In 1958, the residents of Centerville, Illinois (a.k.a Smalltown, USA) are invaded and quickly assimilated by aliens from outer space. In a nice touch, it all starts with a couple of young lovers (played by Dey Young and Dan Shor – she was in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and he was in Tron). Flashforward 25 years later and we meet Charles Bigelow (Paul Le Mat), a professor of entomology at Columbia University. One day, his ex-wife Margaret (Diana Scarwid) drops off their daughter Elizabeth (Lulu Sylbert) to stay with him for awhile because she has to return home to, you guessed it, Centerville, to deal with her mother’s recent death. Charles doesn’t hear from Margaret for several days and is unable to get a hold of her on the phone despite repeated attempts.
So, Charles decides to go to Centerville and find out what happened to her. Right from the get-go, something seems off about the town. It could be the man (Kenneth Tobey) that runs the boarding house that Charles stays at who claims to never have heard of Margaret or her deceased mother even though he’s lived in Centerville his whole life. It could be the fact that when Charles goes wandering around town it looks like the inhabitants never left the ‘50s. It could be the church he enters that just happens to be emitting a strange blue glow from behind the altar. Or, it could be the odd way in which the patrons in a diner he hangs out in, while his car is being fixed, ignore him when he asks about his missing dog.
However, it is his car suddenly bursting into flames that seals the deal and when Charles makes a break for it by stealing another car, he spots someone who does not look human. We only get a fleeting glimpse but when it shoots out a bolt of electricity from its head that zaps the doors and trunk off Charles’ getaway car that pretty much confirms the otherworldly nature of the townsfolk. When several of the disguised aliens arrive in New York City (by Greyhound bus no less) we get the big reveal in a memorable scene where one of them sheds his human disguise to reveal an alien visage in a fantastic display of make-up effects. Along with the visual effects (mainly involving the alien mothership and their ability to manipulate electricity), they are quite effective for what I’m sure was a modestly budgeted film.
Charles returns home to find his place has been tossed. After talking to a fellow professor about his close encounter he is put in touch with a government official by the name of Mrs. Benjamin (Louise Fletcher) who tells him that no one has lived in Centerville since 1958 when it was destroyed by a tornado. This leaves him even more confused but he comes across a photograph of the alien he saw on the cover of a National Inquirer-style tabloid newspaper. He meets with Betty (Nancy Allen), the reporter who wrote the story. Not surprisingly, she doesn’t believe him and claims that she made up the article. However, Betty quickly becomes a believer when she gets a visit from a strange AVON lady who is not what she seems and proceeds to zap her neighbor (who, in a nice touch, is played by none other than Wallace Shawn). Betty and Charles team-up to figure out what’s going on.
Strange Invaders was the second film in a proposed trilogy by filmmaker Michael Laughlin. The first film was called Strange Behavior (1981) and it mixed science fiction, suspense thrillers with mad scientists and serial killers. Laughlin was a self-professed genre fan and found that “there’s a much greater association between the audience and the filmmaker in genre films. They know the formula, so they look to you to tantalize them.” On this film, he re-teamed with his co-writer and associate producer from Strange Behavior, William Condon. The first image Laughlin came up with was that of a Midwest landscape with an “old-fashioned mothership sliding in.” He started writing the first few pages of the screenplay himself and then he and Condon completed it in two months, each writing different parts.
The two men wrote the script without any kind of deal in place but were confident that it was going to be made into a film. To this end, they figured out the budget, scouted locations, cast the actors, and then worked on the production design (all at his and Condon’s expense) while arranging the financing. To help produce the film, Laughlin brought in his friend Walter Coblenz, who had been the assistant director on the Laughlin-produced film Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and they shopped the project around Hollywood. Strange Behavior had been released by a small distributor and this time around Laughlin wanted his film handled by a major.
