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Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978 poster 3

As a general rule, I don’t care for remakes, finding them to be alternately lazy, creatively bankrupt and, in worst case scenarios, downright offensive to the original property. That being said, there are always exceptions to every rule and I must admit that I do swear loyalty to a handful of remakes. John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing (1982) is the definitive version of that tale, despite not being the first. I’ll always feel that Gore Verbinski’s version of The Ring (2002) is a more frightening film than Ringu (1998) and I’ve always enjoyed Philip Kaufman’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) more than Don Siegel’s 1956 original.

For the record, there’s not much wrong with the original version of Invasion, despite my predilection for the remake. Siegel’s always been one of my favorite directors and he brings a taut, razors’ edge sense of tension to many of the film’s scenes. Kevin McCarthy is a more than able hero and the shadow of the McCarthy Red Scare that hovers over everything is just as palpable a menace as those sinister pod people ever were. That being said, the 1956 version is not without its problems. The framing device, added at the insistence of the producers, dilutes the film to a considerable degree and the movie definitely comes off as more dated than many of its contemporaries. In many ways, the original version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a product of its time, although its never been anything less than imminently watchable in the nearly 60 years since its release.

Kaufman’s re-do begins with one of the single most inventive intros I’ve ever seen, a superbly imaginative four-minute-epic that tracks the titular alien spores from their home planet, through the vast reaches of space and down onto the Earth’s surface via rain and condensation. Scored like an old-fashioned nature show, the sequence is a real eye-popper and sets a pretty high bar for the rest of the film. The effects in this scene, particularly the one where the leaf becomes “infected” and grows a pod, are superb, allowing for a pretty decent suspension of disbelief. The sequence also allows for a smooth transition into the film, proper, as we witness one of our protagonists, Elizabeth (Brooke Adams) pick the resulting flower off the plant: with that, we officially begin our descent into sci-fi madness.

Elizabeth works for the San Francisco Department of Health (the city’s various sights and locations are utilized to good effect throughout the film), where she works side by side with Matt (Donald Sutherland), our other erstwhile protagonist. Matt’s a stoic, by-the-book health inspector who brooks absolutely no bullshit from anyone: one of the film’s many highlights is the introductory scene where Matt finds a rat turd in a restaurant’s soup cauldron, only for the manager to argue that it’s a caper. After going back and forth for a few moments, Matt holds the offending item out to the manager: “If it’s a caper, go ahead and eat it.” Game, set, match.

The body snatching really begins in earnest after Elizabeth brings the sprouting pod home to her boyfriend, Geoffrey (Art Hindle). Geoffrey is kind of a jerk, right off the bat, but he gets distinctly odder after a little exposure to the unknown flora: he becomes rather strange and emotionless, leading Elizabeth to tell best friend Matt that her boyfriend isn’t himself…as in, really isn’t himself and might actually be someone else. Matt thinks his gal pal is going a little loony until his friendly neighborhood laundry owner makes the same strange comment about his wife. Something, clearly, is afoot.

After Elizabeth tails her husband and witnesses him handing off strange packages to various strangers around town, she’s pretty sure that her initial suspicions are correct: Geoffrey is involved in something very odd and, potentially, very bad. In the interest of “helping” his friend, Matt takes her to see his friend, Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), a pop-psychologist who’s seen more than his fair share of these “Person X is not Person X” cases lately. Meanwhile, Matt’s other friends, Jack (Jeff Goldblum) and Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright), have found something a little strange at their bathhouse: a partially formed humanoid that bears a striking, if rudimentary, resemblance to Jack. In one of the film’s most chilling moments, Nancy watches the humanoid’s eyes spring open at the exact moment that Jack’s close: the clone also has a nose bleed, just like Jack. It would seem that Elizabeth was right, all along: something very strange and terrible is going on.

As the situation around them continues to spiral out of control, Matt, Elizabeth, Jack and Nancy have only themselves to rely on, as any and everyone around them, including the police and government authorities, might very well be “pod people.” The group must also avoid sleeping, if at all possible, since that seems to be when the transformations become complete, resulting in a fully formed clone and a pile of dust where the “real” person used to be. Paranoia, both real and induced by lack of sleep, ensues and the group sees danger wherever they turn. With no one else to turn to, Matt seeks the counsel of Dr. Kibner but is the good doctor really on their side? Or has he become a part of something much bigger, something which could very well spell the end of humanity as we know it?

