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Insomniac Cult Movie Theater: Invaders from Mars & The Monster that Challenged the World

Hey, gang! Do you know what time it is? No, seriously, I mean do you know what time it is?!? It’s like 3 in the morning. I gotta be up in another 4 hours to put the kids on the bus and start my Clark Kent style job that I do to keep the lights on here at the Stratosphere Lounge.

And yet, I’m not blissfully enjoying the benefits of slumber-land. Instead I can’t sleep, and I find myself once again writing some reviews of a double feature of semi forgotten science fiction films from Hollywood’s years gone by. But once again, my pain is your gain, as you all get a decent movie review blog out of my lack of proper sleep hygiene. So sit back, pull up a pillow, and enjoy yours truly as we dissect two more monster style movies from the 1950s.


Invaders from Mars

Background:

Invaders from Mars is a 1953 indie film made American directed by William Cameron Menzies. Other than being the director for the H.G. Wells adaption of “Things to Come” (which I might do on a future one of these movie reviews the next time I can’t sleep), Menzies also worked as production/art director on the world famous movie Gone with the Wind. In fact, despite Victor Fleming given main director credit for the film, it was actually Menzies that directed the famous “Burning of Atlanta” sequence in the film. Yup, you learn something new every day here at GotS!

Anyways, It was based on a story treatment by John Tucker Battle, who was inspired to write the story based on a dream his wife once had (which is a pretty relevant detail as we’ll see later). The film was rushed into production to show in theaters before George Pal’s War of the Worlds adaptation, in order to become the first feature film to show aliens and their spacecraft in color.

It’s now part of a subsection of 50s Sci-Fi films which can be watched as allegories for the Red Scare that was prevalent in the US during this decade, similar to the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the original non John Carpenter version of The Thing.

One night, a kid named David MacLean is awakened by something that seems like a loud thunderstorm. Looking out of his window to investigate, he sees a large flying saucer descend and disappear into the sandpit area behind his home. After telling his parents, his scientist father goes to investigate the sandpit, but doesn’t return for hours. After the police are called, his father returns with the police, but all of them are now behaving in a harsh and cruel manner. Soon after, others start disappearing into the sandpit, like David’s schoolmate, Kathy, the chief of police, and most horribly, his own mother! They are all being captured and then mind controlled by the aliens!

Desperate to get someone to believe him about the threat the sandpit poses, David flees to the police station for help and eventually finds a sympathetic ear with a physician named Pat Blake and a local astronomer named Stuart Kelston. Together the three work out that the flying saucer is likely the first ship in a planned invasion from the planet Mars.

Dr. Kelston uses his contacts at the U.S. Army to  immediately start investigating the situation under the command of Colonel Fielding. After a plot to destroy one of our experimental rocket ships by humans being controlled by the martians is thwarted, the Army surrounds the sandpit and starts searching for the underground spaceship.

However, David and Dr. Blake are sucked into the sandpit and are taken by huge green humanoids called “The Mutates” to their master, a green giant head with arm-tentacles who is mind controlling both all of the captured humans and these mutates. Dr. Blake is then strapped to a table to have the mind control crystal implanted in her brain like all the rest, when the army comes bursting into the rescue. The Mutates flee with their octopus like master allowing the soldiers to set up explosives to destroy the spaceship.

As the spaceship explodes, David wakes up to the sound of distant thunder. He’s back in bed with the same thunderstorm raging outside. It was all a dream he thinks, until he looks out his window to see the same saucer landing in the same sandpit…starting the nightmare all over again.

2am Thoughts and Reflections:

I’m extremely torn about this movie. Honestly, I remember first reading about this movie in the 3rd grade as part of “10 Great Sci-Fi movies for Kids” book I had, so I somewhat pumped to finally watch it. And yes, part of my brain says that the filmmaker definitely tried some interesting things in this film in terms of pacing, shot selection and design, cinematography, and even some of the special effects although primitive by today’s standards are pretty damn good especially when you take into account they were done without CGI.

