by Dan Fields
Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers has seen four high-profile adaptations to film, but only the first two share the essential link between film and remake. Abel Ferrara’s noteworthy Body Snatchers, and Oliver Hirschbiegel’s less noteworthy The Invasion, riff on different themes than the two versions fully titled Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Though their styles diverge sharply with the decades in which each was produced, these movies mine contemporary social anxiety to the same terrifying effect, thanks to skillful directing and acting in both cases. Given the number of disappointing remakes to be covered in the coming weeks, it seems like a good idea to begin the series with an unqualified success.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956)
directed by Don Siegel
Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) pitches in.
© 1956 Allied Artists Pictures Corporation
Don Siegel, the director best known for introducing the world to “Dirty” Harry Callahan, takes the Body Snatchers helm with his gift for no-frills, high-impact confrontation. This is a tale of ordinary people, and it is their very ordinariness that makes the threat lurking among them so insidious and so palpably scary.
Kevin McCarthy, starring as Dr. Miles Bennell, is the perfect leading man for this kind of material. Although well turned-out and handsome, he could rapidly twist his face into grim masks of terror and malice, a talent which helped him become a beloved cult villain of the 1980s, in films like UHF and Innerspace. What fans of his sinister mugging may not remember is his dramatic prowess, established early in his long career. He received a Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination for playing Biff Loman in Death Of A Salesman (1951).
A framing device, imposed by the studio to blunt Siegel’s original, downbeat conclusion to the story, begins with Miles in a hospital, raving to doctors and police about a grave danger threatening humanity. The supposed madman’s tale unfolds in flashback, beginning days earlier.
Following a medical conference, Miles arrives home in the sleepy town of Santa Mira, California, where he works as the friendly neighborhood physician. His secretary tells him that several patients came in during his absence, wishing rather anxiously to see him. However, the urgent demand has ebbed by the time of his return. Miles reconnects with an old flame, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), who tells him that numerous local people have developed paranoid delusions about their loved ones being replaced by identical “impostors.” This was the common complaint of the people who called during his absence, but when questioned they now tell Miles it was a mistake, and nothing to worry about. Despite curious prickles of doubt, Miles shrugs it off until more warning signs appear. The story builds with plenty of good serious acting and eerie ambiguity that would do the late Rod Serling proud.
When things like alien invasions happen, nobody listens to dogs or children. So it goes when a little boy insists that his mother is no longer who she appears to be, despite an unchanged outward appearance. Cases of this kind multiply in Santa Mira, yet except for seeming unusually chipper and easygoing, all the supposedly altered people appear normal on the outside. They have the look and the intellect of their former selves, but it takes somebody close to the subject to see any change. These beings lack an essential emotional quality that their intimate friends and family intuitively miss. The subtle horror of this idea is as poignant as it is creepy.
Eventually, Miles meets with his friends Jack and Teddy Bellicec (King Donovan and Carolyn Jones), who have discovered something hideous “growing” in their greenhouse. The clues point to a massive alien infiltration, followed by absorption, of our species. Meanwhile, local psychologist Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates) quiets their suspicions as “mass hysteria” over the uncertainty of world affairs. Like many of its era, this film is fit to serve as a classic Cold War allegory, with its themes of mind control and assimilation by force.
As the grim secret ripens into consciousness, Miles and his friends realize how risky it is to share it. There is no easy way to tell how many people have already transformed, and will betray them to the others. The plot evolves from brooding mystery to tense sneak-around to desperate chase. Most thrillers have a set goal in mind, something to attain or destroy. In Body Snatchers the only goal is to run, without any assurance that it will ever be far enough. Are the authority figures they meet along the way being reasonably skeptical of their wild story, or are they already body snatchers, effortlessly gaslighting the dwindling population of humans left unsnatched?
Open to a number of symbolic readings, the Body Snatchers story retains a certain timeless quality for pitting humanity against a force that has no use for the most treasured human qualities. The alternative to fighting is to become nothing more than a workforce for one’s own propagation. No matter how utopian its ideal, an entity threatening to wipe out even the notions of individuality, desire, faith and love is not welcome on Earth. Whether that stands for spacemen or Commies or secret societies will depend on the individual viewer, but the root conflict of mind and heart against mere tissue is a potent story for everyone to enjoy. The wearing down of the human spirit which reduces the dapper, self-assured Miles into a desperate wreck makes plenty of sense. With its solid pace and performances, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is a potent piece of work, with or without an optimistic coda. It is easy enough to determine where Siegel’s original vision ended. Fortunately, the remake was checked by no such considerations as leaving its audience with hope.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978)
directed by Philip Kaufman
Will Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) fall in line?
© 1978 United Artists
Philip Kaufman, later the director of The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, created in this remake as sterling a sci-fi thriller for its time as Siegel’s film twenty years before. Full of suspense, paranoia, and chaotically cross-layered dialogue, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is 1970s genre filmmaking at its best. Its world is a world of uncomfortable silence, visual incongruity, and hallucinatory tangents that frequently question the reliability the main characters’ senses.
