10/24/10

Halloween Top 13: The Remake - #8: Body Snatchers (1993)

Last year when Werner Herzog released his film Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans, it really amused me how bent out of shape Bad Lieutenant director Abel Ferrara got from the idea of his film being remade. Anyone who read anything about Herzog’s film would have found out that the title of the Ferrara’s earlier film was forced on Herzog by a producer who wanted the film to have some name recognition. (Because Werner Herzog's film with Nic Cage was lacking I guess.) That’s not why it amused me though. All I could think about were the scads of remakes of retellings that Able had taken on over his career. His second film Ms.45 is more than a little inspired by Thriller: A Cruel Picture. He would later go on to direct China Girl (1987), a retelling of West Side Story, The King of New York (1990) a  loose take on Robin Hood, and he’s currently prepping a version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Forrest Whittaker and 50 Cent. The most obvious remake in Ferrara’s career was his big budget version of the classic sci-fi horror tale The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney.

I feel like Ferrara is the type of guy who would argue that other than source material his film had nothing in common with the 1956 or 1978 films. To a degree, he is right. This adaptation, written by genre great Larry Cohen and co-scripted by Stuart “Re-animator” Gordon, does make several sweeping changes to the setting and storyline of the film. The action is moved from the original small town setting to a military base, and the main character becomes Marti Malone (Gabrielle Anwar), a teenage girl accompanying her EPA scientist dad and his new wife. Dad is there to check for contaminates in the environment that may be the cause of mass hysteria on the base. As this is Body Snatcher, I don’t have to tell you that the paranoia is real, and the pod people are slowly taking over the military base.

Abel Ferrara is a filmmaker who never shies away from a political stance, and I am sure it is no accident that his film concerns the armed forces becoming faceless, depersonalized invaders. After all, what could be scarier? If the aliens wanted to get us all, why would they bother to start in a small Kansas town or even in San Francisco (though there is a large military contingent there)? It actually seems somewhat surprising that this came out in 1993. The tone and themes of the film, in light of the recent political climate, seems like it could have been made in the last ten years. Ferrara’s politics might have been the film’s undoing. While Body Snatchers would be nominated for the Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and Roger Ebert, who is notoriously hard on horror films, gave it a glowing review, Warner Brothers chose to dump the film into a very small release before shuffling it off to DVD. There has been lots of speculation into the reason for this move, but I have to think that Warners didn’t expect a glossy, big budget, thematically heavy art film when they decided to remake Body Snatchers.

Politics aside, the real draw for me in Body Snatchers is how absolutely gorgeous the film looks. Ferrara likes his films gritty, and there’s plenty of that here. However, much of the film’s eerie, unsettling visuals could probably be attributed to cinematographer Bojan Bazelli. He had already worked with Ferrara on two previous films, China Girl and King of New York, but he had also had shot the horror film Pumpkinhead and the disturbing thriller Boxing Helena. The result was a film that combined art house impressionistic touches with tried and true horror film methods. One of the watermarks that Body Snatcher films are judged by is how the pods and the pod people look. The first family of effects wizardry, the Bermans, headed up the effects team, and the pods and the cast off human shells are incredibly wonderful to see. I do always have a problem with the pod’s “tendrils” that attach to a person before they are taken. While they are sufficiently gross enough to give me the heebie jeebies, at times it looked like aliens were coming to get you….and they were al dente.

Once again, I find myself this far into the review and I haven’t even talked about the cast yet. While there are a number of great supporting players, Forrest Whitaker and R. Lee Ermey give solid performances, the lead actors stumble causing Body Snatchers fall at eight on this list. Gabrielle Anwar is now known for her beauty, but this was in her awkward teenage years, and as a young actress, she just didn’t deliver on the emotional side of her story. It didn’t help that she was paired with Billy Worth (Dwayne from The Lost Boys) as her romantic interest. Seriously, when she asks him what he does on the base he mumbles, “I’m like chopper pilot.” I don’t know if that’s how the line was written, but he gives a terrible reading and his prowess never rises.  The actor that really made an impression was Meg Tilly as Marti’s step mom. She gives a solid, quiet performance early in the film, but once she gets her pod on, watch out. Tilly has one speech in particular about the futility of escape that always sends shivers down my spine.

