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Invaders from Mars

by Glenn Erickson Dec 17, 2022

The disc of the year has finally arrived and it’s 1000% worth the wait. William Cameron Menzies’ flight into schoolboy paranoia now really looks like it ought to hang in the Louvre; the entire show is inspired Modern Art. When Martians conduct a brain-snatching takeover of Middle America little David MacLean must save the day, with an assist from an astronomer buddy and a sexy city nurse. The review is mostly concerned with how the new Ignite release looks and sounds. The rejuvenation of this fantasy masterpiece will turn fans of the 1950s sci-fi boom back into delighted ‘Gee Whiz’ kids.


Invaders from Mars
Blu-ray
Ignite Films
1953 / Color / 1:37 Academy / 81 min. / Street Date September 27, 2022 that was the plan … delivery expected . . . ? / Available from Ignite Films / 55.00
Starring: Helena Carter, Arthur Franz, Jimmy Hunt, Leif Erickson, Hillary Brooke, Morris Ankrum, Max Wagner, William Phipps, Milburn Stone, Janine Perreau, Barbara Billingsley, Peter Brocco, Richard Deacon, Bert Freed, Todd Karns, Douglas Kennedy, Lock Martin, Max Palmer, Luce Potter, Walter Sande, Robert Shayne.
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Production Designer: William Cameron Menzies
Art Director: Boris Leven
Editorial Supervisor: Arthur Roberts
Original Music: Raoul Kraushaar, Mort Glickman
Written by Richard Blake story by John Tucker Battle
Produced by Edward L. Alperson
Directed by
William Cameron Menzies

When the words Invaders from Mars are typed into the IMDB, the film that comes up first is the mostly disposable 1985 remake. This long-awaited restoration of the 1953 original will hopefully reverse that injustice. Invaders from Mars was a childhood rite of passage for sci-fi tykes a few years older than this writer. I recall seeing it in B&W on TV but definitely remember the impact it made around 1971, when it suddenly showed up ‘In Color’ in syndicated broadcast slots. We screened a very nice 16mm print in college. But later VHS, laserdisc and DVD releases were of depressingly mediocre quality.

In a special show FILMEX once presented an original trailer for Invaders from Mars, and for two minutes gave us a first-hand tease of the film’s rich greens and blues, a uniquely strange color scheme. Ignite Films has gone to great lengths to restore the show to its original specifications — no cuts, no blooped dialogue (“Start digging!”), no aftermarket ‘special edition’ revisions.

It’s of course great to see Invaders given such careful attention. The restoration had to partly source some print elements, as the vaulted original negative was incomplete. A few more years in unrestored limbo, and William Cameron Menzies’ achievement may have been irretrievably lost.

In addition to insuring the film’s future accessibility, Ignite has made an effort to please the home video market. The show is being released in three editions — DVD, Blu-ray and also in 4K Ultra HD. This first review is taken from an advance Blu-ray copy.

I wrote at length about Invaders in the 1998 essay The Ultimate Invaders from Mars so I’ll try not to cover that same ground. But it has been several years since last seeing the show, and it once again made a special impact.

My main takeaway from this viewing is a renewed respect for the film’s artistic qualities. Every image seems tapped into the comic-book mindset of its 10 year-old hero David MacLean. Its graphic compositions are clean and uncluttered. People perform before painted backdrops and simplified sets. Any more stripped down and Invaders from Mars would be minimalist, like the semi-abstract Red Garters or The Girl Hunt Ballet or even a UPA cartoon.

Director Menzies may have not been able to shoot every scene or every transition he wanted but a full story arc is definitely there in his first unit shoot. He concentrated on his set-piece visuals — he likely worked that Sand Pit Hill set for days until it met with his approval. His designs are remarkable, from the Americana home interior to the weird, oneiric Sand Pit, to the intriguing spaceship interior. The movie hits us shot by shot, very much like Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. In both films the story progression seems artistically driven, rather than an effort just to get a script ‘into the can.’  The vision is guided by something outside normal moviemaking conventions.

