Invasion of the Body Snatchers Movie Review

by Chris McEneany
Movies & TV Review
Invasion of the Body Snatchers Movie Review

“I don't understand why you've become so emotional over a little flower.”

And that, folks, is the dilemma at the crux of this brilliant horror/SF film making its hi-def debut from MGM on Region A. Flowers and emotions.

Back in 1977, when Phil Kaufman got the go-ahead to remake the paranoid classic of 1956's The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (directed by Don Siegel and the DVD is reviewed separately) he had correctly identified how the societal climate had drifted out of the hedonistic hippy days and left Flower Power and the Summer of Love far behind. The era of altruism had devolved, turned inward and become an insular crusade of insane consumerism, the old values having been sold out in favour of the conformist “Me Culture”. In the absence of Communist suspicion, the genre had already begun to find new enemies, new bogeymen to use as scapegoats. Rural America harboured inbred cannibal clans for Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven. The Devil had made a spectacular comeback in The Omen and The Exorcist. And you couldn't even go swimming any more, thanks to Steven Spielberg and his toothy friend, Bruce. But Phil Kaufman and George Romero found the zombified state of the masses more disturbing than any knife-wielding, mask-wearing serial killer, and more terrifying than any ecological vengeance – another theme that was heavily prevalent at the time, with Bug, Grizzly, Frogs and Kingdom Of The Spiders doing the rounds. Both would find the blank-faced and emotionless condition of the drones they saw around them the absolute embodiment of the evil assimilation of humanity. Souls gone. Ambitions gone. Individuality gone.

It was a fertile environment from which to seed the concept of people transformed into the living dead … or, for Phil Kaufman, the alien duplicates grown from the pods arrived from a dying planet. Thus, he was bringing a sci-fi favourite in from the cold – the Pod-People were back!

With a screenplay from W. D. Richter and an incredibly eclectic cast, Kaufman set about not only contemporising the scenario originally put forward in the great novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney, but imbuing it with the dark humour that edgy studio execs back in the fifties had insisted be removed from Siegel's original. Kaufman's impetus was possibly spurred on by the gradual conformity that the once avant-garde and creatively liberated San Francisco was undergoing. A city of poets, artists, radicals, hippies, cults and free-thinkers was slipping into the same grey rat-race that the rest of the world, certainly the rest of the USA, had already been swallowed up by. It wasn't progress. It was an alien influence that was sucking the human spirit dry.

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, from book to all the way through four cinematic incarnations, is a uniquely American story. Born of paranoia and bred on suspicion and mistrust of authority, this has been the tale of Uncle Sam's last half century. What is Jason Bourne but a duplicate being, shorn of emotion, freedom of choice and the ability to question. America's deep-rooted fear of takeover from within, from neighbour turning against neighbour and brother against brother is, naturally, a lingering scar from a four-year Civil War, but this residual cultural tremor has proven to be a remarkably apt metaphor for genre usage over the ages. An enemy that looks, sounds and acts just like us is much more frightening an opposition than one that is seven feet tall, has two heads and tentacles for arms. When the film was released on December 20th, it entered the fray amidst some terrible real-life events that shook the fabric of the very city it was set in. The mayor and his supervisor had just been shot dead in the City Hall. 918 members of the People's Temple sect, who had their headquarters in San Francisco, committed suicide at the behest of their leader, Jim Jones, at around the same time – and this was after murdering a city congressman and some journalists in Guyana. If anything was going to shatter the spirit of Flower Power, it was this sort of thing. And then, just a couple of weeks after these horrendous events, a film came along that centred its plot around space flowers taking root in the foliage of the 'Frisco Bay Area than had the power not only to alter the minds of the humans that came into contact with them, but to grow an entire duplicate of them whilst simultaneously reducing the original victim to dust. And you couldn't get much more emphatic than that.

The film tells the story of this mass invasion from outer space via the experiences of a small group of friends who stumble across the warped and frightening changes to the people around them and then discover that they are caught up in something that is much bigger and far wider spread than they ever dared to imagine. “They get you when you sleep,” is the film's warning, and it is a clear evolution from the “Reds in the Bed” conspiracy fears that powered Seigel's original movie. Nobody is safe, and your nearest and dearest could become your own emotionless assassin come bedtime. The four friends decide to fight back, but with practically the entire city turned against them almost overnight, their options are limited. And how long they trust one another depends on how long they can stay awake.

“I've heard the same damn story from six patients this week. People are becoming less human.”

