The Mercury Theatre’s production of The War of the Worlds is Halloween’s answer to A Visit from St. Nicholas, and it is an October tradition in our household. At least for me; and sometimes one of the dogs sticks it out.
The film version, which hangs on the bones of H.G. Wells’s novel and borrows elements from the infamous 1938 radio broadcast, may not be the holiday’s equivalent of Die Hard, but it is a punchy, pulpy affair that has (mostly) aged well and suits the horror movie season. Aside from Donald Trump’s voice, I can think of few sounds as dread-inducing as the pulsing, baby rattle-in-an-echo-chamber drone of the alien machines.
If you’re into categorizing, The War of the Worlds is more sci-fi than horror, but the first film version leans heavily on horror tropes and visual aesthetics. Regardless, there are few science-fiction or horror movies from the 1950s that today aren’t suited as fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000, whose mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester draws his name from War’s hero.
The movie’s influence was recognized in 2011, when it was selected for inclusion in the U.S. National Film Registry, a distinction bestowed on cinema deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” This likely applies to its innovative visual and sound effects, its reverberations through science-fiction films in the half-century-plus since its release, and its brilliant use of three-strip Technicolor. It could also be for the extended sequence that honors the lost art of square dancing.
The War of the Worlds is occasionally dated and often nonsensical (I remain puzzled by the details of the “extraordinary military tactic” illustrated on a chalkboard in pie-piece shapes and a scribble by the delightfully named General Mann). But it tells the basic Martians-invade-Earth story with an efficiency and magic lacking in Steven Spielberg’s remake and the Independence Days.
The film is surprisingly bleak in its depiction of widespread destruction and panic (which makes the hymnal, “Amen” ending feel a bit tacky, especially after we’ve witnessed the aliens demonstrate to the Rev. Collins what they think of the Bible). Thank God for bacteria, a plot point the first Independence Day cleverly or groan-inducingly, depending on your perspective, transformed into a computer virus.
The movie is not as reflective about religion and other matters as the book; Wells, perhaps for the best, did not live to see it. The film barely pauses for a breath, let alone a philosophical discussion. But as it hurtles from one setpiece to the next, The War of the Worlds still has the power to enthrall and thrill, and maybe make us wonder the next time we look up at the night sky whether we’re “being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s…”