Strange Invaders (1983) Retrospective

In 1958, the town of Centerville, Illinois, (filmed on location in Centreville, Illinois) was invaded by a race of aliens. The invaders could fire lasers from their eyes and hands and reduce humans to “crystallized” glowing blue orbs. They took over the form of the humans who were either captured or killed.


Twenty-five years later, university lecturer Charles Bigelow (Paul Le Mat) learns that his ex-wife, Margaret Newman (Diana Scarwid), has disappeared while attending her mother’s funeral in Centerville, and travels there to find her. The disguised aliens all appear human and the town of Centerville appears to have not progressed beyond 1958. The aliens try to capture Bigelow as he escapes, but only capture his dog, Louie.


Seeing a photo of an alien in a tabloid magazine, Bigelow soon finds Margaret, who is now revealed to be one of the aliens. She warns Bigelow to escape with Elizabeth (Lulu Sylbert), their human/alien hybrid daughter, to protect her from the aliens, who want to take her to their home-world. Bigelow and Elizabeth escape from the departing alien ship and the townsfolk’s blue orbs are transformed back to their original human forms.


For Strange Behaviour, William Condon began the story and wrote the first 15 pages to the script before being joined by Laughlin. With Strange Invaders this process was in reverse. “We talked about it all the time, of course, and what we both wanted to achieve with Strange Invaders was a sense of fun and to capture an emotional response to period ’50s movies. To recapture a sense of fun to cinema-going says it all really. I thought we had done a good job after I saw the movie a few times but when I saw it with a paying audience I realized we had succeeded even better than I had hoped.”

“The first image which came to me was a Midwest landscape with an old-fashioned mothership sliding in,” Laughlin remembers. “I started the first few pages myself; then, Bill and I completed the script in about two months, each writing different parts. What I like about working with Bill is that he’s making the same picture I am. We think along similar lines, so I don’t need to waste time talking about the philosophy of storytelling.”

Laughlin and Condon wrote their screenplay on speculation, though fully confident of its eventual production. “We take the attitude that the film is going to be made,” Laughlin declares. “We don’t wait for it to be approved for production or financed before thinking about making it. We try to do it all ourselves from the very beginning, hoping that at an appropriate moment, financing will fall into place.

Strange Decisions Orion and EMI also influenced a key casting decision. “We did all our own casting,” Laughlin says, “but it had to be approved by both companies. The original script was written with Michael Murphy in mind for the lead, but EMI absolutely refused and really made it stick. That was very perplexing to me, because there didn’t seem to be a good reason for his rejection. I guess it was a matter of personal taste.

“Michael is a close friend. We had worked together on Strange Behavior. I thought he would be wonderful in the part, but EMI was very strongly opposed to him and convinced Orion to find somebody else.’

Murphy’s replacement was Paul (American Graffiti) Le Mat, an unusual selection to portray a cerebral professor of entomology who discovers his ex-wife is an alien only after the creatures kidnap his daughter. “Michael was a more obvious choice to play a college professor and a father,” Laughlin agrees, but when we couldn’t go ahead with him, I wanted to head in an entirely different direction. Orion and EMI suggested Mel (The Road Warrior) Gibson and Powers (Southern Comfort) Boothe, but I thought Paul might also fit the character. He had never played such a part before, but he has a very decent, straightforward, naive American, Joel McCrea quality. He also provided a stronger contrast with, Nancy Allen, who was playing a more sophisticated, urban, fast-talking character.”


Laughlin has no reservations about his choice of Allen as the scandal sheet reporter who aids Le Mat. “We wanted a woman from New York, who wouldn’t be some California actress playing a New Yorker,” he relates. “Nancy is a big favorite of Bill Condon’s, who is a Brian DePalma fan. Michael Murphy and Woody Allen also spoke highly of her. She brought a great deal to the movie; she was funny, sharp and full of energy.”

The casting of Louise (Brainstorm) Fletcher as the government agent protecting the aliens from public discovery represented an unexpected role reversal. “We were in the process of writing the character as a man, but suddenly decided to go with a woman,” Laughlin reveals. “It would have been too banal as another Bob Balaban bureaucrat. We very much wanted Louise to be in this picture, and she really made the part come to life. She was also in Strange Behavior; she’s a very good friend of mine. I hope Louise will be in all my films.”

Laughlin picked Fiona Lewis to portray a seductively sinister alien. “everyone loves working with Fiona,” he comments. She understands movies. Fiona is great fun to work with and she has tremendous physical impact on screen.”

