TIME MACHINE OF TERROR!
A Salute to the Furious Red Planet
by Mark McLaughlin
The other day, I visited my favorite little shoppe of horrificness, a mysterious emporium of first-class curios and second-hand terrors known as PROFESSOR LAGUNGO’S EXOTIC ARTIFACTS & ASSORTED MYSTIC COLLECTIBLES. I was surprised by one of the store’s most recent acquisitions. It was a dusky-red rock inside a Lucite case with a stainless-steel base. A little bright-red plaque on the base read, in bright yellow letters, WARNING! MARTIAN ROCK. DO NOT OPEN! DO NOT EVEN STARE AT ROCK FOR MORE THAN 15 SECONDS.
Professor LaGungo, the mega-elderly but still bright-eyed proprietor of the store, rushed with surprising speed to my side. “Stop staring at that rock!” he said.
I looked away from the stone. “Don’t worry, I only stared at it for about five or six seconds,” I said, “so there’s no problem, if indeed that is a Martian rock with some kind of staring-related hazard attached to it.”
“Oh, it’s a Martian rock all right,” Professor LaGungo said. “And it has an absolutely gigantic staring-related hazard attached! You see, if you stare at it for too long, it will get mad, burst out of its case, hit you in the forehead and kill you!”
“What? How and why would it do that?” I said.
“The rock would kill you because it is furious with you – and all Earthlings! Mars is the furious red planet, and even the littlest piece of it is more irate than the largest of Earth boulders, which cannot express any feelings at all.”
“So what makes that Martian rock so angry?”
“There are great quantities of living silicone crystals on Mars, and every rock has at least a few bits of that crystal in it – but those wee bits are enough. More than enough! Those crystalline life-forms have come to hate the non-crystalline life-forms of our planet.” The Professor pointed to the rock in the case. “That particular rock is upset because it is here on Earth, a planet it abhors. Plus, it misses all of its crystalline buddies on Mars.”
Needless to say, I was a little skeptical of this explanation, even though I’ve learned that one should never doubt anything the Professor has to say. The old shopkeeper me a shrewd look. “The expression on your face,” he said, “tells me you still have questions. Two more questions, I’m thinking.”
“True!” I said. “You’re quite perceptive. Question No. 1: How did that rock get to Earth, and Question No. 2: How do you know all this stuff about Mars?”
Professor LaGungo smiled. “The rock came to earth in quite an unusual way. Back when Orson Welles did his WAR OF THE WORLDS radio stunt, it made a lot of Earthlings mad at Mars during the broadcast. Mars could actually feel that anger, making the furious red planet even more furious. So it fired that rock into space, all the way to Earth, to kill Orson Welles. As luck would have it, an Orson look-alike was shopping in my store at the time and the rock almost hit him as he was walking out the front door.”
“Astounding!” I said.
“Quite so,” the Professor agreed. “The rock was extremely hot from its sizzling voyage through space, so I used some tongs to drop it into a bucket of water. That made the water boil instantly and the resulting steam swirled around my face and up my nose. That remarkable steam seeped into my brain and provided me with all this Martian knowledge.”
The Professor rummaged around behind the counter, pulled out a notebook and quickly scribbled out a list, which he tore out of the pad and handed to me. “If you want to see how Mars has captivated the imaginations of movie-making Earthlings over years,” he said, “get into the Time Machine of Terror! and go check out these movies. These aren’t all the movies that have been made about Mars, of course – that list would be longer than my arm. But I consider these to be among the most imaginative and well-known.”
For those of you reading this column for the first time, let me tell you a bit about the Time Machine of Terror!, or TMOT! for short.
The TMOT! is an ancient Lemurian time machine which resembles an alarm clock with big bat-wings. It was broken when the Professor found it, and he didn’t have access to a supply of its original parts, so he fixed it with parts from old movie projectors, TV sets and VCRs. As a result, it can now only travel in the dimension of old sci-fi and horror movies and TV shows. But I like that kind of programming, so I travel in the TMOT! all the time.
I decided to start with the most famous Martian movie on the list – WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953). In this epic production, the Martians are completely inhuman creatures with froglike bodies, spindly limbs and monstrous eyes. Their streamlined doomsday machines glide over the Earth, firing deadly beams and killing without mercy.
The Martians make no attempt to communicate with humans – as far as they’re concerned, we are just pests that must be eradicated. Fortunately, the Martians hadn’t figured on the deadly voraciousness of Earth germs – weensy killers against which humans had already developed immunities.
I didn’t spend much time visiting the 2005 remake of WAR OF THE WORLDS because it doesn’t add any impressive new insights. The special effects are better, but that’s about it.
Next to the Martians of WAR OF THE WORLDS, the lead alien in DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS (1954) is friendly and vivacious, and chattier than a Hollywood gossip columnist. She looks like an aristocratic woman in a sleek, S&M-inspired space outfit. Her plan, basically, is to find Earthmen to help perpetuate her alien species. The Earthlings do not take well to that plan, even though she’s only looking for an interplanetary roll in the hay. Is that so wrong?
