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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Remaking a classic can be a daunting prospect. The new film will be scrutinized not only by moviegoers and critics, but by people making exacting comparisons between it and the original version. A director must be careful to respect and honor the original film, while at the same time offering a new and fresh take on an already familiar story. On these terms, Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Don Siegel’s 1956 masterpiece Invasion of the Body Snatchers succeeds magnificently. It does credit to the original while crafting an exquisite experience of terror and paranoia. This wonderful film is a must see of 1970s horror cinema.
San Francisco, 1978. Health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) and his colleague Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) are encountering a strange flower that appears to be growing everywhere, but cannot be identified. At the same time, people all over town, from Elizabeth’s boyfriend to a local dry cleaner, are suddenly “not themselves.” They look the same, but they seem devoid of emotion. It soon becomes clear to Matthew, Elizabeth, and their friends (Veronica Cartwright and Jeff Goldblum) that aliens in the form of plant pods are slowly replacing the city's population with duplicates. Matthew and Elizabeth must find a way to escape the city before they themselves are transformed.
From its very first frame, this film evokes a sense of everything being just slightly off kilter. This sense of disquiet begins with a priest (Robert Duvall in a cameo appearance) swinging on a playground swing set. On the surface, it's not really a sinister image, but it is unusual enough to make the viewer sit a bit uneasy in his or her seat. An early scene that begins as “comic relief” but then quickly turns into something disturbing is similar. Bennell has discovered a “rat turd” in a dish at a fine French restaurant, and is preparing to leave. As he gets to his car, he sees that someone from the restaurant has thrown a bottle at his windshield and cracked it. The blank stares from the people who threw the bottle are unnerving, and the crack in the windshield produces an unsettling, spider web pattern, which gives Bennell (and us) a cracked view of the world. From unusual vacant looks to the odd hiss made by a dry cleaning machine, Invasion of the Body Snatchers presents a world where things seem normal, but just slightly off.
This surrealistic and chilling ambiance is enhanced by the film’s composition and lighting. Kaufman and director of photography Michael Chapman employ many film noir techniques that constantly make us feel uncomfortable. Often, the camera is set up at a crooked angle, making everything seem off-center and unusual. These unusual angles are complemented by are dark, noir-esque shadows that are used often in the film (particularly near the ending chase scenes). The strange, sometimes elongated shadows inculcate an unsettled and uncomfortable feeling. Different lighting methods are used to add to the eerie effect. Most of the film is shot at night, and both people and objects are lit in very unusual ways. In contrast, most of the daytime scenes are lit conventionally, making us fear the night even more. All of these techniques develop slowly throughout the film, so that by the end, it truly seems as if the world has turned upside down. For the unforgettable final sequence, the lighting and camera work again return to a more conventional style, suggesting that the now-alien population is the norm. The lighting and the composition of this film, in conjunction with the odd details, make Invasion a disturbing and uncomfortable film, yet one that is immensely enjoyable.
To a person, the cast is superb. Donald Sutherland shows us a fairly ordinary man who reluctantly and slowly comes to believe that the world is spinning out of his control. He always looks for a rational explanation of what is going on, and even when it is apparent what is happening, he still tries his best to keep a cool head and figure out a solution. He speaks in that assured tone of someone who knows that there is an answer for everything. Near the end of the film, however, he is almost on the brink of tears, and seems completely desperate and defeated.
Supporting Sutherland's excellent performance are Brooke Adams as Elizabeth and Leonard Nimoy as pop psychologist Dr. David Kibner. Adams plays Elizabeth as an intelligent woman that is sure that something is going on, and won’t be talked out of it or dismissed. Adams shows us both her fear and her courage. When Kibner tries to make her believe that this is all in her head, she stridently resists him. It is an extreme shock when she is transformed into a pod person. Nimoy is a treat as Dr. Kibner. Through the first half, he is almost an “anti-Spock,” playing Kibner as passionately emotional and also very full of himself. Later, after he has been replaced, he speaks with a calm yet malevolent tone that is bled of all emotion. His dispassionate monotone voice becomes extremely chilling. This magnificent cast grounds this bizarre story in real life, and makes Invasion of the Body Snatchers extremely believable.
The plot of this film is, overall, similar to that of the classic 1956 version; however, screenwriter W. D. Richter (who later penned the scripts of 1979’s Dracula and 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China) makes some interesting and important changes. The most significant of these is changing the location from a small town to a big city. Rather than having everyone you know suddenly become strangers, as in the original film, the 1978 version uses the anonymity of a big city to let the aliens take over unobserved until it is too late. Odd or strange behavior is simply dismissed as typical city life or, as Dr. Kibner points out, the result of the stresses of city living. This also allows the film to poke gentle fun at some of the more eccentric aspects of late ‘70s culture. Nancy Bellicec (Cartwright) is a reader of Velikovsky, believes in ancient astronauts and that her plants have feelings (an ironic belief, since the one thing the pod people lack is emotion). An affectionate nudge in the ribs of ‘70s goofiness is actually used to a useful end when one realizes that it is the most ridiculous character who figures out exactly what the danger is while all the other characters dismiss her ideas. The script of this film cleverly alters the themes of the original while holding on to that film’s magnificent sense of paranoia.
The most significant change to this film, and what, to this author’s opinion, vaults this film to greatness is the ending. It is an ending that is as chilling and hopeless as that of 1968’s Planet of the Apes. For those who haven’t yet seen the film, please stop reading here, as I am about to spoil the final scene. Matthew is walking through San Francisco when a still non-transformed Nancy approaches him. For a moment he looks at her, leading us to believe that the two together will try to plan their next move. Suddenly, he points at her and makes that terrible shriek that the pod people make when they see a human. The camera does a quick close-up on his mouth, finally entering it. I could not imagine a bleaker conclusion. This terrifying and uncompromising ending leaves the viewer shaken, and the image of Matthew shrieking and pointing stays with one long after the film is over.
I believe that Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the ten, if not five, best horror films of the 1970s. From almost its first frame, the world is presented as slightly askew, and things get more nightmarish as the film proceeds. This is a must-see of 1970s fright films. It more than adequately fills the giant shoes of its classic predecessor.
Kevin McCarthy, star of the 1956 original, and Don Siegel, its director, both make cameo appearances.