To portray Paul Le Mat’s mother, Laughlin hired America’s favorite TV mom, June Lockhart. “Unfortunately, her role in the finished film is smaller than originally intended,” he admits. “She had several more scenes, some extremely witty phone conversations. But as often happens in editing, they had to be cut to streamline the picture. Also, she wasn’t available to do an exterior scene when production moved to New York, so that further reduced her part.”

Among his behind-the-scenes camera talent, Laughlin relied on two more members of his Strange Behavior family, director of photography Louis Horvath and production and costume designer Susanna Moore. “You need a team you can count on, since making a movie is such hard work,” he observes. “Louise and Susanna worked very closely together. A visual plan was created far in advance. Even though we were pressed for time, more detailed effort went into the visual style than into any other area.
That’s where we can compete with the bigger budget pictures.”

Consequently, with such a close-knit group of collaborators, Laughlin completed principal photography in the surprisingly short space of five weeks. “We could do it quickly because it fit the style in which I work,” he remarks. “I don’t shoot many different angles. I don’t postpone my editing decisions until later-I make them on the spot. We made the film on a very small budget, so it had to be like a souffle-it just had to work.”

MV5BYWRhYzNmMTMtMzczNS00M2JlLWEyZTgtNjI2ZTdiOTYxNzBkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTM4NTY4MDY@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,881,1000_AL_My fondest memory of STRANGE INVADERS was reading the script, which was fantastic. Bill Condon is an amazing writer and should have directed the movie. I don’t have a lot of fond memories about making it. The shoot was very challenging because of the director (Michael Laughlin). It’s hard to even apply that word to him. He really was awful. Let me back that up with some evidence. I said to him ”Please, we really need to rehearse. ” So Paul Le Mat and I went over to the director’s house and we were sitting there a minute and he said ”I’ll be right back. ” He came back with a blue blazer and said ”Do you think this will look good for the first day of shooting?” I looked at Paul and said ”We are in big trouble. ” We managed to get through it but I do think that the film was so good on paper, and any humour that survived was really a miracle because he really was humorless. He had a little bit of a visual style but he was such a pretentious ass. He really didn’t get it, and I think the best thing that came out of it was that I met and got to know Bill Condon, who was extraordinary. You could read the way the script was written that this guy was a director.

I did love Wally Shawn. I thought he was absolutely adorable. I had a lot of fun with him. Fiona Lewis was hilarious. I remember when we were shooting the first scene when she comes to the door and says ”Avon calling!” It was like 10:30 in the morning, and she said ”Do you want a sip?” I took a sip and it was vodka and orange juice. I said ”Fiona! There’s vodka in here!” She said ”Well, darling, it’s cocktail hour somewhere!” – Nancy Allen

It was the effects area that Laughlin understandably had most problems with. “Making these films is difficult enough as it is. You really do feel like you are joining a special club any time you go through it. The special effects and the prosthetics were a nightmare to work with as it’s usually one shot a day. If it doesn’t work then it’s an 8 hour delay until they are built again and you are ready to go. Sometimes its a person in the frame, then a puppet controlled by 20 people lying on the floor with a mass of controls and sometimes it was just part of the alien’s anatomy. You need enormous endurance – and that’s putting it mildly! You know, I had a cast I was enormously fond of and I wanted to spend time with them, but I found that the aliens became almost like Greta Garbo and demanded my fullest attention.”

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Perhaps the most impressive prosthetic effect occurs during a scene in which an alien unmasks in front of a mirror, revealing a lizard-like head beneath a false human face. “I remember shooting that sequence very clearly,” Laughlin laughs. “We were in a hotel room at three a.m. with 20 people lying on the floor pulling wires and blowing in tubes to animate an alien puppet. There were several nights like that one, which just went on and on and on. Laughlin recalled how this was achieved, “The actor, Al Roberts, who plays a character described as “a man with dark glasses”, transforms from a human into an alien by spending 12 hours prior to filming to have molds made of his head and torso. After the final touches of false hair and paint, this becomes an identical double or a human-sized puppet.”

“I shot the unmasking in long takes, because it has more emotional impact that way. We cut away only to mislead the audience, to set up the effect. We show the actor putting his finger in a glass of water. That’s completely meaningless, but it makes the audience focus on it just enough to take their minds off the fact that we’re actually cutting to substitute the puppet. I prefer long takes because the audience feels, even if they don’t realize it, that when the camera doesn’t cut, what they’re seeing is real. Otherwise, with a great many cuts, they know it’s all illusion.”

