“Strange” is definitely the watchword for Strange Invaders, a sort-of-but-not-quite-parody of 50s science fiction movies from a decidedly 80s perspective. In some ways, it works very well as an update of the old Invasion of the Body Snatchers scenario, which helped it stand out amid the glut of Conan and Return of the Jedi rip-offs opening around it. But it often struggles to find the right balance of homage and send-up, and its snail’s pacing often sabotages its otherwise unique charm. It has aged quite badly, and what seemed quirky and funny back in the day now plays like a production that doesn’t have the first idea how to sell its concept.
It doesn’t get a lot of help from its premise, which shows a little originality, but cleaves too closely to its inspiration to let it soar. A small town in the middle of Illinois disappears one fine day in the Eisenhower Administration, only to be replaced by duplicates. Thirty years later, they’re still there, until a hapless father (Paul Le Mat) comes looking for his wayward ex-wife who he believes hails from there. The scenario is intended to engender mystery and intrigue, as the aliens set their sights on Le Mat’s daughter. It involves repetitive conversations with a lot of skeptical outsiders (including Nancy Allen, who eventually joins him on his search), and faux threats from the aliens that simply don’t connect as either suspense or humor.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that we can pick up on what’s going on fairly easily, which eliminates the intrigue and flattens the overall tone. Director Michael Laughlin makes a few stabs at cultural satire, as the aliens try to make their way through a world they don’t understand, but that too fails to generate any energy. A few bits of weird humor crop up here and there (such as the alien rocking a Defender game), but it doesn’t create anything sustainable. Instead, we get “the mystery,” and a bit of tongue-in-cheek winking that tries desperately to sell us on fun that doesn’t exist.
On the plus side, Strange Invaders certainly loves its source material. The affectionate nature of the endeavor generates a great deal of nostalgia – you’ll be hard pressed not to throw in Body Snatchers or some similar piece of period paranoia – and Laughlin’s indifferent direction tends to perk up whenever we focus on the aliens themselves. To that, he adds some reasonably interesting make-up effects as the aliens periodically rip off their human faces to reveal pulsing insectoid features underneath. (There’s also one great shot where Allen unloads a gun into one of them, creating a spurt of toxic green blood.) It’s pretty cool and the generally upbeat approach helps it look the other way at the movie’s shortcomings.
Sadly, there’s too many of those shortcomings to push it over the top, leaving us with a would-be cult film trying way too hard to sell us on its quirkiness. It’s great that a certain amount of that quirkiness survives, giving the film its beloved status and helping us forgive its sins a little bit. But too much of Strange Invaders sounds a lot better than it plays, leaving us searching for fool’s gold that never entirely materializes. 1983 had a few cult hits to its name, some of which have aged better than others. Strange Invaders loses far too with its somnambulistic approach, something that might have saved it with a more compelling storyline to pull it along. Hard-core genre fans may be inclined to give it a look, but it remains trapped between two eras… and can’t find the energy to make either one of them work.