Monday, December 30, 2013

"Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1978) Dir- Philip Kaufman

What I remember:

Let's talk about remakes, shall we? They are rampant. They have taken over modern day cinema in a way that is almost incomprehensible. Doesn't anybody have a fresh idea? Is there any reason to expect anything in any form of art that isn't recycled in one way or another?
What's at the Cinema now? "Delivery Man" is a remake of "Starbuck". "Last Vegas" is a boomer version of "The Hangover". Many of our favorites from the past 30 years are remakes of foreign, or older films. Shakespeare, Ibsen, Hitchcock, Dickens, Phillip K. Dick, Heinlein, Kurosawa, Joyce.....these masters are constantly having their original visions rehashed and reshaped.

Obviously I have a problem with this. Recycled, retold stories bore the crap out of me. Unless, of course, you can deconstruct a story and retell it in a way that surpasses the original. Sometimes an artist retells his own tale, surpassing what he has already created. Hitchcock's "North By Northwest" far surpasses the original "The 39 Steps". Sometimes an artist adapts someone else's masterpiece, and fails. Gus Van Sant remaking "Psycho" shot by shot would be the obvious choice. Seldom, does an artist remake a classic and improve upon it. 

Yet this is exactly what happened in 1978, when Philip Kaufman decided to remake the classic sci-fi allegory "Invasion of the Body Snatchers". The original was a creepy, thinly veiled attack on Communism. Of the many films of the '50's that took on this specter, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" was the one that took on the issue of individualism, or the lack thereof under a Communist regime. As free capitalists, we could all be who we wanted to be, choosing our own courses, wearing the clothes we wanted, eating where we wanted, loving whom we wanted. Unless we were black, of course. 

The fact that the original film took place in the brand new milieu of suburbia undercut this theme.  All those new, look-alike houses, driveways and cul-de-sacs screamed uniformity. This was a place where everybody could suddenly become devoid of personality, and yet you might not notice it. You know, like a Sofia Coppola movie. 

It's that confusion that the original  "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" assails. Would Communism rob us of our individuality, or would incipient Captalist planning eventually do the exact same thing? Well, my friends, look around, and you tell me! Anyone seen Times Square lately? And how exactly does it differ from your average Midwestern mall? Ok, so maybe there's better pizza.

Back to Kaufman's remake. Why do I think it surpassed the original? Truly, I have no idea why. I just remember the great performances by Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy. It wasn't just the updating of the settings that rang more horrifyingly true to me, although Nimoy's EST-type cultish leader was frightening in turtlenecks and bangs. There was something about Kaufman's take on this subject matter that really got to the core of why we Americans love our freedom and individuality so much. Let's see if I still feel that way now that it is no longer contemporary.

"I just gave her something so she can sleep. Tomorrow she'll be good as new." Dr. David Kibner


Solar Wind-borne spores from outer space find their way to Earth, and form a new kind of hybrid flora which can assimilate the form of any living thing. In this way, these "spore-aliens" colonize new worlds. When humans are replaced, however, the behaviors which make them uniquely human are not replicated. As Department of Health officials Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) and Matthew Bonnell (Donald Surtherland)  recognize their friends, lovers and colleagues to be replacements, they begin to suspect the "invasion". They now must try to find a way to warn the rest of the planet while they avoid being taken over themselves.


Remember this? "Just because I'm paranoid, doesn't mean that they're not out to get me."

That '70's slogan kept popping into my head as I watched this film. I think the flag-waving of individuality and freedom we saw in the original has been replaced in this update by the fear of conspiracy, that feeling that the world is going mad, and is in the hands of madmen or worse, and that no matter how much we point fingers and scream, nobody can do anything about it. Just listen to that late night radio show "Coast to Coast" with Art Bell.  You'll hear any number of nutjobs pontificating about all sorts of drivel. Yet, if you are in the right mood, it hits you nice and hard. We all have that feeling that shit is going on all around us and that we are powerless to stop it.

This was an "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" for our generation. We were never really afraid of communism, even though  our parents made such a big deal out of it. We liked the idea of "communes" and sharing.  Most of us grew up in the suburbs, so that wasn't scary at all. Just boring. 

We also grew up with JFK's assassination, Roswell, Watergate, the Cambodian Incursion, and various other lies and cover-ups. Yes, a paranoid outlook and conspiracy theories spoke to us, and depicted in this manner scared the crap out of us. 

But how did we feel about being dehumanized? About becoming a giant ant colony? I mean, this is exactly how the pod-people behave. It's not just that we lose our individuality, it's that we lose the capacity to feel any kind of emotion. No joy without pain, right?  This is interesting, for sure, but not exactly the stuff of nightmares. What is scary is the feeling that if you go to sleep, you will wake up and no longer be the person you have always been. Or worse...those that love you will no longer be themselves. This feeling pervades both films.