The reason that Jack Finney’s Body Snatchers story has been made into a film so many times is easy to see. (Almost as easy as seeing why the 2007 version, did not.)While it is adaptable to many situations and eras, one thing remains constant. The fear that your neighbor, your friends, your co-workers, the mailman,  the green grocer, or even the guy who writes the review you’re reading could somehow not be the people you thought they were is a frightening concept. As human beings, we crave emotional connections, and pod people don’t have time for that kind of thing. They’re like The Borg with gooier centers. While I will always prefer the 1978 remake (Not included because it was previously reviewed.), Able Ferrara does a nice job here taking a stock formula and creating something well defined and specific to his vision. Now if someone could get going on launching a re-make specifically of this film, please let me know, I want to see how apeshit that drives him this time.

Bugg Rating 



Today’s special remake selections come from a man of rarefied tastes, Rupert Pupkin of Rupert Pupkin Speaks. Besides being a cinephile extraordinaire with a talent for digging up obscure gems, Rupert is also a frequent guest on The Gentlemen’s Guide to Midnite Cinema pod cast where he’s done interviews with screenwriter Josh Olson, director Alan Arkush, and film legend Joe Dante among others. On top of all that, he’s a great guy, and I can’t wait to hear what he picked…..

"Ok, here's what I could come up with, these were the ones that stood out besides my much more obvious favorites (Carpenter's THE THING and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978). 

FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2(1981)
Pretty much a straight remaking of the original story of the first F13th film, this one is better in my opinion. In fact, for me, it's easily the best in the series. The burlap-sacked Jason Voorhees is indelibly creepy and unforgettable (if owing a big debt to THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN). Saw this film for the first time in parts as part of a Halloween network broadcast on Fox (if I recall) when I was very young. I remember that even in an edited form it still scared the shit out of me. I was at a friend's house for a birthday party and some kids were watching it. I kept having to leave the room for a bit when I got too scared. I'd come back in, watch for a while, and then have to bail again. The ending was pretty freaky too when Amy Steel has to put on Jason's mom's rotten sweater. My crush on Amy Steel started here for sure.

CAT PEOPLE (1982)
While certainly a flawed film, I have an odd fondness for Paul Schrader's take on Val lepton. A lot of my fondness for it stems from my love for John Heard as an actor. Heard's films CUTTER'S WAY and CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER are two of my all-time favorites. Schrader is a filmmaker I respect as well. BLUE COLLAR is an underrated gem of a film that never gets its proper due. Though it doesn't carry the suspense or atmosphere of the Lewton-produced original, Schrader brings a lot of style to the table. There's enough style there for me to keep me engaged for the whole film. The film will hopefully make an appearance on blu-ray soon as I must say that the HD-DVD copy I have looks pretty spectacular. The all-red opening credits/scene grabs your attention right away. It escapes me until I see his credit on-screen, but it's interesting that this was the second collaboration between Jerry Bruckheimer and Schrader (AMERICAN GIGOLO being their first). That's just very strange to me as I'm certainly not accustomed to Bruckheimer working on films like this one. He would move on to the hugely over-rated yet influential FLASHDANCE after this film and then into his reign as king of the 80s with his co-producer, the late Don Simpson."

Man, oh, man those are some great picks. Friday the 13th  Part 2 is thinking outside the box, and I like where Rupert’s head is at, and Cat People is another one of those films that I wish I hadn’t already covered so it could go on the countdown. Thankfully, I have great folks like Rupert around to pick up my slack. So remember kiddies, there’s only seven more days until Halloween so that means that there’s still seven more terrifying films to (re)make it though!

2 comments:

  1. What I love about the Body Snatchers series is that each film gives some form of insight into its time period, which is just interesting to me. Plus, Ferrara's film has Emily Valentine/big foster sister in Child's Play 2/Christine Elise, who is indeed far better than Anwar. And ugh Billy Wirth! I forgot how awful he is! Still, Meg Tilly rocks in this and I love some of the horror in those final scenes.

    And for Rupert, ditto on Cat People. Messy film, but a unique take on the story from a very different point of view.

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  2. Thanks for such a great, in-depth review. I've always thought Body Snatchers was a severely underrated film. Not quite as good as the previous two versions, which naturally overshadow it. But it has its own unique spin on the story. Too bad the 2007 version was such a dud; it really is a story that you can do over and over again.

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