Kaufman wrote the screenplay for The Outlaw Josie Wales, and it is conceivable that given Clint Eastwood's close friendship with Don Siegel, this may have opened doors for Kaufman to get Siegel on-side for his pod-adaptation. A versatile director – able to crank up the tension with Body Snatchers, or raise the spirits with The Right Stuff, or create a dreamily erotic romance with The Unbearable Lightness Of Being – Kaufman is a friend and a fan of actors. He lets them get on with it. His attitude to filmmaking is very easygoing, very friendly and accommodating. This deliberately loose grip on the proceedings allows for improvisation and personality to shine through on the set. From a technical standpoint, though, things are much more locked down and worked out in advance. For Invasion, this meant that together with his frequent DOP Michael Chapman (Bridge To Terabithia, Scrooged), Kaufman mapped-out every conceivable angle to exploit in a production that was admirably location-based, and actually featured only one - just one! - set. They make use of every shadow, every window and reflection to obscure and diffuse characters. People seen at the periphery of the frame can be either vague or unsettlingly obvious. The lighting is extraordinarily noir-inspired, heavily atmospheric. Hand-held cameras shoot the streets of San Francisco, guerilla-style, and capture the alienation of the big city and the furtive faces of passers-by as though secretly filming a frightened society. The sloping streets, the morning mist and the continuous image of the rocket-like pyramidal TransAmerica Building (home of the company that bankrolled the film and a clever in-joke from Kaufman that literally kept them “in the frame”) conspire to make one of America's most photogenic cities a maze of intimidation and deceit.

How strange it is to see one of Hollywood's most eccentric actors underplay his part so compellingly without any of his trademark weirdness or mania creeping in. Yet Donald Sutherland, perhaps still clinging on to the serious residue of his anguished and aggrieved architect from Nic Roeg's dazzling Don't Look Now, this is the esteemed Canadian actor at his most earnest and realistic. Whilst some of his line deliveries, part and parcel of the actor's unique style, are deadpan and monotone, Sutherland is remarkably human and genuinely affectionate and sincere around Brooke Adams. There is a tangible chemistry between the two that is enormously touching. Sutherland's slow dog-like, throaty voice is cleverly both comforting and, by virtue of that monotone sound, slightly unsettling. When Sutherland gets emotional in this or any film, and that voice breaks, you can't help but become attached and broken, yourself. Invasion offers him just such an occasion, too. Brooke Adams almost competes with him in the throaty voice – just listen to that goofy but sexy little laugh she delivers during their alfresco dinner-cum-flirting scene. The actress is also very attractive and believably vulnerable, striking a sort of Karen Allen/Margot Kidder appeal. Her collapse after the shocking transformation in her husband is affecting and Sutherland's reaction to it all is realistically heroic. Art Hindle, who plays her husband Geoffrey, one of the first people to be duplicated, takes cold calmness to a threatening new level. Freezing up under the unwanted and totally alien affections of Elizabeth, standing, unseen, behind a corner as he plots and schemes, or having clandestine meetings with fellow pod-ites around the city as they plan their overthrow of mankind, he becomes a sedate form of bogeyman. Hindle would also appear in David Cronenberg's equally cold-yet-emotionally devastating The Brood a year later, and he has maintained strong genre connections ever since with numerous SF TV shows under his belt.

“They're not from outer space, Nancy.”

“Well, why not? Why do we always expect metal ships?”

“I've never expected metal ships.”

On the other side of the intellectual fence come the ex-hippy couplet of Jack and Nancy Bellicec, proprietors of the local mud baths. As Jack, Jeff Goldblum, still in young and ultra-spindly mode, is terrific. Apparently Sutherland was quite tough on the up-and-coming actor, recognising a real talent at work there and doing his damnedest to drive him a little further in realising his abilities. Whatever he did, it worked. Goldblum, playing a failed poet still trying to get some recognition, is twitchy, irritating, argumentative, outspoken and authentically highly-strung. He acts like a small child, full of energy and running everywhere, his mouth simply unable to stop yabbering. But we like him despite such aggravating qualities. He represents genuine emotion – directionless, vitriolic, but full of passion. The great Veronica Cartwright, of Alien and Witches Of Eastwick fame, brings new-age gumption to his wife, Nancy. There are few actresses who can imbue a character with such truly authentic shock and distress and Cartwright. Her two jolting encounters with Jack's pod and her reactions afterwards are bonafide and believable. She would bring exactly this quality to her role as Lambert in Alien, to a point where she would become credibly annoying. But this is such a difficult aspect for performers to capture with any depth and conviction that the English-born Cartwright has to be applauded. It's beautiful that her character's obviously outlandish views on the cosmos and Man's place in it should soon seem perfectly acceptable and possibly even mundane when compared to the scenario that the four main protagonists find themselves in. Her little speech about how the human species came into being would have been a conversation-killer and an audience giggle under any other set of circumstances … yet, here, it just reinforces the fact that, quite simply, anything is possible. Kaufman would return to her again for his acclaimed NASA drama The Right Stuff in 1983.

