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DVD SAVANT

Invaders FROM
MARS


Invaders from Mars
Image Entertainment
1953 / Color / 1:37 flat / 78 min. / 50th Anniversary Special Edition / Street Date December 3, 2002 / $24.99
Starring Jimmy Hunt, Helena Carter, Arthur Franz, Morris Ankrum, Leif Erickson, Hillary Brooke, Max Wagner, Milburn Stone, Walter Sande, Bert Freed, Douglas Kennedy, Janine Perreau, William Phipps
Cinematography John F. Seitz
Art Direction Boris Leven
Set Decoration Edward G. Boyle
Special Effects Jack Cosgrove, Irving Block, Howard Lydecker, Jack Rabin
Film Editor Arthur Roberts
Original Music Raoul Kraushaar
Written by Richard Blake, story by John Tucker Battle
Produced by Edward L. Alperson
Production Designed and Directed by William Cameron Menzies

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

One of the best science fiction movies, and one of the most imaginative fantasies ever to light up a screen, the original Invaders from Mars has delighted viewers for 50 years, and this 50th Anniversary Edition is an imperfect but nonetheless stunning rendition. Savant made William Cameron Menzies' color thriller the subject of a major two-part article back in 1999, accessible here or through Savant's Article Index. It's the place to go for the in-depth goods on this movie; this review will stick mostly to the merits of the new Image DVD release.

Other reviewers have given this release a negative appraisal. If I'm biased, it's not because I like the company or anything - I'm usually not kind to Wade Williams - but because the somewhat flawed transfer presents the film in a form where the qualities I wrote about in the other article can finally be appreciated. And also, as Mr. Williams' transfer note implies, this may be the best surviving element anywhere in the world.

Synopsis:

David Maclean (Jimmy Hunt) sees a flying saucer land behind his house. His father (Leif Erickson) investigates and returns with a different personality and a strange mark on his neck. David sees little Kathy Wilson (Janine Perreau) disappear into the earth on the strange hill, and goes to town for help, while his father takes first his mother (Hillary Brooke), the police chief (Bert Freed) and then a general up the forbidding hill. They're all turned into mindless puppets controlled by a Martian invader (Luce Potter), robot-agents to be sent on sabotage and assassination missions. But David has three friends, astronomer Stuart Kelston (Arthur Franz), Colonel Fielding (Morris Ankrum) and health services doctor Pat Blake (Helena Carter), to help him stem the Martian invasion.

Seeing this copy of Invaders from Mars, I realized finally the movie it should be compared to: Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter. Both have that kind of primitive directness that places purity before slickness. Both seem to be naive, yet are sophisticated. And both use jarring overstatement as an aesthetic tool - blasts of music over the Police Chief's closeup (Mars) and a thundering train (Hunter), are both used to portend menace. Unfortunately, Mars still has those really rough edges, the stock footage especially, that will continue to lead many to conclude that it's just plain incompetent.


As covered in the older article I'm urging you to read, Invaders from Mars is one of those independent films from the early 50s that has barely survived, in this case due to popularity, a screwy original color release format (CineColor), and the fact that its elements weren't stored by a major with a decent vaulting system.

Wade Williams has assumed some set of rights over Invaders from Mars; he's released it on video and once before on DVD (early 1998) on the UAV label. It was a terrible disc, with bad, smeary color, cropped framing, muddy audio, the works. Not only that, but it was Williams' bowdlerized 1977 recut, that dropped dialog lines and partially edited-in some material from the altered English release.

Before that was the engrossing but disappointing Image laserdisc from 1992. Its extras were phenomenal, including reams of ad materials including a comic strip adaptation and full pressbooks from several countries, plus text extras that explained a lot of details. But the laser transfer was a mess, a patchwork of good, iffy, and just plain awful-quality material. Some of it looked like color photocopies, it was so poor. Some scenes had terrible damage. Sloppy mattes were used to try to hide severe scratches in the Dr. Wilson lab scene.

In the booklet that comes with the new disc is a not-particularly-clear explanation called 'Negative History' , written by Williams. It says (I think) that the original negative for the film was sent to England in 1954 to make the English version, and CineColor only made b&w 16mm print negatives for television use here. This chronology would explain, as I reported in my original articles, why Invaders from Mars didn't reappear in color on American television until the late 60s, when new printing elements were made (according to Williams) from surviving CineColor prints. Williams proudly says that 35mm negs are stored safely away, but we have to assume he's referring to the ones made from the CineColor print (or am I reading him correctly?).

Invaders from Mars on the new disc has good color, approximating the dark, not-quite-true hues of the original prints. Contrast is excellent, framing excellent. The picture is mostly steady on screen, with only a couple of shots jumping slightly. The main titles are the least steady part of the show. The image is reasonably sharp, and the encoding for DVD is good. I think this is the first time we've seen it from an intact 35mm element.

The drawback appears to be a lot of scratches, probably associated with that original CineColor print. They look like positive scratches, with the worst revealing lighter tones. There are a lot of them, just enough to be moderately distracting in some scenes. A scratch runs right through the main titles, but most scenes are not so distinctly marred. Also, there's no denying that there are lots of other image flaws that beg to be cleaned up digitally - rough changeover cues, digs, ink marks show up here and there.

I have watched Invaders from Mars perhaps 50 times through the years in a variety of poor-to-wretched prints. This DVD gets my seal of approval. Despite the flaws, for the first time the film looks as it is supposed to. It's intact - no splices, missing frames, or interrupted dialogue. The picture quality doesn't change, even when the final dream montage begins - most prints we've seen take an abrupt density hit right about then.

And the sound is very good, much better than I've ever heard it before. Raoul Kraushaar's (Mort Glickman's?) schizophrenic collage of music moods blasts out with twice the fidelity of anything heard previously. When the main theme smashes on, it sounds great, and when it returns in the middle of the tunnel battle near the end, the dynamics are very impressive.

Other particulars of the disc production are just okay. The cover uses the original poster artwork. The menu design is unattractive and the animation on the klunky side. For extras, there's a mostly good-looking trailer (previously the only part of this film I've seen projected in an original print) and a still and art section with a lot of poorly scanned, washed-out images. They look as though they were captured from the old laser. The enclosed booklet appears to repeat the excellent liner notes from that release as well. It's a shame that they're unattributed here, as they contain a trove of info on this legendary film.

The big extra is the legendary English cut of the movie. It's a variant, basically identical to the standard original American cut (check the old article for other variants), but for two differences - a grossly shortened and crudely fashioned non-dream ending, and an equally ugly and mismatched addition to the observatory scene. In it, David Maclean, Pat Blake and Stuart Kelston look at some exhibits of stars, scrapbooks of flying saucer sightings, and Blake's collection of 'saucer type' mockups. Otherwise, there's no difference. The old laser only had a fragment of the missing scene, and here it's intact; I can't imagine anyone wanting to see the whole film this way, however, especially with the insult done to Menzies' original ending. They could have easily just excerpted the two scenes as an extra - assuming I'm correct in saying those are the only differences.

Far from perfect but finally a version on DVD of a movie that's been impossible to see in even an approximation of its original appearance, Invaders from Mars has the approval of DVD Savant. Can't wait to really blast out that beefy music track on a good system! Now what's needed, is a digital restoration, as was done on Metropolis, to clean up the scratches and blemishes on this surviving element, and make new printing negatives .... I would donate $50 to that cause, any day.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Invaders from Mars rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good - , but only for scratches and a few blemishes: it's the first time this film has looked as it should, and it's extremely watchable.
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: English version, trailer, stills and ad art
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 6, 2002





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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