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A Special Effects Man continued, “Before this duplicate of Roberts is used, the real Al Roberts steps in to a specially lit scene by filling a glass of water. He is then replaced with the duplicate puppet, positioned as the same height as the actor, anchored to the floor with sandbags. This life-like puppet was operated by several members of the Alien Effects Unit watching and controlling the process, one person worked the head, the other the arm while others blew on tubes attached to bladders to swell the face and top of head after the hair is ripped off. After the lower half of the face is pulled away, the pullet, which is operated with over twenty cables, emerges focusing its oversized sleepy reptilian eyes, looking frighteningly alive.”

Cummins was sent a copy of the Strange Invaders script by his friend and frequent co-worker, Henry Golas. After working up a few sketches, the two met with producer Walter Coblens and director Michael Laughlin, and shortly thereafter Cummins and Golas assembled a crew that included Margaret Bessara, one of Cummins’ co-workers on The Thing, frequent Rick Baker crew-member Bill Sturgeon, and one of The Thing’s hardest-working moldmakers, Brian Wade. That crew was later supplemented by Canadian crewmembers (as required by Canadian law), including Stephan Dupuis of Scanners and Visiting Hours. The troupe then set out for Claremont, Quebec, to set up shop in an ancient building that had been a gambling hall/ whorehouse in its better days.

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“I tried to organize it so that everyone could consider some part of the work their own,” says Cummins. “Everybody sculpted one or more of the alien heads, and each person could become as involved with the work as they wanted to. And it worked out just great; everybody got along really well, and the hours never got to be too ridiculous, though we did have a couple of late nights. the Canadian crew was marvelous, particularly the production manager, Marilyn Stonehouse. The only people we had any trouble with were the art director, the cinematographer and the director. We had a lot of disagreements, and butted heads several times.

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“For instance, on the effect where a boy shrivels up and turns into a blue ball; that was a combination of a mechanical effect and an animation effect-I needed low-level lighting, with a lot of texture, while the animated effect needed a lot of light. John Muto, representing Private Stock Effects (the firm responsible for the film’s optical effects and I worked out a compromise that would suit everyone’s needs, and discussed it and okayed it with the cinematographer and Michael Laughlin, the director. I went downstairs to work on another effect-and when I came back up, the set looked like the noonday sun. It wasn’t at all what we had talked about. So we started discussing it, I made some suggestions, and the reaction of the cinematographer and John Muto was, basically, to laugh, and say, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll stop it down’-obviously not understanding that it was the texture of the light, and not the intensity, that’s important with an effect like this.” Eventually, the sequence was shot using the lighting scheme that was initially mapped out.

“You begin by casting the actor. The FX technicians make a mold of his face, which they use to make a human face that sits on top of the alien puppet. Then, you have to figure out a way to make it look as if the actor’s hand is peeling off his human face, exposing the alien underneath, which also must move and react. The only difficulty was the lighting. We had great arguments about whether or not the lighting would make the effect look too phony.

It was another incident that prompted Cummins to withdraw his credit from the film. “That was the parade of aliens that remove their masks and walk toward the ship. The scene was supposed to take place at night, in a fog, and we had done 64 masks for background aliens that were not exactly the greatest, because of the time involved. The day before that was shot, Michael Laughlin decided to shoot it in broad daylight, to avoid the expense of shooting with a union crew at night. Initially, we refused to do it, because we knew it would look bad, and make the film look bad. When we finally did swallow our pride and go through with it, it was solely out of consideration for the producer, Walter Coblenz.

“When we arrived to shoot the scene, we found that, instead of the thin people we had requested to wear this stuff, they had gotten fat people, who could barely fit into the masks; and some of them were wearing T-shirts with their arms exposed, so there was no way we could put the alien gloves on them. It all looked like crap, and I didn’t want my name associated with it; so that’s when I told them I would do the work, but I didn’t want my name on the credits.”

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When Orion saw the dailies of the alien parade, “they went through the roof,” says Cummins. “They were furious, and wanted to know what happened-all the stuff we’d done that they had seen up to that point, they had really liked.” Re-shoots were ordered, and, for the one night dedicated to shooting those final makeup effects sequences, Cummins served as uncredited second-unit director.

Considering the special effects work, the budget for Strange Invaders was a pretty low 6 million dollars. “An average movie these days is about 10 million dollars but the low budget is partially the reason why I got the film off the ground in the first case. The fact that I had my knowledge as a producer behind me and I brought in Walter Coblenz, who had worked with me before as my producer, were salient points also. We had a lot of good people on the film who were able to work outside the accepted Hollywood mainstream.”

