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Posts Tagged ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’

In the late 1970s and early 1980s you couldn’t move for hot young directors having a go at making SF and fantasy movies – George Lucas made the first of his stellar conflict movies, Spielberg made Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Paul Schrader made Cat People, John Milius made Conan the Barbarian, and Ridley Scott made Alien. Now some of these were a bit (or more than a bit) derivative, or adaptations of works in other media, but hardly any of them were straight remakes of earlier films. Perhaps this was because most films in this genre prior to only a few years prior to that point had been a little simplistic, not offering much potential to work with.

The exception, in both respects, is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, originally directed by Don Siegel in 1956 and remade by Philip Kaufman in 1978. Kaufman was later involved in the early stages of scripting Raiders of the Lost Ark, while this is (of course) one of the great immortal bankers of SF and horror cinema, with Jack Finney’s novel spawning four big-screen adaptations so far – the 1956, 1978, and 1993 movies all have their supporters, but on the other hand the 2007 film (retitled simply The Invasion and starring Nicole Kidman) was such a critical and popular failure that we may be waiting a good few years for another remake.

Kaufman’s take on Body Snatchers gets to the nub of the issue more quickly than most, opening with a sequence on a bleak alien world where strange, amorphous life-forms cluster and ripple, releasing tiny spores. We follow the spores as they drift through space, finally landing on Earth in the city of San Francisco. Here they colonise, or perhaps parasitise, the local plant life, producing tiny flowered pods.

One of the people so attracted to these new arrivals that they take them home is Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), a researcher with the city government. However, this proves to be a mistake, as very soon her boyfriend, previously laid-back and hedonistic, becomes inexplicably cold and stern. Understandably confused, Elizabeth tells her friend Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), a public health inspector for the city. All Bennell can do, at first, is suggest she see a pop-psychiatrist friend of his (a rare non-Vulcan big-screen appearance for Leonard Nimoy).

But the weird phenomena seem to be spreading: casual acquaintances also report the sensation that friends and loved ones have been mysteriously replaced by imposters. Matthew and Elizabeth encounter an apparently-deranged man who warns them that ‘They’re here! You’re next!’ (this is Kevin McCarthy, reprising his role from the end of the original film – Don Siegel also makes a cameo appearance). And two of Bennell’s friends (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright) discover something grotesquely resembling a half-formed human body – something that gradually seems to become more human as time passes.

Bennell and his friends realise that all the stories of mysterious imposters are not hallucinations – something from out of deep space has come to Earth, and is replacing human beings with emotionless duplicates that emerge from the pods. But can they persuade the authorities of the truth? And – even more disturbingly – who can they trust? The pod people are everywhere…

As I mentioned, this seems to be one of those endlessly flexible stories that each new generation of film-makers seems to be capable of taking on and reinterpreting (even if the film-makers of the 2000s made a bit of a hash of it). The original small-town setting, with its Red Scare subtext, is gracefully transformed into an equally resonant piece about big city angst and dysfunctional society.

Living in cities is stripping people of their empathy and emotion anyway, or so the film seems to suggest, and we are spending all our lives surrounded by strangers. Is it any wonder if people start to get a bit paranoid? The signs of an ongoing alien invasion are almost completely masked by the usual neuroses of urbanites. It’s never really made clear at what point Leonard Nimoy’s character is replaced by his duplicate, so it’s entirely possible his initial certainty that everyone’s concerns about the ‘imposters’ are misplaced is sincere. Of course, the flip side is that watching the movie you do become rather concerned that, if something like this were to actually happen, it does seem like it would be virtually unstoppable. This makes the film even creepier.

And it is a very creepy film. You can, of course, suggest that the film’s paranoia, and the byzantine uselessness of the government (it’s implied the pods may already have struck here), are both elements of a post-Watergate commentary on American society, but this also works superbly well as a horror movie in its own right – a subtle one, of course, very dependent on a superbly-evoked atmosphere of low-key unease. The unsettling discordant soundtrack is superb. Despite being second-cousin to a zombie film, the movie is relatively light on visual shocks and gore for most of its duration, although there is one very jarring moment when the characters encounter the product of a botched duplication, in the form of a dog with a human head. As well as being well-played, the film is superbly paced and highly intelligent – quite apart from its in-jokey references to Velikovsky (whose theories on the influence of cosmic events on human history seem very apposite), it’s the only movie I know that name-checks Olaf Stapledon’s criminally obscure Star-Maker.

