Saturday, January 17, 2009

How Does a Nightmare Begin?

Those were the chilling words spoken at the beginning of every episode of the ABC Thriller THE INVADERS which ran for two seasons from 1967 to 1968.

That would put me at about ten years old and this gripping alien invasion drama holds a very special place in my childhood memories. For one thing, it was on too late for me to stay up and watch.

But my mom, in a rare act of favoritism that even today, still makes me feel a tiny bit giddy, would sneak down to my bedroom and without waking my baby brother, wake me, to tip-toe upstairs and watch THE INVADERS with her.

Whether or not this is one of the reasons I became so obsessed with dark movies so young, or drawn to horror and suspense in general, I can only assume.

For young readers who are unfamiliar with this show, THE INVADERS is the story of handsome, young architect David Vincent, who on a lonely country road, early one morning before sun up, witnesses the landing of an alien spacecraft.

But not only does he see a craft --he sees creatures getting off the craft who look just like us. In an instant, the architect's life changes from the mundane to a nightmare, for David Vincent now knows, that not only do invaders from outer space exist --but they are already here.

Trying to convince the world of this, and in the process, losing your entire life, both professional and personal for being labeled either insane or a harmless crackpot, David must also contend with the Invaders who are hunting him down.

This becomes the engine that runs this character driven sci-fi thriller, that never wandered into the corny or the ridiculous. It stayed literate, believable, took itself very serious and was downright chilling.

Taking a page from Jack Finney's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, THE INVADERS lets you know early in the first episode that this is a series where you can TRUST NO ONE.

Three of the Invaders turn out to be not only an "innocent young couple on their honeymoon" but also a sweet old lady who later tries to kill David Vincent by setting his apartment on fire. (Ellen Corby who TV watchers from the 70s will recognize as Grandma Walton)

See, the great kernel of this ever unraveling nightmare, is that the Invaders have already infiltrated our world substantially, having Invaders who are already in law enforcement, education, science, politics and literally every facet of our earthly lives -- with a very sinister and chilling plan to take us all over.

Fear of a Green Jumpsuit: In the pilot episode, David Vincent's best friend and business partner finds out too late that the Invaders are very real.

That's what still works about this truly dark and creepy show. Careful not to jump the shark, or to go too big in the story line, the Invader technology we do get to see is scary as hell.

Including, in their headquarters, an abandoned power plant somewhere in the remote desert around Bakersfield (don't laugh) transparent tubes that they get you under, lower over you --and stop your heart.

Therefore any human being who learns of The Invaders and might expose them, can easily be done away with. And any autopsy only shows a common heart attack.

With the emphasis on character and suspense and a minimum of special effects (a result I am sure of the limited budgets of TV drama) the Invaders created a unique world for television in the mid 60s.

The effects were minimal, though I did love as kid, how The Invaders died -- they turned red and glowed until they vanished into thin air. It was kind of what you waited for watching the show as a kid.

Kind of like, in another really terrific ABC show, KUNG-FU, you waited for the peaceful and enlightened Kane, to finally kick the asses of all the bigots, murderers and assholes of the old west.

I need to point out that one of the most remarkable elements of The INVADERS, in addition to the completely believable performances and the crisp, intelligent writing and the low key but high concept set design, was the absolutely CHILLING score by gifted composer Dominic Frontiere.

Invaders NEw.mp3 - Dominic Frontiere

Talk about someone who had an incredible gift for dramatic and equally ominous music, Dominc's pitch-bending, two-note trombone slide, the theme for the Invaders themselves, still completely creeps me out -some forty years after I first heard it.

Dominic was also the musical genius behind the original OUTER LIMITS four years earlier in 1963, which boasted some of the greatest horror, sci-fi and suspense music ever written for television. In fact, a few cues from OUTER LIMITS, I noticed were used in the pilot episode of THE INVADERS.