The university location wasn’t particularly crucial to the picture, merely establishing LeMat as a Columbia professor by depicting him walking around the campus. Surprisingly, much of the New York footage had already been shot-in Toronto. “We had a lot of night shooting, which would have been very expensive in New York,” Laughlin explained. “And there was a beautiful, unspoiled ‘small Midwestern town’ conveniently right outside Toronto We had an unadulterated rural area within 30 miles of office and apartment buildings. It was simpler than filming in New York and going 2,000 miles to a real Midwestern town. In retrospect, however, having now worked with a fantastically efficient New York crew, I would have shot more of the movie here.”

Robert Skotak
Robert Skotak

According to Laughlin both Orion and E.M.I., who co-financed Strange Invaders, were very supportive of the project although he’s a little disappointed with the way Orion released the picture in the States. “Both companies saw Strange Behaviour and on the strength of it read the script and finally backed the movie. I did have a lot of bureaucratic nonsense with people hired to look over my shoulder and report on the progress. I had my ideas and they had theirs and it was especially troublesome when some of the special effects weren’t working. Generally though the principals behind both companies took these reports with a pinch of salt so we could make the movie the way we wanted to. Let’s face it, I wasn’t hiding anything from them or keeping any secrets. I just wish Orion had nurtured the film along and not given it such a blanket release. The first financial reports are that it is doing incredibly well in Manhattan but not so well everywhere else. I don’t want any recriminations though as I hope other territories will see this as an example and not make the same mistake.”

The idea of a Strange trilogy only came to Laughlin’s mind after Strange Behaviour was in the can. “The third property is called The Adventures of Philip Strange. It’s a spy thriller that takes place in New York in the ’40s. Strange is a spy for the U.S. government who has a slightly aristocratic background. We have already written the script and it features a lot of Germans. One studio is presently interested but we haven’t done a deal yet mainly as I’m not sure I want to do it as my next picture. I’m tempted but I don’t want to overdo the idea. It’s a much bigger project than anything I’ve done before.”

“The story takes place in New York in 1943,” he reports. “The Germans have the first atomic bomb, and we see it explode. Philip Strange is a young American spy of mysterious but aristocratic origins, who reports directly to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“Spy pictures have been dominated for a long time by James Bond, so I want to return to a darker, more traditional area. America in the 1940s was a very interesting period. We were at war against both the Germans and the Japanese, yet we were afraid of spies working in this country who might defeat us from within.

Michael Laughlin

Walter Coblenz

Bill Condon
Michael Laughlin
Walter Halsey Davis

Paul Le Mat as Charles Bigelow
Nancy Allen as Betty Walker
Diana Scarwid as Margaret Newman Bigelow
Michael Lerner as Willie Collins
Louise Fletcher as Mrs. Benjamin, government employee overseeing aliens
Wallace Shawn as Earl, superintendent of Betty Walker’s apartment building
Fiona Lewis as waitress/Avon lady
Kenneth Tobey as Arthur Newman, Centerville resident
June Lockhart as Mrs. Bigelow

Barbie Palmer prosthetic and special effects makeup / prosthetics makeup artist
Bill Sturgeon … creature effects crew
Brian Wade … special makeup effects artist
James Cummins special makeup effects designer (uncredited)

Special Effects by
Cyril Baird … special effects
Lawrence E. Benson … special effects
Luc Champagne … alien effects
Martin Coblenz … special effects
James Cummins … special effects
Stephan Dupuis … special effects
Emad Helmy … special effects: space vehicles
Ken Jones … special effects (as Kenneth Jones)
Martin Malivoire … special effects
Louise Mignault … alien effects
John Muto … special effects
Barbara Palmer … alien effects
Margaret Prentice … alien effects (as Margaret Bessara)
Robert Skotak … special effects
Bill Sturgeon … alien effects
Brian Wade … alien effects
Brian Bevis … special effects crew (uncredited)
David Neil Trifunovich … special effects on-set technician (uncredited)Visual Effects by
Christopher S. Baird … visual effects
Chuck Comisky … visual effects producer
Judith Evans … visual effects
Eric Luke … visual effects
Alan G. Markowitz … visual effects
Guy Marsden … visual effects
Charlie McDanald … visual effects
John Muto … visual effects designer
Mark M. Pompian … visual effects
Ted Rae … visual effects
Dennis Skotak … visual effects consultant
Robert Skotak … visual effects consultant
Dan Smith … visual effects
Jay Roth … visual effects artist (uncredited)

Starburst Magazine#66

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