“I can deal with the body being moved. I can even deal with the body getting up and leaving. But when you start talking about his other body … her other body … people being duplicated … will you listen to how that sounds?”

It must have been something of a shock to see Leonard Nimoy cropping up in this, yet he is perfect for the role of a potential saviour/potential threat. Playing one of those smarmy pop-psychologists, Dr. David Kibner, Mr. Spock is having a field day. It is something of a joke, of course, having the man famous for portraying an emotionless Vulcan (an alien) essaying a supposedly open, caring, sharing mental health guru in the midst of an invasion by emotion-draining extraterrestrials. Nimoy is splendid at troweling on the sham-advice and basking in the adulation of his fans, showboating his celebrity status at every given opportunity. His sanctimonious display at the book launch party with a woman who has clearly already encountered the weird phenomenon of the imposters, and his subsequent play-acting with a confused and aggravated Jack for the supposed benefit of Elizabeth is wonderful off-the-cuff stuff. Just listen to his sappy, new age diagnosis of Elizabeth's plight, the way that he puts words into her mouth and steers her down a path of edification that makes absolutely no sense. It's sheer brilliance – the waffle that these charlatans came up with refined and distilled to perfection by a man whose stoic features and gravel-chewing voice so famous from his Star Trekking days are bent so unpredictably that you genuinely don't know where you stand with him. Couple this apparent wildness with his ominously implacable face later on as a frightened Jack and Nancy abruptly bump into him in the mud baths. Nimoy came up with the idea of his character wearing that unexplained wrist-glove, and this little visual conceit has a wonderful way of drawing the eye and fostering a feeling of wariness. This is brilliantly conveyed later on when Matthew leaves Elizabeth to the get some rest after a very eventful day, and a hand slowly appears out of the shadows and moves towards her, a hand wearing that wrist-glove. It is not a shock scene as such, we just didn't know that Kibner was even there, but the association of its oddity and the creeping sensation that things beyond our control are moving all around us is exquisite. Having Nimoy in the film is a work of genius. Our innate familiarity with him wrong-foots us constantly.

“Oh God! See them? This is where they grow them. This is where they cultivate them!”

Kevin McCarthy gets one of the greatest cameos in the genre, actually appearing to reprise his character from the original, and basically taking up exactly where his former Miles Bennell (Sutherland's health inspector is presumably some form of relative!) left off ... as a madman blundering chaotically in front of traffic to blurt out the urgent warning that “They’re coming! You’re next!” The director of the original, Don Siegel, even gets his chance to take one of the many other cameos in the film, playing a suspicious taxi driver. The great director, who also had a clear affinity for the city of San Francisco, with Dirty Harry and Escape From Alcatraz to his credit, actually removed his glasses for the part and drove into the night traffic of ‘Frisco, scaring the bejeezus out of Sutherland and Adams who, keeping perfectly in-character, appear very wary in the backseat. Various crew-members crop up in vaguely sinister parts from time to time and even if the book-signing sequence is stuffed with faces from the Californian art-scene that we might not be with familiar with (although I reckon that actor/filmmaker Paul Bartell is definitely amongst their number), we can’t fail to spot Robert Duvall as a rather bizarre priest on a child’s swing in the park right at the start.

“They can be fooled. Just don't show any emotions. Hide your feelings.”