You can probably guess the little surprise that came in the mail for me just recently, that inspired this blog: CBS Home Video has released Season One of this truly incredible 60s TV Thriller.

And as I dove into it last night, watching both an uncut and a broadcast version of THE INVADERS pilot (an episode entitled BEACHHEAD) I got an even greater surprise. Unlike so many shows of that generation, The Invaders really holds up.

The writing, cinematography and overall feel of THE INVADERS is remarkably similar and just as powerful as the best OUTER LIMITS episodes from that same era.

My favorites of that series were also from that great (and my favorite) sub-genre of Science Fiction. A genre I call "Earth Bound sci-fi" where the story is set on Earth in the present day and science fiction elements suddenly redefine that reality.

Worlds colliding call it. Where something remarkable or threatening happens in our own very real and familiar universe and turns it upside down for good or bad.

For me back then, it was ABC who really had cornered the market on sci-fi TV in the 60s.

Now some may say, STAR TREK! NBC had STAR TREK. But somehow the entire STAR TREK pheonomenon (which debuted in 1966 a year before The Invaders) never found its way into our home or into my greater affections.

Sometimes I think it was because this was outer space sci-fi, not Earthbound Sci-fi, but if this were true, why was I so batty about LOST IN SPACE back then and not the voyages of the Enterprise? It might be as simple as the show having been on past my bedtime, or me having to watch something on another network in that timeslot because the family chose to.

Anyone know what used to play opposite Star Trek during its initial NBC run?

Though I like watching the show now, with the exception of the marvelous THE TROUBLE WITH TRIBBLES episode, I never actually saw a whole Star Trek episode until I was out of high school (and I still have not seen all of them)

Though I do have a great and abiding love for the world Gene Roddenberry created and I think is still influencing the world to become: a world of respect and love for all living creatures.

Gene contributed greatly, more than he may ever know, to the spiritual evolution of our Earth, by envisioning a world that was about love and understanding and not about fear.

In the same way, I feel that Norman Lear is one of the major forces that reshaped the country, by addressing our fears and putting the harsh light of reality on our assumptions and bigotries, making them absurd and hilarious.

It may sound even a little goofy to give that kind of import to television shows, but if you grew up when I did, it is easy to see how Norman Lear was vital to the process of paving the way for good men like Obama to become our president.

Funny, when I do think of the original STAR TREK, more than the series itself, I think about the visionary Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, whose Desilu Productions gave the greenlight to that show and decided it was worth the gamble to do a sci-fi show that would boldy take us where no man had gone before!

The Invaders wasn't just intelligent, well written and solidly performed (the lead played by the incredibly handsome and compelling Roy Thinnes) it gracefully avoided all the standard cliches about creatures from outer space, and while occassionally mired in the melodrama and social trappings of its time, the 60s, it also, in turn, pulled no punches.

Episode two starring Roddy McDowall started off with a commercial airliner exploding just after take off -- destroyed by the Invaders because one of its passengers was a Scientist or Senator, who was headed to Washington with evidence that would expose them.

I mean this is heavy and creepy stuff on a paranoid level that would make Roman Polanksi, the master of film paranoia (The Tenant, Repulsion, Culdesac and Chinatown) dance with glee.

The more of the episodes I play, the more I realize these are some of the stories that first infiltrated my impressionable ten year old noggin, thanks to a mom who clearly didn't want to watch this show alone!

The Invaders might have been the first TV show responsible for my great obsession and passion for stories of intense suspense -- the kind that is born out of fear and paranoia.

But while Polanksi specialized in paranoia that turned out to be tragically unfounded, The Invaders deals with paranoia this is not unfounded -- but very, very founded!!!

The Invaders made you paranoid about generic looking people in green jumpsuits and anyone who held their pinky out! See the actual shows and you'll know what I'm talking about.

Crazy or not?
I mean let's face facts: conspiracies have turned out to be more valid than not, as history continues to teach us.

