Strange Invaders tries to serve up something resembling an homage to the cheesy, low-budget sci-fi films playing at 1950s drive-ins. On that level, it’s hard to judge if it was a conscious choice on director Michael Laughlin’s part to make nearly every scene much longer than it needs to be and give it the lugubrious pace of a Bert I. Gordon film. Whether conscious or unconscious, the film doesn’t work as a result. It lacks the wit and absurdity of a Zucker brothers spoof, it lacks the satirical edge of something like Night of the Creeps or Gremlins, so what’s left is a straight-up homage to ’50s B-movies that’s equally as bad as its predecessors.
Paul Le Mat is game as Charles Bigelow, a Columbia University entomology professor whose ex-wife (Diana Scarwid) disappeared while on a routine trip to her hometown. So Charles travels to rural Centerville, Illinois, a seemingly idyllic community with a dark secret: aliens invaded in 1958. Other than making the town feel like a Rod Serling creation, it’s unclear what impact the aliens had on the town. However, Charles soon realizes its creepy citizens don’t want him to leave, either. He narrowly escapes, and while on his way out of town, he sees one of the aliens.
Terrified, Charles returns to New York. He teams up with Betty Walker (Nancy Allen), a cynical reporter for a National Enquirer-like tabloid. She nearly laughs him out of the room when he approaches her about the aliens, but a series of strange happenings change her mind. It seems the aliens have followed Charles back to New York and want him dead—and now Betty, too, because she Knows Too Much. While on the run, they dig up information about what may have happened in Centerville, and they find themselves with no choice but to return and face the alien menace.
That probably sounds like a compelling story. It should be—it has all the elements of good/goofy sci-fi. Really, the only thing that kills this move is its glacial pace. Clearly shot on a low budget, Laughlin had to make some choices. It’s obviously not going to be as action-packed or effects-heavy as, say, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which is parodied briefly in the opening scene), because the money’s not there. He wastes Le Mat and Allen, though. Both seem to be having fun, but this movie lacks the fast-paced, ratatat dialogue usually employed by producers like Roger Corman and Samuel Z. Arkoff to give a sense that something interesting is happening. Instead, it seems like everyone took a few Quaaludes before cameras started rolling. They speak very slowly, and long stretches of silence fill gaps between conversations. Le Mat and Allen try, in vain, to bring some energy to their scenes together, but they’re inhibited by a combination of poor editing and the dullness surrounding them.
This movie’s low budget and bizarre story sensibilities reminded me of filmmakers like John Carpenter and Larry Cohen. However, those directors did a much better job of working with actors and had a much clearer vision of what they wanted to accomplish cinematically. Laughlin’s adrift here, and Strange Invaders suffers as he tries to figure out not only what he wants his film to say, but how he should say it. This script and these actors would have been better served by someone more competent at the helm. Then again, Laughlin produced Two-Lane Blacktop, so maybe stilted conversations punctuated by long stretches of silence is his artistic vision. That’s fine for a bleak, existential road movie, but it doesn’t work here.
Don’t waste your time seeking out Strange Invaders. Other filmmakers have covered the same ground with much better results. It’s disappointing that the film wastes so much talent and potential.