In THE ANGRY RED PLANET (1959), we meet a lot of chintzy, outlandish monsters who reeeeally hate Earthlings. They may be especially mad because they had such a small budget for special effects!
MARS ATTACKS! (1996) was based on some surprisingly graphic bubble-gum cards from the Sixties, in which mega-brained, bug-eyed Martians fired deadly ray-guns and used monsters and torture devices to destroy Earth real estate, cattle and especially citizens.
Turning that card series into a feature film must have been a dream project from director Tim Burton, whose creations are always macabre and yet darkly whimsical. You can tell he truly relished the task. The whole production revels in its dark humor like a huge, happy pig rolling in slop. And really, that’s not a bad thing. But while many sci-fi and horror aficionados loved the movie when it came out, it proved to be a bit much for family audiences.
The Martians in MARS ATTACKS! are reminiscent of an unholy three-way cross between Bus Bunny, Marvin the Martian and the Marquis de Sade. They are skeletally thin, incredibly agile, selfish, wildly imaginative in their malice – and adorable!
In FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH (1967), British scientists discover a Martian spaceship buried underground, right in the path of some subway construction. Inside are the remains of the crew: locust-like Martians about the size of large dogs. When Earthlings start fiddling with the spaceship, they accidentally turn it on – or more accurately, bring it to life. The spaceship, apparently, is filled with the souls of its former passengers.
This is a development that does not bode well for humanity. But, plucky Earthlings figure out a way to settle the hash of these pushy red-planet grasshoppers – who may have been the inspiration for the Devil, if the image of the towering Martian mega-soul at the end of the movie is any indication.
Martians are also brought back from the sleep of centuries in GHOSTS OF MARS (2001). Colonists from Earth open a Martian temple and unleash the disembodied souls of ancient aliens. These souls promptly take up residence in Earthling bodies. The Martians then customize their new bodies, making them more savage in appearance, with plenty of gashes, piercings and other decorative injuries.
In THE THREE STOOGES IN ORBIT (1962), those jolly yet dysfunctional comedians (they just can’t stop hurting each other) make the acquaintance of an absent-minded scientist and his daughter. The scientist has invented the ultimate war machine, which is really just a submarine with tank treads and helicopter blades. Martian spies are pestering the scientist, eager to steal his weapon, and so it is up to the Stooges to save the day. The Martians look like Frankensteinian monsters in space jumpsuits and capes, whose heads feature extremely wrinkly eyes and oversized craniums.
In the made-for-TV movie MARS NEEDS WOMEN (1967), as in DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS, we learn that Martians are humanoid like us and in desperate need of breeding stock. That’s a problem? I fail to see the dilemma in either movie. What’s wrong with expanding Earth’s dating options to include the nearest planet? If either of those movies had been more of a success, perhaps Mars wouldn’t be quite so furious at the Earth…
As I examined the movies suggested by Professor LaGungo, it soon became clear why Mars is so angry at Earth. Clearly, Mars is jealous of our abundant resources. Earth has more food, more oxygen, more water – and more potential sex partners! Martian movies make it pretty clear that life on the red planet is a constant, desperate struggle for survival. So how can we get Mars to like us more…?
Well, Martians in general seem to be pretty smart and ambitious, so we should offer them jobs, nice new apartments and plenty of food on Earth! Then they might even share their superior Martian technology with us – they do have a lot of fancy ray-guns and other neat techno-goodies.
It is possible to get along with Martians – Bill Bixby managed to do it in the classic TV sitcom, MY FAVORITE MARTIAN (1963-1966). He gave the Martian kindness, understanding and a place to live, and the Martian gave him friendship and wisdom.
By sharing, communicating and cooperating, our two cultures would get along famously. An excellent solution, yes? And who knows: maybe someday, us Earthlings will learn to initiate that foolproof peace plan with each other!
– End –
MARK McLAUGHLIN is part Greek and part Irish and so may be related to both satyrs and leprechauns, clearly making him a satyrechaun. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award many times and has won once. McLaughlin’s fiction, nonfiction and poetry have appeared in hundreds of magazines, anthologies, and websites, including The Living Dead 2, Cemetery Dance, Dark Arts, Midnight Premiere, Fangoria, Horror Garage, FilmFax, Shroud Magazine, ChiZine.com, Galaxy, The Best of All Flesh, and two volumes each of The Best of the Rest, The Best of HorrorFind, and The Year’s Best Horror Stories (DAW Books). Collections of his fiction include Raising Demons for Fun and Profit, Slime After Slime, Pickman’s Motel, Motivational Shrieker, and At the Foothills of Frenzy (with co-authors Shane Ryan Staley and Brian Knight). He is the co-author, with Rain Graves and David Niall Wilson, of The Gossamer Eye, which won a Bram Stoker Award for Poetry. His collaborative novel with Michael McCarty, Monster Behind the Wheel, was a Bram Stoker Award Finalist for Best First Novel, and will be reissued by Medallion Press in 2011.