For example, the Martian heat-ray effect showing the bubbling, melting walls of the underground tunnels was created by shooting a large tub of boiling oatmeal from above, colored red with food coloring and lit with red lights. Talk about using your imagination. Those are special effects I can get behind! Bravo for originality!

However, the other half of my brain, says this is no better than a MST3k flick. A mediocre B movie that has like 15 to 20 minutes of padded stock footage of tanks being assembled or transported or rolling through fields whatever which was unbearable to sit through at times. The acting is some what corny, the dialogue stilted, and all this fuss is made over a spaceship in a sandpit. Sincerely, it seems like they rolled out the entire US Marine Corp to deal with people randomly disappearing off screen after walking past a fence.

And the stupidest thing of all, once the Army shows up and they know about the threat, why are people still walking on the sandpit one at a time?!? What isn’t an entire platoon marching out there? I mean they spend a ton of time searching for the opening to the spaceship under the sandpit, why not just walk a god damn division out there and hope the Martians are dumb enough to swallow them all up whole. Then you have like 30 troops down there and the spaceship is as good as found. Done! Everyone break for sandwiches!

And I still don’t understand why the Martians kidnapped the young girl, Kathy, to burn her own house down. Yes, I know they wanted to actually kill her father who was a scientist working on the rocket ship . Yes, I know they really wanted him dead since they sent little David’s parents out to his lab later to assassinate him like it was “Three Days of the Condor”, but the dude wasn’t even home at the time his house was burnt. So the Martians are just into wanton vandalism and cheap pyrotechnic thrills…Sheesh!

Yeah, I think I need an entire grade section to figure out things…although I have a pretty good idea where I’m going with this….

Final Grade: C+

It was a god send in the end that this entire movie ended up being a dream cooked up by David. Mainly because it gave me a way out in terms of my grade as otherwise the endless parade of meaningless tank stock footage parts would have dumped this into the “D” clunker range.

This whole movie is just a fever dream cooked up in the brain of a 10 year old kid between 4am and 5:30am. A film adaptation of someone’s REM cycle, in which all of that mismatched collection of thoughts, hopes, fears, and everyday nonsense is compiled into some sort of loose story so that our brains can do that magic in terms of sorting the endless stream of data in our consciousnesses.

It makes even less sense because it’s the fears and hopes of a 10 year old from the 50s, hopped up on 10 cent comics and Cold War fears about the Russians abducting everyone we love and turning them into evil monsters…even our parents! It’s got weird faceless aliens worshiping an octopus who can mind control anyone, cricked fences lining abandoned sandlots that suck people in the horrid underworld, and long elongated angles on all the police station walls. Hell at one point one of the doctors mentions they are taking David away because he has polio, and another kid straight up dies randomly from a cerebral hemorrhage! This is straight up a visual representation of a kids worst nightmares what with monsters, inexplicable sickness, and worse of all your nice parents suddenly becoming heartless criminals who stopped loving you.

And from that perspective, it’s actually not all bad. I even don’t mind the ending where it seems like the movie is repeating itself as David wakes up and sees the flying saucer land in the middle of the sandpit again, like one of those nightmares you can’t seem to wake up from. I’ve had them, you’ve had them. It’s like you think you woke up, you get out of bed and start doing normal things, but then you realize you are still dreaming, and you try again to wake up but again you just wake up in the dream like some terrible never ending Möbius strip.

God, I hate those dreams. Those are my real nightmares.


The Monster that Challenged the World

Background:

This 1957 monster flick is another movie that remember reading about from my childhood. Specifically, I used to page through old copies of my older brother’s StarLog magazines from the early 80s just because they would have articles on Star Wars, and I remember they did a recap of this film as one of their “blasts from the past” or whatever they actually called it. I remember thinking the big giant bug monster did look pretty scary so it must have stuck with me all these years.