The theme of the loss of identity and the absorption and assimilation of our soul would be revisited very successfully a few years later with John Carpenter's The Thing. And the question that is thrown out by the Antarctic chiller of an alien chameleon taking over an isolated team based there, one by one, of whether or not being replicated is actually a bad thing is also pointedly confronted here. It is claimed that being duplicated is a painless process – indeed, like a euthanistic drug being administered whilst the victim is asleep – and that reawakening into this new world is a much better alternative to what we had before. No love, no hate, no war. Hardly exciting … but also blissfully free of danger, discrimination or intolerance. The aliens have a hive-like mentality, although this is only alluded to right at the very end, and the insistence is that, once you join them, you can wear the same clothes, do the same job and drive the same car … if you want to. “There are people who will fight you. They'll stop you,” warns Matthew when he is cornered. “In an hour you won't want them to,” comes the strangely polite and almost soothing reply. So would be a pod-person be something to run away from? Like the revelation found in Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, in this situation of mass-takeover, would not the few individuals holding out become the veritable monsters, the abnormals in the new society? Are not Matthew, Elizabeth, Jack and Nancy the snakes in the grass of this new utopia? Survival of the fittest. Strength in numbers. The needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few. The film is smothered in such proverbial doctrine. But the inevitability of progress is also a lean, mean concern for Richter's script and for Kaufman's prophetic vision. The Pod-society is, in many ways, far superior to our own – as Alien's robotic Ash would probably conclude … it is unclouded by delusions of morality, or of conscience.

As far as the initial takeover bid goes, however, we are best viewing the aliens as a weed that is overrunning the garden.

The film is filled with many clever touches, from the unique sound design (that came courtesy of Star Wars' own Ben Burtt) and the evocative photography to the infamous unearthly shriek of the Poddies. The frequent image of the rubbish-trucks compressing those strange bags of grey ash, almost like chapter points as the story progresses, and the sight becoming more and more ominous, yet more and more commonplace at the same time. Matthew playfully asks Elizabeth to do that “thing with her eyes” - to which she spins them chaotically and rapidly around and round – and the moment is warm, affectionate, silly and beautific. Compare this to its painfully poetic closure, when Matthew looks in on her at work at the end, both of them coldly implacable, an experiment revolving crazily in a jar beside her, casually switched off and spinning to a stop, reminiscent of that “thing” with Elizabeth's eyes, yet stripped of all humanity and spontaneity. Geoffrey's pod-duplicate still wearing his earphones but merely sitting and watching imagery of clocks on the TV screen. The great way in which Kaufman and DOP map out some shots so that we see a character move out of the shot at one juncture and then reappear from a different side shortly afterwards – Matthew and Elizabeth moving down the stairs as Jeffrey appears to move around them for one example, and Jack seemingly morphing from one side of the room to another behind the camera when Matthew comes calling at the mud baths, for another. The spider-webbing of Matthew's cracked windscreen that provides a broken and fragmented view of the changing world outside. Kaufman makes San Francisco look fresh and unusual. He subtracts the glamour of the Golden Gate Bridge and we only get a fleetingly glimpse of those famous steep roads, leaving the city to appear at times faceless and anonymous, yet distinctive and disturbingly odd at others, perfectly encapsulating the feeling of something familiar yet alien. Unexplained hostility emanates from all around. The embittered cooks at the French restaurant that Matthew condemns at the start, the unfriendly glare that a school teacher throws at Elizabeth during the opening scene. Kaufman wanted to magnify the animosity that bubbles beneath the lid of every city. Sirens are always going off, and ambulances and police motorbikes are always roaring off somewhere – the impression being made that something “bad” is always happening just around the corner, or on the next street.

“They're all part of it. They're all pods. All of them!”

Composer Denny Zeitlin was a high school friend of Kaufman’s, a jazz musician and another one of the San Francisco “scene”. When Kaufman first approached him with the “chance of a lifetime” opportunity of scoring his first feature-film, he naturally jumped at the gig in the original belief that he would still be within his comfort zone of crafting a low-key, slow-burn jazz score. As the story evolved and the character of Matthew Bennell transformed from a saxophone player into a Health Inspector, Kaufman had Zeitlin explore other avenues of musical expression. The resulting score, the product of eighteen-hour days and a lot of guidance from some seasoned professionals who knew what directions to push the fledgling young composer in, was the winner of a Saturn Award (the film got another one, as well, for Kaufman's direction) and garnered a huge array of critical acclaim. In no small way, Zeitlin’s unusual and unnerving score – a combination of electronics (heartbeats mutated on the Prophet 10 etc), traditional orchestra and the intermingling of his own sound effects (in collaboration with Ben Burtt's twisted recordings) – is one of the reasons for the film’s impressive impact. Slyly, he gets to put some of his more traditional jazz into the pot as the piece we hear Matthew playing as he cooks his meal segues into the love theme that develops for himself and Elizabeth. There's a sort of early Howard Shore vibe to his atonal landscapes and his worrying textures of disquiet. One element was surely even emulated by Shore for his wonderful score to Scanners. Kaufman had also long desired to use the bagpipe version of John Newton's 18th Century hymn “Amazing Grace” in a film, and he gets his wish during a spellbinding and genuinely moving sequence set down by the docks, when the eerie and ethereal cadence is carried on the wind from a ship that Matthew believes offers them a chance of escape. It is a majestic and unusual sound amidst the weird and wonderful score and effects that otherwise dominate the soundtrack. The look on both Sutherland's and Adams' faces as they first hear it is the perfect “What the …?” Coincidentally and somewhat ironically, the same piece of music was used for the space funeral of Nimoy's Mr. Spock in Star Trek II a few years later.

