Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Strange Invaders


Strange Invaders Poster

(1983) Directed by: Michael Laughlin; Written by Michael Laughlin and Bill Condon; Story by Michael Laughlin, Bill Condon and Walter Halsey Davis; Starring: Paul Le Mat, Nancy Allen, Diana Scarwid, Louise Fletcher, Michael Lerner, Kenneth Tobey, and June Lockhart; Available on Blu ray and DVD 

Rating: ***½

Suspicious Townspeople

“I think my teachers and my friends always struck me as being alien, and of course growing up in the Midwest, I felt that the towns I knew and grew up in were inhabited by aliens.” – Michael Laughlin

“All right, I will tell you one thing. We have an agreement with them. We’ve known about them for a long time. They provide us with certain advantages, and we provide them a place to live. But it hasn’t been easy. We haven’t had much choice at all…” – Mrs. Benjamin (Louise Fletcher)

One of the great mysteries is whether or not we’re alone in the cosmos. Is Earth truly “a grand oasis to the big vastness of space,” as astronaut Jim Lovell once stated, or is it nothing special – just one of many planets in the universe where intelligent life has flourished? Depending on which side of the coin you favor, Drake’s Equation estimates there’s anywhere between one (the Earth) and one million planets capable of supporting intelligent life (quite a substantial range), whereas Fermi’s paradox takes a less optimistic stance about why we haven’t heard from intelligent life. Of course, there could be a third option: maybe they’re really good at hiding. Depending on whom you ask, however, they may already be here. Strange Invaders* was director/co-writer Michael Laughlin’s second collaboration with screenwriter Bill Condon, after Strange Behavior (1981).** Filmed mostly around Toronto and the surrounding suburbs (standing in for Midwestern America), Strange Invaders presents a post-modern spin on the ‘50s alien invasion template. 

* Fun Fact #1: Strange Invaders started off as Cat People (not to be confused with the 1942 original with the same name or the 1982 remake) featuring catlike creatures disguised as humans. By the time the film reached production, the filmmakers replaced cats with aliens. 

** Fun Fact #2: Laughlin and screenwriter Bill Condon planned a series of movies with “Strange” in the title. Sadly, the third film, The Adventures of Phillip Strange (also penned by Condon), never reached production.

Mothership and Flying Saucer

In the prologue, set in 1958, extraterrestrials descend upon the ordinary small town of Centerville, Illinois, replacing the residents with their own. Paul Le Mat plays entomologist Charles Bigelow,* who teaches at Columbia University in New York City.** Things get weird in a hurry after his ex-wife Margaret (Diana Scarwid) drops in unexpectedly with their daughter, Elizabeth,*** leaving him in charge of her care. Margaret declares she must make a trek to her home town of (you guessed it) Centerville, but her solemn demeanor implies it’s more than a short trip. When she seemingly vanishes without a trace, Bigelow decides to investigate for himself. Centerville appears to be isolated in time, with its vintage cars and townspeople who dress as if the ‘50s never ended. If the suspicious town folk weren’t enough, it becomes painfully clear that he’s unwelcome when his dog goes missing and his car suddenly explodes. Upon his return to New York, he tries to convince a skeptical government official Mrs. Benjamin (Louise Fletcher) that aliens have arrived. He teams up with tabloid reporter Betty Walker (Nancy Allen) and an institutionalized former Centerville resident, Willie Collins (Michael Lerner), to uncover the truth about Centerville.   

* Fun Fact #3: The role was originally created for Strange Behavior’s star, Michael Murphy, but when the producers at Orion came onboard, they considered Michael Keaton before finally hiring Le Mat. 

** Fun Fact #4: The campus exteriors were shot at the real Columbia University, which was Condon’s alma mater. 

*** Fun Fact #5: Elizabeth was played by Laughlin’s real-life stepdaughter, Lulu Sylbert.

Betty and Bigelow

Paul Le Mat* is a good choice to play the film’s everyman protagonist. His natural acting style sets the right tone, not showy, but entirely believable – the audience can relate to his growing bafflement over the increasingly odd occurrences. As a scientist, he’s searching for a rational explanation, but as a person, he can’t ignore what he’s witnessed. There’s a nice little endearing moment between father and daughter (with both occupying opposite sides of the frame) in which Elizabeth calls out the scientific names of her father’s specimens, and he identifies them with their common names. It’s a short scene that at once establishes their unique relationship and Bigelow’s passion for his chosen profession. Speaking of relationships, Nancy Allen hits the right notes as much more than the requisite love interest. Smart, charming and cynical, Betty confesses she made up the story for entertainment value, although there’s a figment of intrigue surrounding the photo that accompanied her story. She humors Bigelow, but in the same breath, she’s attracted to him and his sincerity. She’s forced to re-evaluate her grip on reality when she faces the prospect of experiencing first-hand a situation that sprung from one of her headlines. 