It was written by David Duncan, who also wrote the screenplays for other memorable science fiction like Fantastic Voyage and one of my personal favorites, the adaptation of H.G. Well’s Time Machine. However, other than that little note, there’s not much else to say about the cast or crew except for the main male protagonist is played by Tim Holt, who is most well known for his role as Bob Curtin playing against Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs in John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but he also had a role in Orson Welles’ infamous second film, The Magnificent Ambersons.

In terms of a plot, there’s not much here, or at least a lot less than with Invaders from Mars to be honest. After an underwater earthquake  causes lost underground cavern to open in the depths of the Salton Sea (a salt water rift lake located directly on the San Andreas Fault), several Navy personnel stationed at a base nearby and civilians in and around the area of Sea begin to disappear.

Lt. Cmdr. John “Twill” Twillinger (Tim Holt) begins an official Naval investigation after suspicious radioactive slime is discovered on one of the boats were some of the sailors disappeared.  After some of those sailors’ bodies are eventually recovered with all of their blood and water drained from their bodies, Twill orders the use of Navy divers to comb the Sea floor for the cause. It’s there that they discover a giant mollusk centipede type creature guarding a cache of giant eggs. The monster attacks both the divers and the boat, but Twill manages to stab it in the eye with a grappling hook driving it off.

The Navy does manage to take one of it’s eggs back to their lab for study, and it’s there that they make a startling discovery: There are tons of these creatures in the lake and if they get to a nearby irrigation canal, they could escape into the Gulf of Mexico and start populating the entire ocean. An even more disturbing discovery happens after they receive word that the creatures are attacking livestock and other people on land, that they are able to live outside the water.

To stop the threat, the Navy sends  divers locate the group of mollusks that have moved into the canal system, and use explosives to destroy them. The final mollusk monster then hatches from the egg they brought back to the lab, and Twill kills it with some of the lab chemicals handy, thus ending the threat once and for all.

2am Thoughts and Reflections:

Awww…there’s a sweet little girl in this movie talking about her lady bug. I gotta say that tugs at the old heart strings for this particular proud papa. She reminds me a bit of the way Johanna talks to me at times, but I guess that’s all little girls. Universally charming and cute as a button.

The monster is definitely not something I’d want to find creeping around on my beaches for sure. I don’t know what it is about bug based monsters and our fascination with being scared by them. I think other than snakes, bugs are pretty much the standard basis for all of our more horrific creatures that terrorize our movie screens.

Now, I don’t mean that we all have Entomophobia (also known as insectophobia) which is a specific phobia characterized by an excessive or unrealistic fear of one or more classes of insect, but c’mon I feel like everyone here has had that moment, when you get the heebee jeebees and say “Yuck, I can feel it crawling on me…get it off!”. It’s pretty universal. Starship Troopers, Them!, The Fly, Mimic, the Mist, Tremors, these are just a few other movies with bugs as baddies. 

The worst thing is, it’s not exactly a bug is it. It’s a giant mollusk, like a crab, or lobster or something like that. In other words, seafood!

I love me some seafood, and I’ve eaten all kinds of mollusks before, from muscles to oysters, so I would have probably eaten this monster too? Like pan fried in butter? Weird to think, we are disgusted by the thought of eating bugs, but we happily eat their seaborne cousins. Yup, nothing creepy about a lobster, that shit is just delicious!

Final Grade: C-

At the end of the day, this movie isn’t terrible per say. The monster is pretty convincing, the slow burn up to its reveal is handled well, and the threat seems credible as in the actors handle things with a sense of realism that we sometimes don’t see in other monster movies.

The issue though is, it’s nothing new that we haven’t seen a thousand times before in other monster movies. At least with Invaders from Mars, there was this sense of originality that seemed to permeate that film that you don’t get with this one.

This is almost by the numbers in terms of an ancient threat from humanity’s dim past meeting the power of the atomic age, and creating a horrible hybrid capable of our destruction. As a result, it left me feeling pretty bored. Meh…I’m glad I watched Invaders first in this double feature, because surely this monster didn’t challenge my need to finally get some sleep.

So with that I’ll say, until next time I have horrible crippling insomnia, good night everyone! Hope you all have sweet dreams.


 

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