Sunday, January 29, 2023

Tonight's Movie: Invaders From Mars (1953) - An Ignite Films Blu-ray Review

A newly restored print of the sci-fi classic INVADERS FROM MARS (1953) has just been released on Blu-ray and 4K UHD by Ignite Films.

The print was painstakingly restored by former UCLA Film and Television Archive preservationist Scott MacQueen from the original camera negative and master positives.

I watched INVADERS FROM MARS on the new Blu-ray, and it looks absolutely stupendous. I can also report that while I may no longer be a kid, I nonetheless found this predecessor to INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) frankly terrifying!

As the movie begins, young David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt) lives with his loving parents, George (Leif Erickson, THE HIGH CHAPARRAL) and Mary (Hillary Brooke).

David shares his scientist father's interest in astronomy -- but nothing prepares David for seeing a flying saucer land near his house one dark and stormy night!

The saucer disappears, but David tells his father where it landed and George goes to investigate; after a prolonged absence -- long enough for Mary to call the police -- George returns to the family in an angry, zombie-like state.

Later David sees his friend Kathy (Janine Perreau) disappear near where the spaceship landed, and when she later reappears she also no longer acts normally, with a creepy, vacant stare...and shortly after her return, her family home burns down.

David notices strange marks on their necks and realizes something is very wrong and it must be connected to the space ship. He struggles to get help...but it's a wild story which is hard to believe, and the brusque police chief (Bert Freed) has those odd marks on his neck too.

Fortunately a doctor (Helena Carter) and a scientist from the local observatory (Arthur Franz) do take David seriously, and soon the military is called in...

I've written here in the past about my childhood fear of sci-fi films; it didn't matter how obvious the special effects, just seeing scenes from sci-fi movies would give me nightmares.

Happily in the past decade I've gotten past that and gained a genuine appreciation for '50s sci-fi; I'm fascinated by how they fit in the atomic era of political fears and scientific discoveries, and I also appreciate that sci-film films tend to have assertive female characters with considerable agency, this film included.

That said, I still found this film particularly unsettling; the way it captures a child's waking nightmare, with initially no one for David to turn to, is sheer genius, I'm frankly surprised that I've not seen this film discussed in the past alongside the similarly themed INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS; my husband suggested perhaps INVADERS has had less attention because it's about a child and has more of a "comic book" look than the black and white BODY SNATCHERS, but I think those aspects make the film even more profound.

Director William Cameron Menzies was also the production designer, and he marries the frightening story with off-kilter visuals which seem straight out of a dream. The crooked wooden fence near the spaceship landing site looks like it's from a fairytale, and the "black and white in color" designs of the police station, with the sergeant's desk dwarfing David, made me think somewhat of Alice's dream in ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951).

The viewer becomes somewhat more comfortable once David has reassuring adults he can turn to, including Morris Ankrum's Col. Fielding along with Franz and Carter's characters, but just when one thinks everything is okay, there's a whopper of an ending -- so disturbing that foreign markets actually turned down!

It's not exactly a relaxing 78 minutes, but it's quite compelling and something all '50s sci-fi fans should see at least once. The new Blu-ray is certainly an excellent way to check it out.

I've seen child actor Jimmy Hunt in a majority of his films, with my favorites including the Joel McCrea films SADDLE TRAMP (1950) and THE LONE HAND (1953), and he does a great job. Hunt was a very natural, non-"cutesy" actor who completely sells all angles of the story, particularly his despair over seeing his parents turn into cold strangers.

I also enjoyed the chance to see Helena Carter in another film; I saw her most recently in TIME OUT OF MIND (1947) and have been trying to see all of her movies, as she was only in a baker's dozen between and 1953. This was her final movie role. She married on New Year's Even in 1953, a union which lasted until her husband's death in 1997. Carter died in Culver City in 2000.

There are a host of familiar faces in small roles, including Todd Karns (Harry Bailey in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE), Douglas Kennedy, Barbara Billingsley, John Eldredge, and Walter Sande.

The new Blu-ray does a marvelous job showing off the color photography of John F. Seitz. The accompanying booklet essay by Scott MacQueen explains the film's complicated color negative processing and the difficulties faced when restoring the film. Often preservationists can look abroad for additional prints to work with, but in this case the fact that the film which played outside the U.S. was somewhat different!

Disc extras include the alternate international ending and other footage from that edition; a restored trailer and a new 2022 trailer; a wonderful interview with Jimmy Hunt, as well as interviews with Menzies biographer James Curtis and Menzies' granddaughter; another featurette with participants including directors Joe Dante and John Landis; the 2022 TCM Classic Film Festival introduction of the movie by John Sayles; a restoration comparison; and image galleries.

Ignite has presented a beautiful restoration in a wonderful package. Anyone interested in this film should be sure to add it to their movie library.

Thanks to Ignite Films for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.


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