It's fun to play “spot the character actor” in a cast full of character actors, many from genre favorites. In a direct nod to the film’s ‘50s B-movie heritage Kenneth Tobey co-stars as a boarding house proprietor with a sinister aura. Bobby “Boris” Pickett (of “Monster Mash” fame) appears briefly as Betty’s editor. And Lost in Space fans, rejoice: Strange Invaders features two alumni from Irwin Allen’s landmark, albeit goofy sci-fi series – June Lockhart, as Bigelow’s mother, and Mark Goddard as a police detective. Also watch for actor/playwright/New York fixture Wallace Shawn as Betty’s landlord, an unfortunate victim of the aliens.

Alien Orbs

From her first appearance, it’s apparent that something’s a bit awry with Biglow’s ex-wife, Margaret. Things are made abundantly clear (Minor Spoiler) when we learn that Centerville might be her home town, but her birthplace is somewhere among the stars. Naturally, this begs the question: she must have had a really convincing disguise, considering she and her human husband conceived a child together. Or was this part of their experiment, to determine if humans and the alien species were biologically compatible? Biological suitability issues aside, their dissolved marriage is a fitting metaphor for couples that fail to communicate properly. It sometimes seems that many couples are from different planets (the whole Venus and Mars thing), but in this case it’s quite literal.

Alien Removes Disguise

Despite a budget of only $5 million the filmmakers made the most of it, with practical makeup effects that continue to impress, 40 years later. The aliens’ disguises appear to be an organic extension of their faces, instead of a lifeless mask that falls away. Their stretchy, goopy ersatz visages add an uncanny element to the film. Likewise, the sparingly employed optical effects enhance the story. In the opening scene, a shot of a cigar-shaped alien mothership emerging from the clouds is suitably dreamlike and almost painterly. Some of the budgetary concessions are less effective, requiring an elevated suspension of disbelief. Similar to Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), the labyrinthine assortment of pipes and other industrial equipment in Toronto’s underground waterworks stand in for the aliens’ laboratory complex, and an ordinary observatory serves as the interior of the alien spacecraft.

Newspaper Headline

The aliens’ 25-year mission to evaluate Earth (presumably as a as a base for colonization or worthiness as a fledgling member of some galactic alliance) is decidedly murky. Your guess about their ultimate purpose is as good as mine. (More Spoilers) Their true intentions are never ascertained, since no sequel ever surfaced, leaving us with an open-ended conclusion in which they return to whatever planet they came from (Perhaps Earth wasn’t worth the trouble?). There are so many unanswered questions we’ll never resolve, but a little mystery isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Strange Invaders is a clever film that successfully walks the line between loving tribute to the B-genre films of the ‘50s and a post-modern response to Cold War paranoia. While critical response was generally positive, it didn’t make any waves at the box office, and despite being a staple on cable in the ‘80s, seems to have fallen by the wayside in recent years. What better time then, to rediscover and enjoy another hidden little treasure that takes a novel spin on an old formula?


Sources for this article: DVD commentary by Michael Laughlin and Bill Condon; “All of You On the Good Earth,” by Michael Carlowicz, NASA Earth Observatory, “Are We Alone? The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe,” by Laurence Tognetti, Astronomy 




  1. Great review, Barry! I watched this a lot on HBO back in the day, so I was pleased to rewatch it in the last year! I think it still holds up remarkably well! Thanks for all the fun facts because I really didn't know much about the movie otherwise.

    1. Thanks, John! I agree that it holds up remarkably well. I saw it in the theater when it came out, but it's been a while since I've seen it again. The director/writer commentary had a wealth of cool information, so I'm thankful for that!

  2. I haven't seen Strange Invaders in years, although I do remember it as being refreshingly surreal around the edges. This is a good example of Hollywood's fixation on the American Heartland as being the secret seat of strangeness if not downright evil under the facade of hominess and "family" values. Now that the rift between urban and rural American is greater than ever, Strange Invaders seems timelier than ever.

    1. Excellent point. Both worlds (urban and rural) seem equally alien to each other. I'm fascinated by movies that depict towns with deep, dark secrets (maybe that's why I'm devoting an entire month to this exact theme later this year).