The 1978 collision of science fiction, body horror and conspiracy thriller is as potent an experience now as it ever was.
Those of you who automatically complain about remakes should perhaps consider the case of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. When first announced, this 1978 revamp of the 1956 original was greeted with the same amount of disdain and hatred as any modern remake. After all, the original film was a much-loved classic from what was still seen as the Golden Age of Science Fiction. How dare they remake it, cried fans. How could they possibly improve on it? Stupid Hollywood with its lack of ideas.
Of course, this film not only proved to be better than its predecessor, but also turned out to be one of the best horror films (and yes, this is a horror film much more than science fiction) of the decade, a potent mix of 1970s realism cinema, paranoia and fear that plays like a big-budget version of the films being made by David Cronenberg and George Romero – films that dealt with the gradual takeover of a community (and by default, the world) by an outside body – an infection, a bioweapon, a parasite or, in this case, an alien invader. It’s also a prime example of 1970s conspiracy cinema, where no one can be trusted.
Actually, the film is as much a sequel as a remake, something immediately emphasised by the early appearance from Kevin McCarthy, star of the first film, who turns up to scream “THEY’RE COMING! THEY’RE COMING!” – much as the original movie ended before the studio forced a somewhat happier conclusion to be added. Clearly, he’s been running for twenty years, ignored by everyone, just like the hero of TV series The Invaders, very much a copy of the Bodysnatchers theme. That makes a certain sense – what would happen to him after the first film? Would the invaders even bother to try and silence him, or simply allow him to run around, going crazier and crazier as everyone ignored or laughed at him?
This new version relocates from the small town location of the original – always a favourite for alien invaders to visit in the 1950s – to San Francisco, where strange behaviour is easier to hide and ignore, and where people already seem emotionally cut off even before the pods – alien plant life that we first see floating through the cosmos en route, accidentally, to Earth – take over. In fact, we have no idea how far the invasion has gone when the film starts. The opening scene shows a disassociated priest (an uncredited Robert Duvall) on a swing in a children’s playground, who might be a pod or might simply be weird (and these days, a priest hanging around playgrounds is a pretty scary image in itself).
But things really begin when health department worker Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) discovers an unusual new flower and takes it home. The next morning, the flower is gone and her partner Geoffrey (Art Hindle) is not himself. Literally, in fact, as Elizabeth suddenly becomes convinced that this is not Geoffrey. She explains her fears to colleague Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), who – understandably perhaps – suggests she talk to his friend, pop psychologist author Dr David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy). Attending a book launch together, Elizabeth sees a woman telling Kibner that her husband is not her husband. The takeover is spreading. When their friends Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum) and his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) find a half-formed body in their mud bath spa, the answers slowly start to fall into place for Matthew, though throughout the film he remains naively optimistic that this is somehow a localised phenomenon, continually trying to call outside officials for help despite the mounting evidence that this is everywhere. As heroes go, he’s one of the more useless and dithering when you actually look at the film deeply – like Ben in Night of the Living Dead, we tend to go along with his decisions because he’s the hero and we assume he will be right, but like Ben, he’s actually continually, dangerously wrong.
Soon, the four main characters are separated and hunted, trying to blend in with the emotionless duplicates that seem to now be the entire city. Given that the duplication process takes place while you are asleep, there seems little hope in the film – after all, how long can anyone stay awake? Days at the most. And sure enough, by the end of the film, only one person is left human, leading to a devastating finale that is rightfully amongst the most iconic moments in horror cinema, and one that remains powerful no matter how many times you might have seen it.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is much loved, yet strangely underrated. I’ll admit that I tend to forget just how great it is between viewings – if you ask me to list iconic 1970s movies, this one probably wouldn’t come to mind right away. Yet it is a great film, one that mixes the best of 1970s genre cinema with the feel of edgy indie movies. Director Phillip Kaufman and writer W.D. Richter have crafted a story that is allowed to slowly build, but which creates tension and unease from the very start. Along with cinematographer Michael Chapman and composer Danny Zeitlin, Kaufman brings to the film a sense of threat long before anything has happened – the moody, disturbing music cues and the prowling camera, the people who seem a little off but who may or may not be pods… all this adds up to keep the viewer off balance and aware that things are not quite right, even if you can’t quite figure out why. But at the same time, the movie is very grounded – the dialogue, often quiet, understated, prosaic, is realistic and natural, something helped by the impressive performances all round, Adams and Sutherland being especially good at creating believable, normal people. This sense of authenticity helps when the paranoia begins – there’s no hysteria, no unlikely conversations, just real people to whom unreal things are beginning to happen. We can accept the more outlandish exposition and fantastical imagery when they come because we are so grounded in the reality of the film, and the horrors are built up so slowly that the progression is natural.
The film is also a classic 1970s paranoia movie. This was the decade of mistrust – not just of the government but of the person next door. This was the serial killer decade, where monsters really were hidden behind the mask of normality and where someone you thought you knew could well be a stranger. The movie builds this well, especially as it plays on the sense of detachment people sometimes have in a big city and the one-dimensional nature of many people. Nimoy’s character, prone to simplistic quick fix solutions and touchy-feely post-hippy psychology ends up a pod, but for all we know he might have been one all along – he never seems particularly sincere. And the relations between people in the film constantly seem ambiguous – the unspoken love between Adams and Sutherland, the relationship of Adams and Hindle that seems strained from the start, even the restaurant employees who smash up health inspector Sutherland’s car (and his reaction to same) all seem to be people faking or hiding emotions anyway. You start to suspect that being a pod might not make much difference to a lot of people.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a masterclass in slowly building paranoia, but also allows itself to have spectacular action scenes and impressive moments of visceral horror. The semi-formed pod creatures are creepy – a single moment of blood running from the nostril of one a far more potent moment that many a horror set piece – and the scene where the pods give birth to these half-formed creatures while the human version sleeps and begins to rot remain impressively grotesque. The few moments of gore – Sutherland smashing in the head of a semi-formed pod, a character’s face collapsing as their duplicate is completed – are suitably horrible, while Adams gets the most unsettling topless scene in film history.
This is one of the great genre films, and more than that, it provides evidence that a remake can actually bring something new to a story and a great stand-alone piece. Jack Finney’s original novel is the gift that keeps giving – there have been two more versions of the story since this one, neither really offering much new – but Kaufman’s movie remains the one to beat.
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