Haunted Honeymoon

Film Review: Strange Invaders (1983)

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SYNOPSIS:

Charlie’s ex-wife disappears, and he travels to where she grew up–a rural town in the Midwest–to look for her. But, surprisingly, nobody knows about her or any of her many relatives, the Newmans. He meets aliens; but when he contacts the FBI, they don’t believe him. He tells his story to a tabloid; and suddenly, he is chased by the aliens.

REVIEW:

Director: Michael Laughlin
Starring: Paul Le Mat, Nancy Allen and Diana Scarwid

Ignorance can be a wonderful thing, and this is certainly true in the case of Strange Invaders. A little rudimentary research on the film would reveal that the director, Michael Laughlin, intended the film to be read as a spoof of the sci-fi movies of the 1950s and not a straight science fiction horror show.
With that in mind, the numerous problems the film suffers from could easily be chalked up to ‘but it’s supposed to be bad!’ reasoning and get a free ride because of that.

strange_invaders-1983-movie-film-6Thus, my job of summarizing Strange Invaders in terms of quality becomes a far more interesting challenge.

The film it riffs off more than any other is Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Charles Bigelow, played by a very blunt and uncomplicated Paul Le Mat, learns that his ex wife Margaret has gone missing in her hometown of Centerville. Leaving their daughter in good care, he goes in search of her, only to find the townsfolk are not quite what they seem…

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This of course leads into some alien carnage, UFOs and government intervention. It has to be noted that the special effects here have that wonderful 80s charm about them that is lost in CGI of the 90s. If nothing else, the film is worth watching for this, as there are plenty of intricate prosthetics, some delightfully cheesy computer graphics and a truly magnificent alien reveal in a bathroom stall.

It’s all quite familiar and predictable territory with these creature feature movies, and it hits many of the right notes. There are one or two distinctly 80s moments that kick it up a notch, such as one of the aliens in disguise playing a StarGate Arcade Machine and winning flawlessly. The central problem with the film, however, is that it is massively schizophrenic in multiple regards, and you can never tell when these panic attacks are going to strike.
For starters, Laughlin seems to enjoy tossing a swift flurry of camera cuts in unexpected places. Scenes which would clearly benefit from a relaxed pace are wild and frantic affairs, for reasons unexplained.

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It smacks of the auteur, with Laughlin throwing some of his artistic vision where it simply doesn’t belong. In a bizarre scene, the implication appears to be that Charles is sharing a psychic link with his dog, or is at least in possession of some sort of spidey (doggy?) sense, when really all that is presumably being insinuated is that he is feeling a little unsettled by the foreboding and deserted town.

As the film progresses, his skills seem to drastically seesaw back and forth. His artistic integrity becomes almost admiral in its subtlety, whereas his basic grasp of character development is left crippled. A blossoming romance between Charles and a tabloid journalist, Betty, is wedged into the narrative, like a size 14 foot into a small ladies glove. Dialogue is contrived and doesn’t even have the privilege of being hilariously cheesy, just wooden and badly written.

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In a head-in-hands cringe-worthy moment, Betty’s home is infiltrated by an alien disguised as a sales-woman. As events unfold, Betty becomes suspicious, but doesn’t let on. Until, of course, she begins voicing her every thought in some truly horrendous exposition. You can almost see the concept artist asking “Now, is this a speech or thought bubble?” and then just making a wild stab at it when all he receives is a shrug in reply.

Yet, while all of this is going on, Laughlin is playing about in the shadows. The occasional signpost in the background hints at someone with an agenda rather than just floundering about.

What’s particularly interesting is how many of the alien invasion movies of the 1950s were so paranoid in regard to foreign agents from other countries, particularly Russia during the Cold War era. In Strange Invaders, however, the aliens are far more sympathetic, depicted as largely ambiguous rather than flat out threatening.

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This is explored further with the hints Laughlin leaves dotted about the film. A newspaper article about improper conditions in Moscow, and a poster promoting an Alliance on World Hunger… Coupled with the fact that the government is referred to as ‘The Government’, with capital letters, and depicted as quite cold and calculating, there is much to suggest an alternatively warm reading of these strange invaders.

Diana Scarwid was slated for her depiction of Margaret, being awarded a Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress. This criticism is largely unjustified however, considering A) her blank and emotionless dialogue is largely suited to her character and B) the rest of the cast don’t fare much better. Only Nancy Allen, who depicts Betty, gets any good out of the material she is given, but it is a testament to the films schizophrenic nature that she is also given many of the worst lines.

So many of these problems could, repeat, could be chalked up to the film being a parody, but this just doesn’t ring true. The mistakes are too scattered, too many and in some cases, simply too bizarre for it to be part of the grand scheme of things. On more than one occasion, a character will walk into a building during the day, have a brief exchange with another character, and walk back outside into the dark of night.
Is this part of the spoof process?
Is it a reference to the disorganized nature of B-movies?
And if so, why is it the only reference, when the rest of the film plays it straight?

What exactly is the joke here?

If indeed this film aims to spoof the 50s sci-fi genre, we shouldn’t have to constantly second guess ourselves as to what’s a joke and what’s not.
Strange Invaders is a spoof for the sake of convenience, a useful cover-up for some unwise directorial choices that could theoretically be backed up by some incidentally smart artistic choices.

Yet, despite this, there is still merit in the film as a whole. It has its charms in special effects, and the plot is not totally unoriginal. The style and form may be utterly haywire, but there is enough here to merit a viewing and to genuinely entertain audiences right up to the strangely endearing ending.

Strange Invaders (1983)

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2 Responses to Film Review: Strange Invaders (1983)

  1. Terrific review, with some nice insights. I’m sure it always intended to be a homage, if not straight-out parody, reflected by the cast: Kenneth Tobey (The Thing), June Lockhart & Mark Goddard (Lost In Space), Louise Fletcher (after winning the Oscar for Cuckoo’s Nest, became the darling of B-graders in Exorcist II, Brainstorm, Mama Dracula and the Strange Invaders prequel Strange Behaviour). Also worthy of note is future Pixar writer Oscar-winner Joel Cohen, who would later go on to direct Monster Mash The Movie. Coincidentally, also appearing in Strange Invaders, is Bobby Boris Pickett, the originator of The Monster Mash. There’s also Pixar favourite Wallace Shawn who, like Louise Fletcher, would go on to dominate the cast of Star Trek Deep Space Nine.

  2. Victor De Leon says:

    I love this movie. Such a hokey but charming sci fi homage. You made some very interesting points especially about the somewhat iffy schizophrenic nature of the whole affair but that is part of it’s appeal I suppose. You make some very astute observations, Stephen. This was a fun read. Good job !

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