Above all, Kaufman’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one sustained chill after another, punctuated by several setpieces that tip the film into full-blown horror territory. There’s one moment, shocking for how untelegraphed it is, where Matt splatters his clone’s head with a hoe: in a film that’s remarkably restrained as far as violence goes, it’s a truly bracing, horrific moment. The film’s piece de resistance, however, has to be the skin-crawling sequence where Matt dozes on the lawn while pod people form on the grass around him. Not only is the scene unbelievably tense, as we, literally, are watching Matt sleep his life away but the effects are astoundingly grotesque and rather nasty, with the forming pod people resembling nothing so much as the soupy mess at the center of the exploitation class The Incredible Melting Man (1977). It’s a great scene, one that has no equal in the original film. Likewise, the discovery of Jack’s clone is handled with considerably more tension and rising horror than the parallel scene in the first film.

Overall, Kaufman’s remake has a slightly different focus than the original: whereas Siegel’s original bemoaned the increasing lack of cohesion within America, as an outside force sought to drive us apart, the remake takes the much more paranoid viewpoint that we, as individuals, are hopelessly surrounded by mobs of sinister, conspiring others. It’s the same notion that makes us believe people are talking about us from behind their hands or planning some terrible event whenever they meet in secret: it’s the modern notion that no individual should have privacy or secrets in order to “protect” the masses that drives such modern institutes as the NSA. Kaufman’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers makes the point that sinister groups of people probably are making sinister plans at this very minute: how would we really know?

Despite enjoying McCarthy’s performance in the original quite a bit, I’m much more taken by Sutherland’s performance in the remake. Channeling the same sort of “lovably assholish genius” that Hugh Laurie mined for years in the TV show, House, Sutherland is a thoroughly charismatic presence. Brooke Adams, likewise, is a great relateable character, someone with just steel nerve to get the job done but enough vulnerability to still fill the “damsel in distress” quotient required of film’s from this era. Goldblum and Cartwright are great as the bo-ho best friends, with Cartwright bringing a particularly strong performance: she’s a vastly underrated actor who will probably always be best know for her performance in Alien (1979) but deserves recognition for so much more. And, of course, there’s the colossally fun performance by Leonard Nimoy as the platitude-spouting shrink with an agenda: his character is a great riff on the emotionless performance he perfected as Spock on Star Trek, featuring a truly wonderful bit where he appears to stuff all of the over-the-top emoting normally associated with former cast-mate William Shatner into one little diatribe. It’s a truly great performance, especially since it so ably plays against expectations.

The film looks fantastic, filled with the warm tones and vibrant colors (particularly greens) which always characterized the best of ’70s cinema. The man behind the camera for this one is none other than Michael Chapman, the savant who also shot Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The Fugitive (1993) and Space Jam (1996): without a doubt, the remake of the film is a much better-looking film than the original and this comes from someone who really digs on the look of ’50s-era sci-fi films. Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is in a whole other category, however.

As a remake, Kaufman’s film sticks fairly closely to the original and its source material, Jack Finney’s novel, “The Body Snatchers.” Many times, scenes will parallel similar scenes in the first film, although writer W.D. Richter makes a few, significant changes from Siegel’s version. One of the niftiest bits of fan service in the remake is the scene where Kevin McCarthy reprises his role from the original: he jumps in front of Matt and Elizabeth’s car, pounding on the hood and screaming that “They’re coming! They’re already here!” just like he did at the conclusion of the original. A new addition that works spectacularly is the ultra-creepy “howl” that the pod people use whenever they discover a human: it’s a great, skin-crawling bit and Kaufman uses it to perfection in several key moments.

Truth be told, there’s really only one complaint that I have about the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and it’s a pretty specific one: the dog-hobo hybrid that makes an appearance during the pivotal “sneaking through the clones” scene is a real howler, so thoroughly goofy as to completely kill the mood of the film. I’m hard-pressed to think of any other cinematic moment that matches this bit of inanity but the stupid “Chaos reigns fox” from Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) certainly comes to mind. In an interesting bit of coincidence: co-star Goldblum would go on to appear in another remake that featured a human-animal hybrid when he starred in Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly (1986): what the hell are the chances of that?

As I stated earlier, there’s very little wrong with the original film and modern audiences would be well-served by checking it out, if they haven’t already. That being said, Kaufman’s 1978 remake is a much better film on nearly every level, not least of which is an ending that manages to not only beat the original by a country mile but to be one of the single best cinematic endings of all time. In a time and age when we find ourselves increasingly connected to the rest of the world and the notion of “group-think” is becoming more prevalent than ever, much of Invasion of the Body Snatchers has begun to seem rather prophetic. Perhaps the invaders were already here…how would we really know?