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Strange Invaders

review by Anthony D.


Running Time: 93 minutes

Starring: Paul LeMat, Nancy Allen, Louise Fletcher

Written by: William Condon

Directed by: Michael Laughlin


Studio: MGM

Retail Price: $14.98

Features: Audio Commentary, Theatrical Trailer

Specs: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Mono, French Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Chapter Search (13 Chapters)

Released: November 20th, 2001



Is Steven Speilberg really an alien? Of course not, but it sure makes for a funny sight gag in Michael Laughlin's loving paean to 1950's science fiction films, "Strange Invaders." This relatively short film - it runs barely over an hour and a half - is a charming and chilling excursion into the cinematic realm of aliens taking control of human kind. Their mission, in the best 1950's tradition, is never really dwelled upon, but we know from the prologue that one night in 1958, the aliens landed in Centerville, Illinois and took the shape of humans. The humans themselves were whisked away as shimmering blue spheres, destination unknown.

Flash forward some twenty-five years, and we're in the presence of divorced entomology professor Charles Bigelow ("American Graffiti's" Paul LeMat), whose ex-wife has just dropped off their pre-teenage daughter, Elizabeth, so that she may return to her hometown to attend her mother's funeral. Funny thing is, her hometown is Centerville! Also funny is the casting of Diana Scarwid as that ex-wife; filmgoers in 1983 knew her from her accurate portrayal of Christina Crawford in "Mommie Dearest." Funny thing, too, is that Charlie never met Margaret's mother, nor did he ever know that she was from Centerville. Charlie knows that something is terribly wrong when there's no word from Margaret for nearly a week, so he drops his daughter off at his mother's (the original "She-Wolf of London" herself, June Lockhart) and makes his way from New York City to Centerville, with his German Shepherd in tow. Arriving in the eerily quiet town, Charlie is not given a warm welcome, nor is his dog happy to greet any stranger such as the landlord. Poor dog gets all whiny around the populace of Centerville. Charlie is told by several citizens that they don't recall a "Margaret Newman" ever living there, they have heard of Paul Newman, they assure him.

In a classic scene of understatement, Charlie goes to the town café for coffee, and it is an endless cup as poured by beautiful Fiona Lewis (last seen being bloodily spun around in "The Fury"). As his dog goes missing, Charlie also tries to leave town, but sees a lizard-like man who uses some sort of energy to blow his car up! Once back in the Big Apple, Charlie tries to convince people of all that he heard and saw in Centerville. The only real help given is by government worker, Louise Fletcher, who may have some secrets of her own. (It's no secret that Louise Fletcher is a great dramatic actress, but she demonstrates a great flair for comedy here). A "National Enquirer" type rag that Charlie picks up carries the headline "Strange Invaders," along with a photograph which looks remarkably like the "alien being" Charlie saw on the outskirts of Centerville. He immediately hits it off with Betty Walker, the writer of the article, a deft, articulate turn from "Carrie's" Nancy Allen, as they join forces to solve the mysteries of Centerville. It takes a New Wave attired visit from "Avon Lady" Fiona Lewis to convince Betty that the aliens Charlie spoke of are genuine. Charlie knows that he must return to Centerville when he discovers that Elizabeth quite possibly has been abducted. Betty has a nose for news, so she decides to go along. Meanwhile, their tracks are being followed by - - you guessed it - - the government's own Louise Fletcher.

The climax in Centerville is best left unexplained, as I wouldn't want to divulge any of the wonderful secrets therein. Suffice it to say that there are still a few more twists and turns to take before Charlie can be reconciled with Elizabeth; not to mention a great pay-off involving Diana Scarwid's character. Director Laughlin keeps things moving at a relatively brisk pace, and William (Bill) Condon's script is lovingly crafted as a valentine to that bygone era of Eisenhower, Elvis and the Red Scare. "Strange Invaders" is a delight from start to finish, and makes exquisite use of cameos from several notable character actors. Wallace Shawn is his usual irascible self, the previously mentioned June Lockhart whose "Lost in Space" co-star Mark Godard also pops up, "Barton Fink's" Michael Lerner, comedian Dan Shor and the actor who has appeared in more movies than any other, veteran character actor, Charles Lane. Viewers may not know his name, but Lane's face and voice are easily recognizable from his omnipresence on both film and televisions screens. "Strange Invaders" is not, as the cover's quote states, a satire; rather instead it is a gentle parody of 1950's conventions of lifestyle and filmmaking, and, it's a wonderful film.


Let me say first, that the aliens are cool. Very cool. Bobby Darin cool. Lizard-like skin buried beneath their human exteriors pay true homage to 1950's classic sci-fi; I was reminded most of "I Married a Monster from Outer Space" (well in that one, it was the male who was the monster). Due to the nature of the filming, I was stunned to see such frequent use of a diffusion filter, a filter which renders everything into a gauzy haze. As such was Laughlin's intent, I can't fault MGM for the hazy quality that "Strange Invaders" possesses. The filtered picture, instead of looking like a 1950's film, viscerally places the viewer back in time, to a more tranquil state of mind. Once the diffusive quality settles in, there really isn't anything wrong with the picture. Colors are never blazing, nor do the fleshtones veer off into pastels. There are some very minor elements of dirt and age artifacts, none of which however detract from the film itself. The cool blue spheres in which the aliens capture their human counterparts are precisely rendered with minimal edge enhancement.


Part of the inherent fun of "Strange Invaders" is in its monaural soundtrack. If you're gonna pay tribute to the 1950's style of filmmaking, mono is the way to go. The soundtrack has been faithfully reproduced with no evident hiss or equalization problems. John Addison contributes a lively score, mostly using the theorem, which is far more memorable than his contribution to Hitchcock's "Torn Curtain." Finally, towards the end of the picture, the bass kicks up with a knockout, vibrating sound guaranteed to kick the subwoofer into action.


How does MGM do it? "Strange Invaders" is one of their budget-conscious titles, listed at $14.98 (which most retailers are selling for far less) and this one comes loaded with a director plus writer Audio Commentary as well as the original Theatrical Trailer! The only thing missing is an inlay sleeve to separate it from MGM's higher line DVDs. When the audio commentary is by Bill Condon, you know you're in for a treat: his commentary for his film of Christopher Bram's "Gods and Monsters" ranks as one of the best commentaries done for DVD. Condon's contributions to the commentary track, along with director Michael Laughlin, are always engaging. Who knew that Bobby "Monster Mash" Pickett was a featured actor in "Strange Invaders?" Or that Paul LeMat nearly didn't get to play Professor Bigelow? Condon and Laughlin treat the listener to these and other choice anecdotes about this film, and its predecessor, "Strange Behavior," which features many of the same core of actors. This commentary is one that every budding filmmaker should listen to, to gain some insight into how to achieve the best possible results on the least possible budget. The Theatrical Trailer is framed for movie screens, at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It's a pretty nifty trailer in that it doesn't contain a single spoiler.


As far as the MGM Midnite Movies go, with an eclectic share of hits and misses, "Strange Invaders" is a hit. A fairly decent widescreen anamorphic presentation, and an audio commentary track that is as entertaining as the film itself, I wouldn't think it strange at all to find "Strange Invaders" invading the DVD libraries of collectors everywhere.