 


 

The Editorial Mystery

Editing is everything in this weird show. A first assembly reportedly came up short, but the methods used to pad its running time add to the movie’s strange appeal. Some shots are simply held longer. The observatory dome slowly rotates into position, an action that takes almost a minute. On his mission of assassination George MacLean runs all the way into the factory where Mr. Wilson works, a held long shot. He then runs all the way back out, no cutaways. The first montage of ‘the tanks are rolling’ stock shots burns up almost 80 seconds of screen time. Additional returns to the footage, when combined, bring the total to almost three minutes.

The editing becomes more radical as the film progresses. Is it possible that director Menzies always planned for the movie to go avant-garde, repeating shots and whole sequences of shots?  The available screenplays indicate no editorial detours and certainly not the concluding nightmare montage.

We don’t know to what degree William Cameron Menzies supervised the film’s post-production, but somebody  took a huge creative leap in the editing process. However it came about, the plan must have been to ‘make it look like a dream.’  I would bet that that the discussions in the cutting room touched frequently on fantastic films with dream dislocation effects, like   The Wizard of Oz and Dead of Night. Film theory becomes real when one must make complicated editorial decisions.

 

The same things happen ‘again only different’ in my dreams too.

The first blatantly repeated action we detect is Sgt. Rinaldi creeping up a gulley. It might actually just be a second take of Rinaldi crawling in the same part of the set. From then on, anything goes.  David escapes from a Mutant and is recaptured twice, in the very same footage. The same goes with the Mutant being shot down. It looks like they filmed the action with the infra-red tunnelling ray just once, and repeated it three times, saving the best shots for the final use. With flops and repositions, the four running Mutants seem multiplied tenfold, although most shots only do triple duty.

The strange thing is that, although we’re very aware of the repetitions, they don’t stack up as cheats, things that push us out of the movie. The music score tells us that the repeats are intentional, significant.

The climax montage is a real superimposition sandwich, combining the close-up of David’s endless running, a starfield, and groupings of themed actions: possessed people, the little device implanted into necks, people falling into the Sand Trap. At the end the montage turns back on itself, cued by a major music change. Scenes now run in reverse as the tempo slows, undo-ing the entire storyline and ‘putting the hallucination to sleep.’

Was the creator of this incredible montage the credited Editorial Supervisor, Arthur Roberts?  His credits don’t indicate anything else as distinguished. William Cameron Menzies obviously was expert in all post-production matters — could he have performed the editing personally?  Or did he induce some adventurous editor to ‘go all Eisenstein’ with the footage?  Perhaps the optical experts Irving Block and Jack Rabin contracted the genius editor who doctored Invaders into its final, very effective form.

I have no doubt that many Hollywood professionals dismissed Invaders as incompetent because it’s so unconventional. But whoever created this edit deserved some kind of special award. The lack of a screen credit means only that the Hollywood Guilds were doing their usual thing of making sure that only the work of ‘approved’ talent received official acknowledgement.

The Musical Phantasmagoria

The other element that puts Invaders from Mars over the top is its music, which is credited to Raoul Kraushaar but was apparently actually composed by Mort Glickman, who in the IMDB exists mostly as ‘composer stock music uncredited.’ Everyone applauds the eerie choral effects for the operation of the Martian Sand Trap; it’s one of the more creative musical effects of its kind. It begins as part of the eccentric music score, and is then acknowledged as a diegetic sound that David MacLean says he can hear.

The Martian war theme behind the main titles doesn’t return until the battle begins. Before then the busy, frequently-shifting score changes themes and tone so often, we wonder if it’s supporting the narrative or freely improvising around it. It’s so eccentric, we barely mind when the stock footage scenes jump into several irony-free stanzas of ‘The Caissons Go Rolling Along.’

