Saturday, October 14, 2017

Halloween Watch: War of the Worlds (1953)

It's kind of funny that in this post and the last, I'm referring to movies referenced in my own title banner, but there you have it.

I checked, and it has been a while since I last watched George Pal's 1953 movie of War of the Worlds.  A number of years now, in fact.

My interest was piqued by the idea of a Martian invasion in 6th or 7th grade when I learned about Orson Welles' and the Mercury Theater's 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast - which supposedly caused a panic (sort of, but not really).  Click on the link and listen.  It's a hell of a show.

Shortly after all this, around the age of 12, The Admiral found out I wanted to watch the original movie, and so he and I rented it and I think it was just the two of us who watched it.

Honestly, despite the fact it was not a gore fest or built on the tension-making trip wires of, say Ridley Scott's Alien, that movie scared the hell out of me.

I've said this before and I'll say it again, but this is the movie in which we lose.

Sure, the movie posits the idea that a bit of faith and the power of love can save the day, but it's really germs.  Germs save the day.  It's a bizarre inversion of the European invasion of the New World.  But as much as the aliens lasering everyone and every -thing in site freaked me out, the fact that they could travel across the landscape and no man-made weaponry would slow them down - even an atom bomb - that was scary stuff.

Movies paying homage to War of the Worlds have always found some reference to throw in there, but it's good ol' American know how or Randy Quaid that saves the day.  Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith plant a "virus" which kills the aliens in ID4.  It's our human ingenuity which saves the day.  Here, we're helpless before a more powerful foe.  We attack our own scientists trying to find a solution.  We turn on each other as the world burns around us.

Nope - here, were it not for the aliens all getting the common cold and dying, mankind is @#$%ed.

And to a 12 year old who expects narratives to run a certain way, who kept expecting for Dr. Forrester and his eager ladyfriend to come up with some miracle weapon, who had sat through the entire farmhouse scene in total, horrified silence - the futility of their efforts and mankind's terrible reaction to the pressure made for a genuinely frightening picture.

And I cannot wait to show the film to my nephew on Halloween in 10 years and freak him out.

I've mentioned before that I like movies like, say, Gremlins 2, that devolve into absolute chaos toward the 3rd act.  And, in the sense of impending worldwide doom and mankind cashing in its humanity chips, War of the Worlds has a bit of that.  Ain't nothing going right as the Martian landers roll through Los Angeles just blowing the whole place to living hell while people fight each other in the streets, roughing up our hero, and everything seems to be rubble or on fire or rubble that is on fire.  It's less fun here, but it does command the attention.

While the FX are of their time (let's not say dated.  It's déclassé to show contempt for eras of great innovation that didn't yet happen to have the tools available today), like a lot of high-dollar sci-fi of the 1950's, it doesn't mean the design isn't amazing.  The model-makers couldn't come up with a convincing way - or perhaps a stable way - to show the tri-pods of the novel in motion, and flying saucers were all the rage in the 1950's, so our martians move about in gleaming brass and emerald manta rays, hovering on three beams of electro-magnetic force.  The single, probing antenna both seeking and atomizing anything in its view.

The design of the Martians themselves is one of those things I am a bit surprised isn't a bit more in the popular consciousness, as the design is buyable, frightening and utterly alien in the way of the uncanny pulp sci-fi cover creatures.

"Oh, don't take my picture!  I haven't even put my face on, yet!"

You don't ever see much of them, it's all glimpses and quick shots, or an arm, etc... but I have a model of one of these dudes, so I've got a pretty good idea of what they look like from an officially licensed standpoint.  While they don't have three arms, three eyes covering the RGV spectrum, three fingers on each limb, and a sort of odd pseudopod foot on which they scuttle and creep along - man, it's a pretty solid alien design, especially when you consider the best Star Trek did for the most part was tape horns onto ape costumes and point at rocks and say "that's an alien".*

The cast is made up of relative unknowns.  Gene Barry went on to have a solid career, but this was early for him, and he really lays into the baritone-voiced science-man-of-authority as Dr. Clayton Forrester (yes, MST3K took the name).  Ann Robinson - who looks like a prototypical 1950's Suzy Parker-type fashion model - plays a USC graduate with an MS in Library Science (which is one of the few times I've seen a movie where they acknowledged this is an actual degree you can have).  Both sell the hell out of their respective roles.

All in all, it's not a creep-fest or gothic horror like a Universal monster movie, but it's a good one to watch during Halloween time.  Thrills, chills, creatures, whatever.  I know we're supposed to stick mostly to the supernatural, certain forms of murdering and mad science during this season, but I say we embrace our three-eyed pals from the next planet over.

*That's not to bag on Trek, which actually explains why life has something in common across the cosmos, and was working on a TV budget and schedule, that's to point out - hey, WoW does a great job ten years before Roddenberry put huge heads on some lanky people

1 comment:

J.S. said...

I can testify about your fandom and fascination with this movie for pretty much your whole life. I think that this was really the first work of apocalyptic fiction to which I (and probably we) were ever really exposed. It truly does feel like the world is coming to an end in War of the Worlds (obviously, people tuning in for the original radio broadcast REALLY believed the end was nigh). People are obviously still as obsessed with apocalyptic fiction as ever. (In fact, people have even moved on to a fascination with post-apocalyptic fiction.) But I think you hit the nail on the head when pointing out that the aliens in War of the Worlds are terrifying because they just. Can't. Be. Stopped. They also seem utterly uninterested in humans, really. They aren't going to even bother with trying to enslave us or anything. They don't even put on a space suit and get out of their vehicles long enough to try to really scare us. They're just wiping us out like rodents. It's a testament to both the film and the radio show that they're still sort of gold standards for the depiction of a sci-fi apocalypse.