I spoke recently with screenwriter Jonathan Gems about his inspiration for the 1996 film Mars Attacks! For those of you unfamiliar with the film, its bizarre story and nutty mise-en-scene contain myriad references to science fiction tales of old, especially the American and Japanese monster films of the 50's and 60's.
To my dismay, Mr. Gems revealed that the only film reference he had knowingly made within the story was a nod to the war room of Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. That's right, you heard it here: Tim Burton was NOT inspired directly by Teenagers From Outer Space. Another rumor dispelled. (ETA: 2010 -- the MoMA Burton exhibit backs this up, Teenagers was NOT among Burton's most influential films as a teen, though virtually every other B flick was, even Killer Shrews!)
So where DID that idea come from that Burton was referencing Teenagers? Why, the CARDS, of course!
The Mars Attacks! Cards were released by former card-king Topps, in 1962. The remarkable and gruesome front artwork was "painted by Norman Saunders over pencil roughs by Wally Wood and finished pencil art by Bob Powell." 1
Each card featured on its reverse a brief paragraph describing the actions depicted in the painted scene. When all the cards were collected successfully, the paragraphs would link together in order to tell the story of a planned Martian invasion of Earth.
The full story was written by Len Brown and Woody Gelman, and all five of the card's originators are credited in the Tim Burton film. References to popular films, serials, and novels are prevalent throughout the series, most notably to "the bugs" from Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers (published in 1960 and winner of the Hugo that year) and, of course, Teenagers From Outer Space.
The removal of "the bugs" as the main villains from Gem's adaptation of the series makes the secondhand Teenagers references even stronger, as the Martians' "death-ray guns that vaporize all but the skeleton"2 become the biggest threat towards humanity.
"all but the solids, the skeletal braces ..."
It is, however, within the cards themselves that the most blatant references appear. A handful of cards, including #40 (shown above), depict scenes that do appear in Teenagers, but which could also reference any number of monster flicks. A few others, however, are far more specific:
#36, Destroying a Dog, not only references Teenagers From Outer Space's death of Sparky, but even the composition of the card mimics that scene in the film.
(c) Topps, 1962.
#19, Burning Flesh, is a nod to the Focusing Disintegrator Ray, and the stylized design of the card references a famous poster used in Warner Brothers' ad campaign for Teenagers:
(c) Topps, 1962.
- 1,2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_Attacks