 

The score makes a special point of quoting isolated pieces of Holst’s ‘The Planets’, as when we first meet the possessed Kathy Wilson. The finale mimics the end of ‘The Planets’ with an eerie Dream Theme, that seemingly rocks the movie to sleep behind the end title card.  Earlier on the music score goes nuts for the main underground battle. It never settles on a a set cadence or tone for more than a few seconds. It jumps back and forth, repeating the driving war theme. In addition to giving the disconnected action and repeated stock shots a strong forward momentum, the score multiplies the suspense. The bomb countdown is stretched-out by a strange, dream-logic time warp. The music and the sound effects are orchestrated as a single unit. The ticking of the bomb alternates with an engine’s roar as the flying saucer breaks free of the sand pit.

The Kraushaar-Glickman music for Invaders raises the tension as if tightening a rubber band; it’s likely that it drove theaters full of little kids into a panic. It’s a shame that it doesn’t seem to exist as an isolated music track. When not connected to the images and the sound effects track, would it sound like disorganized nonsense?  I’ve always found it psychologically unnerving.

John Tucker Battle’s 1950 screenplay also concludes with a last-minute escape from the underground tunnels.  But the defenders overwhelm the Martians and the spaceship doesn’t take off. A lot of ‘wrap up’ dialogue follows, with David’s aunt on hand to tell him his parents are safe, etc.. From his window, David doesn’t see his dream ‘beginning again.’  Instead, a second spaceship arrives to rescue the Martian Intelligence, still in its plastic bubble.

I wonder if Robert Skotak has the answers to any of these questions. Should we assume that the rewrites and revisions invented the ‘all a dream’ time structure, or is it possible that that entire construction was created in post-production?

The destruction of narrative logic liberates Dream Logic.

In any case, we still feel that Invaders is an unique ‘experimental’ picture . . .  if the film were edited with a literal narrative approach, it would play as incoherent nonsense. The elaborate montage finale is not ‘padding’ but the film’s emotional climax. Without it the wrap-up would resolve much too quickly. We wouldn’t want Invaders’ weirdly awkward elements to be different — the pacing of all those ‘running through tunnels’ shots becomes hypnotic. Because everything we see is warped by the boy hero’s subjective imagination, all the non-sequiturs and disjointed dialogues make perfect psychological sense.

 


 

Ignite Films’ Blu-ray of Invaders from Mars is just what we wanted, a top-tier restoration of a film long neglected. It is technically a ‘film rescue,’ but one much too accomplished to be compared to restorations that only ‘Do Their Best.’ The majority of the show is crystal clear, richly colored and finely detailed. All of the material that’s mastered from original negative — shots that were not opticals — are splendid — rock stable, finely textured with natural grain. The fundamental graphic clarity of Menzies’ compositions all but jumps out at us.

None of the optical negative for Invaders could be located and it is presumed lost.  Shots linked to dissolves and special effects opticals are of slightly lesser quality. The difference is negligible, as digital tools have been used to match them to the O.N. sections. All the duplicated shots are opticals as well, of course. Shots of running mutants were re-purposed at least once, and sometimes three times, flopped and repositioned.

The review disc is a Blu-ray; it looks and sounds extremely good. The night scenes have that dark greenish-blue quality that we’ve seen nowhere else, but is ideally suited to this weird subject matter.

As mentioned above, the carefully restored audio makes a great difference too.  The opening martial theme really slams in — putting kids in the 1953 matinees on notice that they were Going to War.  The ever-shifting music track imparts the sensation of a fever dream, when one’s thoughts just won’t stay calm.

Invaders has been seen in compromised quality ever since the original run of CineColor prints went out of circulation in the late 1950s. The 16mm prints weren’t bad, but the home video releases had serious problems. A 1992 laserdisc had the appearance of a color Xerox. It tried to hide giant scratches by superimposing still frames over parts of the frame. Two DVDs were released, a terrible transfer when the format was brand new, and a follow-up DVD from 2002.

