Michael Laughlin’s 1983 “Strange Invaders” never garnered the cult following it deserved, though I’m always running into it. It used to be one of those titles I’d find at seemingly every video rental store in America, the DVD is readily available and it frequently pops up on basic cable.
Laughlin intended the film to be the second in a “Strange” trilogy, following his “Strange Behavior” in (add year) and his yet-to-be-made “The Adventures of Phillip Strange”.
Paul Le Mat of “American Graffiti” and “Citizen’s Band” stars as Charles Bigelow, a college lecturer whose search for his missing ex-wife (played by Diana Scarwid) leads him to the town of Centerville, USA. It appears that not only is the town stuck in 1958 but, when angered, the town folk exude supernatural abilities. Bigelow’s bizarre discovery leads him to seek help from a tabloid reporter (well played by Nancy Allen) and the two uncover the odd conspiracy that springs from the kind of town that once appeared in the works of Norman Rockwell.
A big problem is Le Mat, who was quite good in “American Grafitti” and is an agreeable character actor but not a leading man. At least, not here, where his underwhelming performance seems only half committed. Le Mat was reportedly a replacement for Michael Moriarity but it’s feasible that any capable 80’s actor would have done better. The film is so intriguing, it survives the central miscasting of its leading man. Yet, the mix of Laughlin’s sometimes sluggish pace and Le Mat’s acting don’t make this an easy view for everyone.
The highlights of “Strange Invaders” are so good, they kick the film in gear whenever it seems to lose direction. Allen adds considerable pluck and presence, making up for her co-star’s lumpy turn. Michael Lerner and Louise Fletcher also deliver sharp (if fuzzily defined) supporting turns. There’s also June Lockhart, Wallace Shawn, Diana Scarwid and some amazing alien transformations.
The first sequence where we see an alien casually peel off their human skin in front of a bathroom mirror is a stunner. The make-up effects are a bit obvious but so cleverly produced and grotesque, it’s a bit of old school movie magic that works brilliantly.
There’s also the truly unusual score, a few clever genre in-jokes, good use of 50’s pop tunes, and hazy cinematography that is appropriately dreamlike and distinctly 80’s.
Both clumsy and always intriguing, Laughlin’s film is clever enough to comment on Americana, 50’s small town life and sci-fi tropes. While the subtext can be somewhat shallow (the commentary is more visual than intellectually layered), the film provides a sharp contrast of small town life versus the fast pace of metropolitan living. There are also observations on the changing of the times, small town values and what is defined as acceptable social behavior. The aliens are less a commentary on the Red Scare than a ripe metaphor for the sort of cult that lures away followers from their family members. Laughlin’s film also seems to be in tune with the 80’s UFO tabloid obsession that led to the release of Whitley Streiber’s bestselling novel, “Communion.”
“Strange Invaders” is clever enough in its observations on the facade and beauty of Americana and 50’s small town values to surpass its shortcomings. Sci-fi fans will likely savor the imagery, some of which is among the most striking of any film from 1983. Yet, the film is still the very thing its sending up: a low budget B-movie drive-in flick. It gets by on its cool ideas and love of nostalgia but is a great leading man and a consistent narrative short of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Appropriately enough, the film played on many drive-in movie screens during its opening weekend. It was the top bill of a double feature of movies from Orion Pictures. The second feature was none other than “First Blood.” Cult follower aliens hiding in small town America, followed by the ultraviolent adventures (and small town obliteration) of John Rambo. Now that, Mr. Laughlin, is truly strange.