10/10/09

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978): I, Pod

When Jack Finney penned the novel The Body Snatchers in 1955, I highly doubt that he entertained the notions that it would become one of the most repeatedly remade properties in film history. The first version came out only a year after its publication, and then it was remade in 1978, 1993, and 2007. The Body Snatchers story has long been a favorite of mine, and I have seen all four of these films. (Well, in all honesty, I can’t recall if I made it through 2007’s The Invasion starring Nichole Kidman and Daniel Craig.) While I like the fifties version and its red scare storyline and Abel Ferrera’s 1993 version had some draw to it, I always gravitate back to the 1970’s version.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) was directed by Phillip Kaufman, who helmed one of my other favorites 2000’s Quills, and the script by W.D. Richter (author of Big Trouble in Little China and Buckaroo Banzai, two more of my favorites) adhered closely to the original while updating it for both the cultural and film making times. Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) is a heath inspector for the city of San Francisco. When one of his colleagues, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brook Adams) becomes convinced that her boyfriend has been replaced by someone else, he first tries to get her help from his psychiatrist friend Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy). Yet when the whole city begins to fall apart around him, Matthew begins to suspect that there is something more going on. He, along with his friend Jack Belliac (Jeff Goldblum), soon discover that the threat is not of this Earth, but is there anyone left to believe them?

Where the first version of The Body Snatchers is clearly a metaphor for the threat of a communist takeover, the 1978 version takes its inspiration from the new age doctrines that had become popular in the “Me” decade. The ‘70’s Snatchers is more concerned about the de-humanization of people. Do you know who it is you love, live near, and work with? The Pod People produced by the space spores no longer have a connection to other people. They are emotionless and devoid of independent thought. It is no coincidence that the setting for the film was San Francisco, a city which drew the hippie movement to the Haight-Ashbury and whose freewheeling reputation can be traced back to the era of the Beats with the founding of City Lights Books, publisher of Howl by Alan Ginsburg among other works. One reason I find this version the most compelling has to be that those themes scare the pants off of me. To be stripped of emotion, feeling, and self is a fate nearly worse than death. I suppose you’re a Pod Person by that time and you don’t care, but I would not want to find out.

Carrying these themes through the film, the cast provides a great array of performances that fit perfectly into Phillip Kaufman’s film. Donald Southerland is often hit and miss with me, especially in his early career, but Sutherland and his Harpo Marx hair are near perfect in this film. He gives his Health Inspector character a kind of energy, a wit, and an intelligence that make him everything that the Pod People are not. Brooke Adams acquits herself well as Sutherland’s co-worker and fairly obvious crush, but as the action in the film mounts, she has little to do other than scream. I always love me some Jeff Goldblum, and this film is no exception. His bumbling, stuttery delivery is, as usual, filled with tension and awkwardness, and I loved every scene he was in. Plus how often do you get to see a character who’s a frustrated poet and runs a mud bath along with his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright). Ms. Cartwright came to this film with a pedigree from another film featuring an unexplainable attack. She played Rod Taylor’s younger sister in the Hitchcock classic The Birds.

There’s one other cast member I haven’t mentioned yet, Leonard Nimoy. Now I’m sure I don’t have to tell anyone who Nimoy is, so I don’t think I have to explain the irony of him being cast as a shrink who helps people get in touch with their emotions. Nimoy’s performance is very good as well, but his choice of men’s accessories can only be chalked up to ’70’s strangeness. There are a few other well known actors in the film in cameo roles. The best small bit in the film has to be when Kevin McCarthy, the star of the 1956 version, shows up shouting “They’re here!” as a warning to Sutherland’s character. There is also a brief role by Don Siegel, the director of the ’56 version, as a cabbie taking Sutherland and Brook Adams across the city. The fear you see in their eyes is apparently real as Siegel was really driving, and he had lost most of his sight by this time. The last cameo comes from Robert Duvall who is billed as “Priest on Swing”. Not only is the well respected actor’s scene really strange, it is stranger still that Kaufman recalled paying the actor for the short scene with an Eddie Bauer jacket.

The other strength that ’78’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers has going for it is the special effects. From the opening scenes of the spores departing their planet for a long trip across the cosmos, the film is technically stunning. Dell Rheaume (The Amityville Horror, Trancers) and Russel Hessey (The Ice Pirates, Stone Cold) handled the special effects in the film, and from the developing Pod People to the spores and flowers that are the deadly catalyst for the action, they enhance everything Kaufman was trying to do with his film. The effects coupled with the gritty cinematography of Michael Chapman, who employed the same kind of cinéma vérité style in Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver, allow for the fantastical elements of the film to have an impact in reality.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) will likely be remade again many times, and while I normally don’t encourage remakes, I think in this case I could make an exception. The basic story will always be able to become molded into an allegory for whatever the social or political landscape of the time may require, and through the Pod People we can get a long hard look at who we might want to become. The most telling line of the film comes when Sutherland’s character reassures Brooke Adams that they will figure out if her boyfriend had “gotten a social disease, or become Republican”, two things likely very closely related in the pre-Reagan era. So this Halloween season, kick back with a different kind of horror. It’s not a crazy killer, a monster, or demons spewing forth from the mouth of hell, but rather a more unassuming enemy, each other.

Bugg Rating

3 comments:

  1. I have yet to see the Kidman film, but of the four there is no question that the 78 film offers the most in nearly every respect to the average horror fan.

    Great point on the remakability (if thats a word) as well, one can always find purpose behind remaking this one based on a specific agenda as you mentioned, as opposed to the only influence most other remakes seem to be made for in making a quick buck.

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  2. Thanks for the comment Carl. IotBS almost needs a new remake every decade or so to reflect the times. Unfortunately, the Kidman/Craig film reflected a time when remakes sucked terribly.

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  3. I always liked this one. My grandmother bought if for me when I was really little (she thought it was the 50's one) and my cousin and I tried to watch it one night. We had to turn it off halfway through though because we were too scared and then finished it the next morning.

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