Great though the 1956 movie is, it does seem very dated now, whereas Kaufman’s version still stands up extremely well – quite an achievement when you consider that it manages to incorporate virtually every key story beat of the original film, while arguably fixing a few flaws in the story (the mystery of what happens to the original people after their duplication is explained), along with completely changing the setting and subtext of the film. But then that’s the essential magic of Invasion of the Body Snatchers – we seem to be hard-wired for this kind of creeping paranoia. Do this story right and no matter where or when you set it, it provides a slow slide into nightmare like few others.

 

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Most of the famous SF movies of the 50s cast long shadows in various ways, and some of them have even earned a remake. More influential than most, however, is Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which seems to have entered the cultural landscape on an almost unconscious level. Or perhaps it was there already. It certainly seems to be a story to which film-makers are repeatedly drawn back, as demonstrated by the three remakes this film has received to date.

It’s also received no end of critical acclaim, and a good deal of hyperbole too: ‘a chilling sci-fi movie with one of the greatest endings ever filmed’ proclaims the back of the DVD cover. Space appears to have prevented the end of this sentence being included, which runs something like ‘…and then moved to another point in the film’, for this is what actually happened. The original cut of the movie was deemed to be too downbeat, which is why the generally-available version is told using the device of a frame story.

Small-town doctor Miles Bennell (Kevin Carthy) has turned up at a Los Angeles hospital in a hysterical condition, telling a tale that leads everyone to doubt his sanity. Arriving back home after a holiday, Bennell found a strange psychological malaise spreading through the community – a peculiar neurosis whereby people, seemingly at random, believe their friends and family have been replaced by identical duplicates. Bennell doesn’t know what to make of it, and in any case is slightly more interested in romancing recently-divorced old flame Becky (Dana Wynter, who died only recently).

Then, things escalate: a friend discovers what seems to be a dead body, but one whose features appear only half-formed – though as time passes the thing assumes his appearance exactly. Other, similar duplicates turn up elsewhere. Eventually the source of the phenomenon is revealed: giant alien seed-pods have infested the town, and the replicas they have spawned are taking over. Lacking in human emotion or any feeling beyond the desire to spread, the replicas are determined that everyone should become like them…

As a serious thriller, Invasion of the Body Snatchers has two aces up its sleeve: a plot which demands no special effects or monster props beyond a few pods, and Don Siegel as the director. The slow build in tension throughout the story is masterfully done, with the tension mounting almost imperceptibly until it finally becomes clear just what a grim situation Bennell and his associates are in.

The story has some similarities with that of It Came From Outer Space – small-town American infiltrated by alien duplicates – but while that was a thoughtful and somewhat sombre take on the story, Invasion of the Body Snatchers isn’t afraid to go for thrills, and fairly visceral ones at that. It’s certainly one of the greatest exercises in paranoia in all of cinema. Does it work better than the 1979 remake, which reframes the story in terms of urban alienation? I don’t know. But it certainly works well, even with its teeth pulled by the happy ending provided by the frame story (and even so, given what we’ve seen in the movie I’d give the human race a fifty-fifty chance of survival at best).

It is traditional for Kevin not to be the only McCarthy under discussion when Invasion of the Body Snatchers is written about. Rather interestingly (and perhaps indicatively) the movie lends itself equally well to interpretations as either a Red-menace jeremiad or a satire on McCarthyism itself. If you ask me, of the two it’s the former – but by all accounts it wasn’t made with any particular subtext in mind. It picks up on deeper concerns about society and paranoia and identity.

Like most films of this ilk, the performances are competent rather than anything special, and some of the dialogue is a little bit hokey – particularly some of the romance between McCarthy and Wynter. There is also a fairly major issue with the climax and the fate of one of the characters, which flatly contradicts everything that’s previously been said. But by this point the film’s achieved enough to earn a little latitude, at least.

I saw The Invasion, which really isn’t a very good film, in 2007, and when asked what I thought of it said it was the third-best version of that story I’d seen. Someone said that wasn’t saying much, which is true, but then The Invasion could have been massively better in every single department and that would still have been the case. Nevertheless, it’s a story we seem drawn back to, time after time – whether that’s a tribute to the strength of the concept or the quality of this particular film, I don’t know. I suspect it may be the former – but it would be silly to deny the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers any of the credit.

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