So is this indeed a scary flick? Damn skippy. Philip Kaufman does his best to give you gross out moments, startle moments, disoriented moments, and good old fashioned Hitchcock tension. It's quite a ride, and you feel that you are in good hands throughout. The incredibly cinematic locale of San Francisco is almost as much a character in the film as it was in "Vertigo". When our heroes are trying to avoid capture, they wander through the SF streets with the camera darting about, focusing on their legs only at times, interspersed with shots of the Tenderloin district and people on the street acting like zombies. There's a lot of convex lens usage to help with the feeling of paranoia, especially when Matthew is trying to get through the bureacratic mess and red tape to reach authorities.  Additionally the soundtrack substitutes a strange melange of sounds for music, one of which must be the sound of a beating fetus heart on know, that "whoosh whoosh" sound. 

Speaking of In Utero, the grossing out reaches its peak when Matthew falls asleep and we see the nearby pod develop his replacement body, in a reenacting birth charade that can only be described as EWWWWW! It's an extended scene that really has no letup until Matthew is woken. Like the dog-thing in "The Thing" (see my OSL on that) and the werewolf transformation in "An American Werewolf in London", it is the height of seat-squirming discomfort. The pods in the original movie aren't half as scary or repellant.

Then, there's "the scream". The horrible, inhuman sound the pod people make when pointing out someone who has yet to be snatched. You don't hear it until almost 1 1/2 hours into the film, but it is terrifying, and, thanks to the last shot, unforgettable. 

"Alien" had a huge effect on this film and many more horror films that came after. Part of what makes a horror film so believable is how normal and real the characters seem. The writing has a lot to do with that. In "Alien" the way Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton relate to each other and their bosses is very real. This is true for later films like "Poltergeist", "The Thing" and "American Werewolf." In "Body Snatchers", the pay off is even better, since we get to see some of our players act dumb, emotional, goofy....only to be transformed into automatons. 


My first memory of Donald Sutherland was in "The Dirty Dozen", that great scene where his dopey, insane character has to impersonate the inspecting brass, and pulls off one of my favorite moments: 
"Where are you from soldier ?"
"Madison City, Missouri, sir!"
"Nehhhhh-ver heard of it."

And of course the classic: "Very pretty, Colonel, very pretty. But can they fight?"

This set the stage for his breakout role as Hawkeye Pierce, opposite Elliot Gould's Trapper John in "M*A*S*H". Sutherland was now squarely in the center of the cultural revolution, in fact, he became an icon. When he took on the title role in "Klute", he showed us that he was more than just a good comic actor, he had real chops. He solidified this reputation with roles for Fellini (Casanova) and Roeg (Don't Look Now). The latter is a film I consider my favorite horror film, and I think Sutherland might have won this role on the basis of that performance. 
Yet it is a very different character that Sutherland plays in this film. He's kind of a bureaucratic shit, bullying restaurants as an inspector for the Health Department. He has a crush on a co-worker, Elizabeth, who is herself cohabiting with a pod person. We've all been there; you know this person of the opposite sex that you dig is in a toxic relationship, but you also know that you might ruin your friendship by making advances. 
As the situation thrusts them together, his love for her can emerge, but there is only one scene that it is acted upon, while they are in close quarters hiding from the pods. It's awkward and brief, this kiss, but it works because they are acting upon urges that make them human. It's a way of reassuring each other that the ability to feel is still there.
Brooke Adams is not going to make anyone forget about Meryl Streep, but she is just fine in this role. The perpetual frown God gave her is always startling when she turns it into a smile.

But the great, satirical, scary performance comes from Spock. Leonard Nimoy was so thoroughly associated with the Star Trek role, I don't think any of us had ever seen him with rounded ears before this film. This part of David, the self-help guru, cultish and narcissistic, was a perfect chance for him to shed his Spockiness, and man, does it click! Somehow, he is the only pod who can effectively hide his pod nature, but the send up that he does of this kind of person is so effective that you don't care. You spend the entire film wanting to punch his lights out, even when you're not sure that he's a pod. 

The other two supporting roles of note come from Veronica Cartwright and Jeff Goldblum. Cartwright is a veteran role player, and this part suited her well. She has subtle comic timing, and did a great job getting freaked out. Goldblum turns in a typical self-loving/self-loathing turn, with his usual frenetic paranoia paying off perfectly to both comic and tragic effect. His exclamation of "Screw you, pods" became a household phrase for me at the time. 

Of note are two cameos from the original film: star Kevin McCarthy revisits his famous last lines from the '50's version by pounding on the windshield of a car and yelling "They're here!" Also, original film director Don Siegel shows up and plays a cabbie who identifies our heroes as human.


Philip Kaufman's take on a classic sci-fi drive-in scare fest turned up the scare a notch, and shed a bit of the allegorical claptrap just enough to make a fun thrill ride exactly what it should be. Fun! Thrilling! No, it's not a contender for the AFI top 100 list, but when it comes to MY list of best horror, it's near the top.

On First Look: ✭✭✭1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭✭1/2