CATEGORIES Drama, Horror, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Mystery & Suspense, Remakes and Sequels, Scenes We Love, Cinematical
Jack Finney's ('Time and Again') seminal 1955 science fiction-horror novel (serialized a year earlier in Collier's), 'The Body Snatchers' (a.k.a. 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers'), has been filmed four times, first in 1956, the second in 1978, the third in 1993, and the fourth (and so far, last) in 2007. The1956 adaptation, shot on a limited budget by Don Siegel ('Dirty Harry,' 'The Beguiled') for Allied Artists with Kevin McCarthy in the lead role, is generally acknowledged as a minor genre classic, in part for its anti-conformity, anti-collectivist themes that could be read as a critique of McCarthyism (named after the red-baiting senator from Wisconsin, not the actor), or communism. It was also an effective horror film, building existential dread from the characters' fears and anxieties, that the people they knew and love had been replaced by duplicates, identical in almost every way, but incapable of emotion.
For the 1978 adaptation/remake, filmmaker Philip Kaufman ('Henry and June,' 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being,' 'The Right Stuff,' 'The Wanderers,' 'The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid') switched the setting from a small California town (Mill Valley in the novel, Santa Mira in the 1956), to San Francisco. Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter ('Big Trouble in Little China,' 'The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension,' 'Brubaker,' 'Dracula') swapped out the stifling conformity and claustrophobia of the original's small town setting with the anonymity and paranoia associated with big cities. Kaufman and Richter also added a critique of the "Me Decade," pop psychology books and self-help gurus.
'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' centers on Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), a San Francisco health inspector, and a health department scientist, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams). It's Elizabeth who first brings the odd, flowering pods to Bennell's attention. In another major switch, Matthew and Elizabeth aren't romantically involved. She lives with her dentist-boyfriend, Geoffrey Howell (Art Hindle), a perfect example of the Me Decade. He's self-involved, self-centered, unresponsive, and the pod's first victim (that we see). In the first of many disturbing scenes, we see the Geoffrey-pod sweeping up gray swirls of the dust, all that's left of the real Geoffrey.
Elizabeth shares her concerns about Geoffrey's identity with Matthew who in turn brings her to see a close and personal friend, Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), a self-help guru promoting his latest book. Kibner offers 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' with just enough misdirection to keep doubt about the pod invasion in play. We're soon introduced to the last two major characters, Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum), a failed writer, and his borderline hysterical wife, Nancy (Veronica Cartwright). The Bellicecs own a mud bath, the scene of one of, but not the most, memorable scenes in the 1978 adaptation, the discovery of an unfinished duplicate. The discovery brings the two couples together (and later Kibner), but the discovery makes them a threat to the alien invaders.
A lifelong fan of San Francisco and film noir, Kaufman and his cinematographer, Matthew Chapman, studied noirs made in the 1940s and 1950s. As a result, Kaufman and Chapman employed minimal lighting for the interiors, and shadow-heavy lighting for the night-time scenes. The noir-influenced cinematography helped to create the paranoia Kaufman wanted to impart in the night-time scenes, but a sense of dislocation and alienation also appears in the daytime scenes, in the rain-streaked car interiors as Matthew and Elizabeth drive through the city and later, in a scene that qualifies for "scenes we love" status, Kaufman and Chapman use low angles and handheld cameras to depict Matthew's increasingly frantic attempts to share what he's learned about the alien pods to state and federal authorities outside San Francisco.
That scene, however, still sits behind the ending (which I won't spoil here) and the extended pod-birthing scene. As an exhausted Matthew falls asleep in a lawn chair on his rooftop garden, tendrils from a nearby pod slither up his arm and face, absorbing his memories, transferring them to the rapidly growing duplicate. The pod, one of four (one each for the central characters), flowers, first reveals a head, then shoulders, then a wriggling torso. The duplicate's face morphs into Matthews (including his mustache). The disquieting, eerie birthing sounds, courtesy of sound designer Ben Burtt (the 'Star Wars' franchise, 'Wall-E'), combine ultrasounds from Burtt's then pregnant wife, his heartbeat and breathing. Burtt also designed the pod people's unearthly shrieks. The pod people use the shrieks to identify humans trying to pass as one of them.
You can find the scene in question at the end of this clip:
Thanks to Nancy's timely intervention, Matthew and the others awaken, severing the links between the still-developing alien pods and their human hosts, 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' switches to a chase film, but not before a disgusted Matthew, mirroring his 1956 counterpart, destroys the duplicate, and we, participating as moviegoers or video watchers in the destruction of the alien duplicate. It's a temporary victory, however, in what turns out to be one of bleakest, most downbeat science fiction/horror films of the 1970s (or any decade for that matter), a reflection of the cynicism and skepticism of social, cultural, and political institutions of the post-Watergate era.
Are you a fan of the 1978 adaptation/remake? If not, which adaptation do you prefer (e.g., 1956, 1978, 1993, 2007)? Would you like to see another remake in 10 or 15 years or would you prefer to leave adaptations of Finney's novel at four?
'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' (1978) hits Blu-Ray September 14th. No word (yet) on when we can expect Don Siegel's 1956 adaptation of Finney's novel to hit Blu-Ray (hopefully soon).