Executives at Orion Pictures liked the script for Strange Invaders and were looking for a good film at a modest price with mainstream appeal. Orion provided half of the film’s $5.5 million budget with England’s EMI Films coming up with the rest. As a result, Orion received distribution rights for North America while EMI handled the rest of the world. As part of the financing deal, Orion and EMI demanded several script changes, which Condon and Laughlin found difficult because they had to try and explain their ideas verbally. The companies’ influence reduced the film’s scope. For example, in the original script, the American government was a much bigger threat with a big sequence taking place at an Air Force base. This bothered Laughlin because the changes resulted in a lack of a well-defined middle section that he and Condon had to work on.
Orion and EMI also influenced the casting process and approved every choice Laughlin made. The original script was written with Michael Murphy in mind (he was also in Strange Behavior) but EMI refused, much to Laughlin’s confusion “because there didn’t seem to be a good reason for his rejection. I guess it was a matter of personal taste.” Orion and EMI suggested Mel Gibson or Powers Boothe to play Charles instead but Laughlin’s choice was Paul Le Mat because he hadn’t played that kind of role before and had what Laughlin saw as a “Joel McCrea quality” that he was looking for.
For the role of Betty, Laughlin wanted an actress from New York and not someone from California playing a New Yorker. Condon was a big fan of Brian De Palma’s films and Nancy Allen who had appeared in several of them. Louise Fletcher’s government agent was originally written as a man, a “Bob Balaban bureaucrat,” but during the screenwriting process, Condon and Laughlin decided to change the character to a woman and cast Fletcher who had been in Strange Behavior.
There are several references to science fiction films from the ‘50s with the presence of Kenneth Tobey (star of the original version of The Thing) and June Lockhart (one of the stars of Lost in Space), at one point, someone is watching The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) on television, and the film’s score could easily feel right at home in that decade, complete with the use of the Theremin, a unique musical instrument that emits an eerie sound – the hallmark of several films from that era. Laughlin was drawn to the ‘50s because it gave a “very American texture. There was a tremendous burst of imagination.”
Strange Invaders is an offbeat film to say the least with an off-kilter rhythm that probably didn’t endear it to audiences in the 1980s (or now, judging from its continuing anonymity). The very dry humor pops up in the unlikeliest places but in a good way, if that makes any sense. Charles is hardly the overtly heroic type but is rather a mild-mannered professor bewildered by what he’s witnessed. Paul Le Mat (American Graffiti) plays a rather odd protagonist as he keeps his performance grounded in realism, which are in sharp contrast to the fantastic encounters his character experiences. There is something refreshingly unique about it but detractors found him bland and uninteresting. Nancy Allen, a mainstay of genre films (see Dressed to Kill, Blow Out and RoboCop), plays an ideal foil to Le Mat’s determined professor as a jaded tabloid journalist. Betty is no damsel in distress and helps Charles uncover the alien threat.
Strange Invaders received mixed reviews from what few film critics saw it. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby called it, "a tasteful monster movie with a terrible secret: it eats other movies.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, "Hovering unclassifiably between nostalgia and satire, this amiably hip genre movie confirms Laughlin as a deliberately minor but unique stylist. It's up to the viewer to determine just how faux his naïf style is, but either way you choose to take it, Strange Invaders offers a good deal of laid-back fun.” The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott wrote, "Strange Invaders is a pastiche, a film-school jumble of aphorisms and winks at the audience that are neither as knowing nor as amusing as they are meant to be."
Strange Invaders gradually builds the mystery, giving us bits and pieces so that we put it together along with Charles and Betty. This includes the reveal that the United States government is in cahoots with the aliens, anticipating The X-Files by several years. Strange Invaders’ commercial failure sadly nixed a third film in Laughlin’s proposed “Strange trilogy.” At the time of Strange Invaders, a third film, a World War II spy thriller with science fiction elements entitled The Adventures of Philip Strange, was planned with Laughlin hoping to cast many of the same actors and crew members from his two previous films. I, for one, would have loved to have seen where the filmmakers were going to take the story next. Strange Invaders does achieve a certain amount of closure and went on to anticipate other ‘50s alien invasion homages/parodies, like Top of the Food Chain (1999) and the more recent Alien Trespass (2009) – both of which fared just about as well commercially as Strange Invaders, which just goes to show that this kind of film only really appeals to a niche market but maybe that’s just as well.