the Late Night Movie Gang and we all greatly enjoyed it.

As I watched The Maze, I couldn’t help but think about some of the truly impressive hedge mazes that I made in my Sims game.  Of course, I always placed some fireworks at the end of the maze, which, unfortunately, often led to both the maze and my sims being consumed by fire.  Oh well.

Anyway, enjoy The Maze!