Some images stick with you for a lifetime: here’s one that’s been haunting me since the 1970s. The alien brain from 1953’s Invaders from Mars gave me quite the scare when I was ten, and now you can experience the same frisson of fear thanks to Pacific Film Archive’s Friday night L@te program.
Helmed by William Cameron Menzies, Invaders from Mars screens at 7:30 pm this coming Friday, May 28 in the Berkeley Art Museum’s Gallery B. Despite appearances, Menzies was no ‘B’-movie hack: his art and production design were highlights of both the 1924 and 1940 versions of The Thief of Bagdad as well as 1936’s visionary H. G. Wells adaptation Things to Come, he took home the Best Art Direction Oscar at the first Academy Awards in 1929 for The Dove and Tempest, and was awarded an honorary Oscar for his work on Gone with the Wind.
Produced at the height of America’s anti-communist hysteria, the film stars 14-year old Jimmy Hunt as David, an amateur astronomer who observes a flying saucer land over the horizon one dark and stormy night. David’s father (Alameda’s own Leif Erickson) — a scientist working on super secret government projects — investigates, but when he returns home has changed: no longer the warm, caring all-American Dad, he’s now an emotionless automaton.
Naturally, Jimmy’s mother (Hillary Brooke) doesn’t think too much of this — after all, it’s not a woman’s place to question her man, and perhaps all he needs is a fresh cup of coffee. But Dad has a strange scar at the base of his neck, and he’s just not the guy he once was.
Soon most of the neighbors — as well as Mom and Police Chief Barrows (Bert Freed) — have similar scars, and David doesn’t know whom to trust. Will child psychologist Dr. Blake (Helena Carter) or professional star-watcher Kelston (Arthur Franz) believe David’s ridiculous tale of flying saucers and alien mind control?
Shot on bare, expressionistic sets reminiscent of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and in garish Supercinecolor (with particular emphasis on ghoulish green), Invaders from Mars was a warning to youngsters regarding the lurking Red Menace. By suggesting that grown-ups and authority figures aren’t always to be trusted, however, the film (along with perhaps the most paranoia-inducing film ever made, 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers) planted seeds of doubt in impressionable pre-teen minds that would sprout into full-fledged rebellion on campuses from coast to coast a decade later.
A print of Georges Melies’ delightfully cheeky 1902 short, A Trip to the Moon, will be shown prior to the main feature. Admission for children 12 and under to the Gallery is free, so if you’re ready to expose your offspring to the concept that you might not be a wise and omnipotent God or Goddess after all, bring the whole family for a night of sci-fi fun. Just don’t be surprised when the kiddies check the back of your neck before bedtime.