Tobe Hooper’s 1986 remake of William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders From Mars (1953) is often dismissed—and almost universally ridiculed—simply since it’s a remake of a genre classic. This, however, is missing the point, since Hooper’s version isn’t simply a bastardized version of its source, but rather a loving homage to Menzies’ original. Working with a newfound financial freedom following the box-office success of Poltergeist (1982), Hooper made a big budget—yet faithful—version of a film he obviously cares about. This is visible from the affectionate tone the movie takes, and is further proved through numerous in-jokes and references to the original. (Pay close attention to the name of the elementary school in the film, or what’s found in its basement.) It’s an instance of the fan-turned-filmmaker. The cheap production values of the ‘53 Invaders are replaced with state-of-the-art ones (for 1986, at least), but the same spirit of cheesiness—mixed with an undercurrent of menace—still remains.
For the most part, the plots remain the same, as a young kid named David (here played by Hunter Carson, who, granted, can get be a bit grating at times) sees a UFO land beyond a hill behind his house. When his father (Timothy Bottoms, The Girl Next Door) goes to investigate, he comes back changed, emotionless and despondent, with a bad cut to the back of his neck. When his mother (Larain Newman) and school teacher (Louise Fletcher) end up the same way, David realizes something’s up. So with the help of the school nurse (Karen Black) and—eventually—a group of marines, it’s up to David to stop the martians who’ve taken up residence—and are taking over the minds of everyone in town—below the hill behind his house.
It’s sort of surprising that Hooper’s film wasn’t more popular, since the ‘80s—led namely by Steven Spielberg and his influence—were full of these kinds of kid-empowerment adventures. Then again, this is a stranger animal than anything Spielberg has ever made, and its no coincidence that Hooper would release his magnificently odd, idiosyncratic Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 that same year. Hooper’s version of Invaders has its own brand of playful hokiness as Menzie’s film, but it’s in an ‘80s kind of way. Despite how dated Stan Winston’s creature effects might look today (gone are guys running around unitards), they’re quaint and refreshing in a cinematic landscape dominated by CGI. But beneath this corny veneer, there’s something sinister in the way things aren’t quite right, mainly in the touches Hooper chooses to show them, like Louise Fletcher eating a bullfrog, for instance. While I can’t make an argument that this Invaders from Mars is a great film, or even the superior version, I will say that it’s a movie worth reassessing for what it is, rather than what it isn’t.