Instead of a prologue hinting at the survival of at least one character, the remake begins with a colony of translucent, sentient spores leaving its desert home world (or is it?) in search of a new place to settle. Against the opening titles, the organic matter journeys through space toward a blue planet we all should recognize. Floating gently into the atmosphere, the biomass drops right into San Francisco, carried in a helpful shower of rain. Without a word of narration or text, the audience witnesses a whole life cycle, from fetal pre-human to finished drone, which creates instant suspense for the unwitting human race. It is enough to make an audience cry “No! No! Run away and don’t touch!” to the gang of happy schoolchildren running to pick the pretty rain-soaked flowers.
At a time when anxiety over drugs, disease and other foreign invaders of the body rose up alongside notions of mind control and identity loss prevalent in Siegel’s film, Kaufman stressed the parallel by presenting both what we consume and what we are given to think as daily risks. This is a world in which we are simply aware of more things to fear. The Bennell character, here called Matthew (Donald Sutherland), is a city health inspector, rather a sardonic play on the figure of the small town GP. Matthew is a hardass on the job, gaining more satisfaction from his career than from whether or not people like him. Given his odd circle of friends, it all fits together. He is close to his lab assistant Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), calling her to work at all hours, perhaps out of loneliness more than professionalism, but he offers sympathetic counsel on her relationship with the curiously distant Geoffrey (Art Hindle). There is more than a little benign sexual tension going on in this friendship.
Eventually, Geoffrey’s behavior turns downright bizarre. Coinciding with the arrival of a rare plant Elizabeth brought home from the park one rainy day, he leaves the house frequently to attend mysterious “meetings,” sometimes late at night, which mainly involve his wandering the city and talking to strangers. Concerned, she relates this behavior to Matthew, who agrees to help her investigate. If an epidemic is brewing, who better to seek out invasive substances than the health inspector?
An ambiguous paranoia soon overtakes Matthew and Elizabeth, which the movie articulates through quiet, surreal ramblings around the city and fragmented, mid-conversation flashbacks that simulate the effect of a long nightmare. Now firmly in the realm of psychological terror, they enlist the help of Matthew’s friend, best-selling psychiatrist Dr. David Kibner. Leonard Nimoy, a year away from his return to Star Trek via motion pictures, puts in a splendid appearance as the warm, charismatic, yet probably sinister Kibner. Also in the mix is Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum), a frustrated poet who owns a dingy mud spa with his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright). Things are brewing, growing, and possibly coming alive in the humid darkness of their establishment. It all seems connected to Kibner’s claim that more and more people are fantasizing personality changes in their loved ones. Kibner blames it on modern attitudes. With people waltzing in and out of relationships, who can truly know another person anymore? Meanwhile, Matthew and Jack are dealing with disgusting, tendril-covered pod bodies that seem bent on replicating and destroying them.
Key topics of urban anxiety such as addiction, government conspiracy, religious cults, and many more subtle corruptions than those touted in 1956, find vindication in the arrival of an alien species bent on converting humanity into one soulless hive. Kibner’s vaguely new-age psychological platitudes take on new, terrifying meaning when they turn from figurative into literal concepts. “There’s no need for hate now,” he intones, “Or love.” He speaks of being “born again into an untroubled world,” and warns Matthew, “Don’t be trapped by old concepts. You’re evolving into a new life form.” He assures the others that the best thing to do is relax and “get some sleep.” Is he spouting his usual litany of pseudo-enlightenment, Matthew must wonder, or have the body snatchers found the perfect spokesman?
Kaufman’s Body Snatchers features the same characters as its predecessors, often by slightly different names, but gives them all more dynamic parts to play than before. Each has a crucial perspective on the invasion, including Kibner playing alien’s advocate. In fact, the film boasts career-highlight acting on the part of the entire leading cast. Sutherland looks as hunted in his own brooding way as McCarthy, while Adams wears pure terror in her big dark eyes. Nimoy gets to be as charmingly un-Spock as he can be. Goldblum is at his boozy, frenetic best, prefiguring his mad scientist role in David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. Meanwhile, Veronica Cartwright is one hell of an underrated scream queen, and definitely wins the Pathos Award as far as this movie is concerned.
Two memorable things about Invasion Of The Body Snatchers illustrate what makes it just about perfect as a remake. The first is a cameo by Kevin McCarthy, Dr. Miles Bennell of the original film, who runs through the street like maniac, shouting warnings about the arrival of the body snatchers. If not for the small matter of a two-decade time warp, this could be the moment linking the two films as a single, continuous narrative. It is a deft wink to the legacy of Siegel’s film, cementing the two in the common spirit of dwindling hope for mankind.
The second noteworthy bit is the way in which the pod people react to problems. Sharing a disturbing hive intelligence, they signal each other to swarm on human targets with piercing, unnatural shrieks. Beneath the false calm of their faces and reassuring telephone voices, they are not collectivist space gurus but plain and simple monsters. Their shambling chase maneuvers have taken on a zombie aspect. The film is the product of a time after the conventions of political thrillers and horror films had taken a firm hold in the culture. Adjusting the style and tone of the narrative with such contemporary touches, Kaufman salutes Siegel’s film without merely reshooting it. Both a gripping thriller in its own right and a deft variation on themes, this remake deserves an exalted spot on the video shelf.