At the heart of 1950’s alien invasion movies is a sense of genuine absurdity.
In a way, Plan 9 From Outer Space is kind of the apex of this peculiar genre, because, intentionally or not, it doesn’t hide its absurdity. I think most of us know that real aliens won’t look anything like us. And we know that plant spores traveling light years in the vacuum of space only to act as vessels of mind control over whatever creatures exist on whatever planet they happen to land on are a pretty far-out scenario. But we accept the absurdity because we’re looking to experience a particular type of fantasy.
Strange Invaders recognizes the inherent absurdity of these old alien invasion movies and lovingly replicates it for an early 80’s audience.
The film was released in 1983, a year after E.T., although the movies were both in production at the same time. Unlike E.T., however, nobody watched Strange Invaders when it was released. It did terribly at the box office, which forced co-writer / director Michael Laughlin to abandon plans for a third movie in his loosely-related Strange series. (The first movie, Strange Behavior, was a kind of mad scientist flick.) Both entries in the Strange series pay homage to classic 50’s genre movies.
Laughlin had a short career as a director. He made the two Strange movies and went on to make Mesmerized, a thriller starring Jodie Foster. From there he concentrated on writing screenplays, two of which have been produced. Before the Strange films, he was a successful producer, most notably on Two-Lane Blacktop, a counterculture cult favorite starring James Taylor.
Bill Condon, the co-writer of Strange Invaders, also collaborated with Laughlin on the script for Strange Behavior. Condon and Laughlin shared a passion for old genre movies. Condon would go on to direct Gods and Monsters, about Frankenstein director James Whale. He also adapted the script for the popular broadway musical Chicago, and he directed the final two movies in the Twilight saga. It was Condon who convinced Laughlin to try his hand at directing while they were writing the Strange Behavior script.
Various reviewers and even the liner notes of the Twilight Time Blu-ray that I watched describe Strange Invaders as a combination homage and satire. I get the homage part, definitely, but Strange Invaders never really seems to poke fun at the material. If there are any spoof elements, it’s all very haphazard, so it’s really best to look at the flick as a straight tribute to genre films that were never meant to be taken too seriously in the first place.
We begin the movie with a fun little opening crawl that tells us in no uncertain terms that it’s 1958, and aliens have taken over a small town in Illinois called Centerville. Flash forward to the early 1980’s and we see professor of entomology Charles Bigelow (Paul Le Mat) on the first day of class, telling his students that studying insects will give them perspective on how man is only one small part of a very large universe (foreshadowing!). After returning to his apartment and putting beer in his dog’s water bowl, he gets a visit from his wife, who asks that he watch their daughter for a few days while she goes to her hometown of Centerville to take care of some things. Yeah. We know what’s coming. Aliens are coming.
After not hearing from his wife for a few days, Bigelow goes to Centerville to check things out. There’s something not quite right with the townspeople. They have zombie-like “nobody’s home” looks behind their eyes. They also turn people into blue orbs of light. And the occasional dog, if it annoys them enough. Goddamn aliens, right? Well, so Bigelow catches on to the whole alien thing after a while, especially after witnessing the townspeople conjure lightning to destroy his car. After Bigelow steals a car and tries to get the hell away from the town, he sees one of the aliens just walking around in overalls. Here we get the first reveal of James Cummins’ wonderful alien prosthetics. Very detailed, kind of scary, and it looks pretty convincing. Great stuff for a low-budget flick. Not too campy, but not too terrifying either.
From here Bigelow returns to New York and becomes the Man Alone, the Individual, the person who has to convince others that there really is an alien invasion afoot. Bigelow first turns to a government agent named Mrs. Benjamin (because there has to be a government agent), played by Louise Fletcher, who was nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In this brief role, she’s kind of Ratched-lite, always somewhat likeable, but steely and hard-edged. She’s always great to watch, and although her appearance in Strange Invaders doesn’t get much screen time, she immediately becomes the focal point when she’s onscreen. Fletcher’s character, Mrs. Benjamin, is ostensibly a government agent who debunks alien stories, but really she knows all about the aliens and she’s working to keep them a secret.
After he doesn’t get any help from Mrs. Benjamin, Bigelow coincidently finds a tabloid newspaper at a newsstand, a kind of stand-in for the Weekly World News, and sees a picture of one of the Centerville aliens. He seeks out the author of the accompanying article. Betty Walker (Nancy Allen) is skeptical of his story at first (she finally admits that she made the story up and the photo is from a file of pictures that various cranks have sent the newspaper), but after receiving a visit from one of the aliens herself, she becomes Bigelow’s closest ally. There’s absolutely no chemistry between Nancy Allen and Paul Le Mat, so their inevitable romance is predictable, forced, a plot device. Allen does a good job at playing the sidekick (she was a better sidekick in Robocop a few years later), but her part is pretty empty and she spends a lot of time smoking and being a screenwriter’s idea of a neurotic, frustrated writer. As a neurotic, frustrated writer, I was rather offended at the portrayal.
The movie features a brief appearance by playwright and character actor Wallace Shawn, charming as always, who serves as special effects fodder when an alien turns him into one of those blue energy orbs. (Come on, the whole blue balls thing can’t be a coincidence, right?) Maybe they could only afford Shawn for a weekend or something, but I think he would have made a better Charles Bigelow than Paul Le Mat, who’s rather stiff and sometimes verges on boring.
So, yeah, we learn that Bigelow’s wife is an alien who somehow managed to escape Centerville. That makes their child half alien. Which raises a lot of questions concerning anatomy and how the daughter ended up looking completely human instead of some mutant freak, but whatever, we’re here for the ride by this point, so it’s just going to happen, whether it makes sense or not. In the spirit of 50’s sci-fi invasion movies, you just kind of have to smile and accept the premise if you want to have any fun.
The movie tries to be funny, I suppose, but there’s really only one moment where I had a little chuckle. Mrs. Benjamin and a government cohort are made aware that Bigelow and Walker are on the run, and when it’s suggested that they might be taking a train, Mrs. Benjamin angrily snaps that no one takes a train anymore. Of course, the next shot is of Bigelow and Walker sitting on a train.
Maybe this is as it should be. Though we might laugh at the special effects or the hammy acting of 1950’s sci-fi movies, they were always very earnest in their presentation. When Strange Invaders tries to be funny, the humor usually doesn’t register. Perhaps Laughlin and Condon should have stayed away from the jokes and simply reveled in the absurdity. As it stands, more faux-earnest in tone, the more interesting Strange Invaders becomes.
At the end of the flick, we get some more really cool practical effects. An entire small town’s worth of people gather around, waiting on the Mothership (a tad reminiscent of the ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind) as their skin melts off and their alien heads are revealed once more, this time for the last time, as they board the ship that’ll take them back to their home planet.
Even though Strange Invaders was filmed at the same time as E.T., and therefore couldn’t have directly been influenced by the film, it clearly has that weird 80’s Spielbergian optimism about it. It’s got heart. It’s not a great flick, but a lot of effort was put into it, especially the visual effects. I very much admire the effort.
Strange Invaders is currently available on a limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time. The release features audio commentary with director Michael Laughlin and writer Bill Condon, as well as the original theatrical trailer and an isolated score track.