Despite many accolades for his unusual work on the film, Invasion remains Zeitlan's only film score to date. Although Kaufman has asked him many times to return to the the form, the composer does not feel he can go through the exhaustive process again. Which is a shame, as he created one of the more original horror scores of the seventies, and revealed a true flair for the unusual and the otherworldly. Thankfully, this score has been made available together with a fabulous half-hour interview with the composer in a 25th Anniversary CD from Perseverance.

“We'll get him! He can't stay awake forever!”

Stephen King once remarked (in his now-ancient genre-skewed semi-auto-biography, Danse Macabre) that this version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers contained one of the most sickening moments of gory violence and most horridly realistic blood effects. The moment in question is, indeed, one of those ripe and juicy gags that sticks in the mind. I won't say what it is, but it features a mop-topped fresh pod and a rake. But, this moment aside, the film is not a nasty one at all. Scenes of the newborn pods writhing and forming in all manner of icky gloop and that rather skin-crawling body-thatch of bristling white hair are certainly horrible, but they are also morbidly fascinating. We get a good handle on the whole duplication process and, unlike The Thing, where we possibly wish that we could see even more of the assimilation event taking place, there is a grotesque beauty to it. One of the film's most notorious images has the breath-snatching by-product of a street-hobo, Harry, and his mutt birthed from a sabotaged pod – the sight is brilliantly designed, along with all the other makeup effects, by Tom Burman (who, alongside Tom Savini, was usually a guarantee of some good splashy stuff in a film during this period) and Edouard Henriques, and a sure-fire precursor to the imaginative visions that Rob Bottin would create for the various monstrous guises adopted by The Thing.

The film does make a few rather contrived and ill-advised moves, although these do tend to intentional noir-ish homages. One quite comical and unfortunate scene that looks like something out of The Naked Gun has Elizabeth and Matthew attempting to walk down a pod-infested street without drawing attention to themselves. The tracking shots revolves around their feet going off in one direction, whilst further down the street, a gaggle of feet stop and gather as their alien owners, up above the frame, grow suspicious. What then follows is a rather embarrassing chase as the two parties of feet begin to speed up before they all break out into a full pelt. An earlier montage, shown as a flashback, has Elizabeth tailing Jeffrey through the city as he makes all sorts of strange meetings and pod exchanges. This comes across as a little bit daft and perhaps too Hitchcockian. Given Geoffrey's cunning, it is also unlikely that he wouldn't have spotted her trotting behind him. But things such as these aren't exactly errors, they are stylistic flourishes that just don't hit quite the same high water mark that the sheer wealth of others do.

“It's a monster! It's got hair all over it!”

“But it's got no detail, no character. It's unformed.”

Regarding the other versions – the other pods, as it were – Abel Ferrara's ultra-streamlined and ferociously abrupt take on the story, all set on an already highly conformist army base, was brilliant – and just where is its Blu-ray then? But the last two guises that Finney's tale has taken – Oliver Hirschbiegel's utterly lousy The Invasion (which I had the sorry misfortune of reviewing some way back), and the bland, snooze-inducing TV series, just called Invasion – have just gone too far into mediocrity and almost tried to tarnish the intelligence of class of the saga. But then again, three filmed stabs at the concept have worked extremely well … and that can't be bad. In many ways, Kaufman's version is superior to Siegel's original, although the '56 film still has that essential SF paranoia kick and delightfully “cosy” vintage appeal. I love them both and think that they make a great double-feature … geddit? Double feature! Oh, forget it.

But for now, MGM's hi-def edition of the '78 imagining provides a shining example of a remake done just right and truly justifying its own existence. Dark, nihilistic and endlessly gripping, Kaufman's film caught the slipstream of an angry era. It is also wonderfully entertaining and stuffed with smart performances. Plus, alongside Brian De Palma's Carrie, it has one of the decade's greatest shock endings!



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