 

As the owner of a sizable film library of exploitable film titles, Ignite Films’ Jan Willem Jansen could have simply ordered up another quick transfer of the best print available and then applied a superficial digital Fix-It to the worst sections. We’ve certainly seen that done before, usually with a proud announcement that ‘the best possible’ effort has been made.

Jansen instead decided to start his own Blu-ray label to handle the release. As he personally believed in Invaders as a worthy item for major digital rebirth, he engaged Scott MacQueen, the newly-retired head of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, to take on the difficult job. In essence it meant combining the perfect original negative with scans from the best prints from an archive search. A break came when a print in exceptionally good condition was located at the Eastman House archive, one owned by a private collector.

The Ignite people have organized a comprehensive selection of extra video items. The alternate ending and the foreign expanded observatory sequence are present, as are Ignite’s internet promos and the original trailer, restored. That trailer is indeed sensationally good; it would make any kid a fanatic about seeing the movie. A photo and advertising art gallery is present as well.

Jeremy Alter produced and directed some of the video extras. Biographer James Curtis tells the story of designer-director William Cameron Menzies, and introduces Menzies’ granddaughter Pamela Lauesen to share memories of the man. Actor Jimmy Hunt is on hand to talk about being a child actor, the hard work of making the movie and his decision at 14 to leave show business. I was remiss above — the design, editing and music wouldn’t add up to beans if not for Mr. Hunt’s terrific performance. I don’t know another child actor who could have played David MacLean without becoming intolerably obnoxious after a few minutes.

Restoration supervisor Scott MacQueen does due diligence, taking us through several minutes of scan-comparisons that demonstrate the quality of the material he worked with, and describing the processes used to bring it back up to snuff. Looking at some of the raw scans, we wonder how any of it could be restored. The footage has strange color flares and blues that ‘bloom’ where there should be only black.

 

The final video item Terror from Above is a discussion of the film’s impact and legacy by notables that remember seeing it on a screen when they were young — Joe Dante, John Landis, editor Mark Goldblatt. Visual effects artist Robert Skotak adds his thoughts, but somebody needs to publish him!  He’s collected insights on the science fiction genre gleaned from years of interviews and outside research. He explains how the Tobe Hooper Invaders from Mars remake came about — Edward Alperson Jr. got Skotak to work up various concept sketches.

An insert booklet allows Scott MacQueen to explain the restoration in more detail. His 5,000-word article touches upon the production before getting serious with the specifics of  SuperCineColor. We thought it was some kind of money-saving shortcut. No, as it turns out, the crazy color process was more complicated than Technicolor.

MacQueen recently oversaw the restorations of the 90 year-old 2-color Technicolor horror fantasies Doctor X and The Mystery of the Wax Museum, another daunting challenge with different problems to overcome. Reconstituting and refurbishing the images for Invaders from Mars was no easy task, so it’s fortunate that someone of MacQueen’s knowledge and experience was in charge.

Ignite’s box says 73 minutes, but the encoded movie is the full 78-minute feature. We’re told that a 4K Ultra HD disc will follow soon — when it arrives we’ll amend this review or put out an addendum.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Invaders from Mars
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Interviews with star Jimmy Hunt, William Cameron Menzies’ biographer James Curtis and recollections of Menzies’ eldest granddaughter Pamela Lauesen.
Featurette with directors John Landis, Joe Dante, editor Mark Goldblatt, special visual effects artist Robert Skotak, and film preservationist Scott MacQueen
John Sayles’ introduction at the TCM Fest in Hollywood, April 2022
Film restoration comparison with film restoration supervisor Scott MacQueen
Restored segments in 2K of the Alternate International Version — alternate ending and extended Planetarium scene
Restored 4K original 1953 trailer
2022 release promo trailer
Image gallery with original Press Book pages, photos of the restoration process
20-page insert pamphlet with an essay by Scott MacQueen, Invaders From Mars: A Nightmare of Restoration.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
September December 16, 2022
(6800mars)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.