The Invaders is a template for my favorite kind of story, all I have to do is list a couple of my favorite suspense films to realize the pattern is usually the same: An ordinary man gets dragged out of his ordinary world, when he is blindsided by a nightmare.

One that changes his world into something unsafe and unknown. A nightmare that just keeps getting worse and worse.

Maybe this kind of story resonated with me because I grew up in a very unsafe world where unhappy, alcoholic and abusive parents could turn on me (or any of my siblings) at any time, bringing terror and havoc and leaving no place to hide from both physical or emotional attacks.

Like the Invaders and many of my favorite films, acts of horror came often. And in our own young lives they would visit me and my brothers and sisters, without warning, terrorizing us in the one place kids are supposed to feel safe: their home.

Add to that the paranoia installed into any kid's life who is brought up in the twisted, paranoia inducing, sex-o-phobic world of the Catholic faith and I start to see how I bonded with my own terror and paranoia back then, with movies and shows like The Invaders.

Armchair psychology aside, somewhere in all of this, I sense lies the roots for my delicious glee in a good suspenseful nightmare wonderfully unfurled for me. And The Invaders is that.

And I absorbed the journey of David Vincent in any incarnation made availible. Including the Gold Key comic books -- and yes that does say TWELVE CENTS! Wow!!!

David Vincent's UFO sighting begins an incredibly taut and suspenseful exercise in paranoia, from then mega-TV producer Quinn Martin, (the Aaron Spelling of his time) who had already mastered suspense and paranoia TV with his series THE FUGITIVE four years earlier.

Young readers might not know that the Harrison Ford film THE FUGITIVE, wonderfully directed by ANDREW DAVIS, was a big screen version of this long running (four years) suspense drama that ran on ABC.

My great shock tonight seeing the pilot episode for The Invaders, was being reminded that the idea was the brainchild of writer/director LARRY COHEN.

Horror fans will recognize the name, Mr. Cohen has created a horror franchise or two, including MANIAC COP but his credits and imagination hardly stop there. A stop at IMBD and you realize this man has to be one of the busiest writers and directors still working today, after starting over fifty years ago in this business!

From the sublime to the silly, Larry Cohen wrote the screenplays most recently for CELLULAR, Colin Farrell's film PHONEBOOTH, CAPTIVITY, and has a couple of others in post and preproduction (according to IMBD).

He is even the creator of the bizarre IT''S ALIVE films --The deadly serious killer baby series of horror films.

Larry, obviously a very gifted and versatile writer, started his TV career even earlier than THE INVADERS (he wrote for RAT PATROL and THE FUGITIVE) and includes teleplays for NYPD BLUE and an incredible array of past and current shows in his vast and impressive body of work.

Larry also created one of my favorite odd-ball monster films "Q" about a mythological bird that flies over Manhattan and eats people off their penthouse patios.

A quirky creature feature that again takes itself deadly seriously (most horror films that really work, do) stars David Carradine, Richard Roundtree (Shaft) and features a knockout performance by Michael Moriarty of LAW AND ORDER fame.

Well, I am all blogged out again.

I guess finally I want to say, thanks mom. I'm still not sure, why I got to get up and watch this show with you, while the rest of the house was dark, and everyone else was in bed.

Maybe it was because The Invaders was just too darn scary to watch alone. Or that you knew just how tough it was on me to have that man for a stepfather, always so crushing and bullying and under the influence.

Maybe the Invaders was a way to let me know I was loved, at least by you, if not by my new and oppressive father. Or maybe you saw how much I loved that kind of spooky show, even at ten years old, and wanted to make me happy by breaking the rules for me and giving me that late night chill.

Whatever the reason, it was one of the special things we did, just the two of us, that I never forgot.

And ironically, a show I never forgot.

Good wishes, everyone and keep a lookout for people who can't seem to keep their pinky fingers in line with the rest of their digits.

It could mean trouble.