body snatchers

by John S

IT’S LIKE THIS: This month, the Scarecrow Project is celebrating Earth Month by reviewing “World War Tree” movies.  Which, I guess, denotes films wherein plants and flora play some pivotal part, for better or worse, in the unfolding narrative. Our review today is the awesome 1978 entry in the distinguished and utterly creepy Body Snatcher series. Just like the 1970s themselves, this movie is gorgeous, colorful, freaky, terrifying, and bizarrely hilarious – all at the same time. It’s a hell of a trip, man.

Truth be told, Invasion of the Body Snatchers could’ve also easily been featured with last month’s movie theme: Bechdel Test Flicks. It easily passes that test – to wit, this film has (1) at least two female characters who (2) actually interact and talk to each other and (3) they don’t talk about men. It’s just too bad that, in lieu of talking about dudes, the two leading ladies of Body Snatchers end up discussing how to avoid the terrifying alien pod people with exactly one facial expression who have gradually taken over San Francisco and are intent on wiping out all remaining traces of humanity – including the two of them. I have a feeling our two ladies would, by comparison, much rather be chatting about their douchebag boyfriends, after all.

Anyhow, we meet our first lady not long after the film starts. She is the lovely Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams), and you know she has a green thumb by the way she picks a strange-looking flower from a bush and brings it home. She tries showing Geoffrey (Art Hindle), her aforementioned caveman boyfriend, her botanical discovery but he’s more interested in the football game on TV – and fondling her tushie. He also refuses to turn down the TV while Elizabeth tries to read. Gosh, I can’t wait for the pod people to get his ass. Does that make me a bad person?

Turns out I don’t have to wait long: the next morning, Elizabeth wakes up to find Geoffrey acting all aloof and distant and emotionless as he prepares to go to work. Elizabeth is utterly baffled by his transformation from amorous neanderthal the night before to icy automaton now who can’t wait to get out the door. Mainly because she and Geoff have been living together for years and he’s acting like he’s about to embark on a Walk of Shame after a one-night-stand. Now, if they’d met at a bar for the first time the night before, then his behavior this morning would make perfect sense. Alas, it’s not your typical “Morning-After Escape.” That wouldn’t be special enough for a movie. Yawn.

Concerned about Geoffrey’s “behavior,” Elizabeth vents about it to her close office pal, Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland). Matthew, clearly not a fan of Geoffrey’s, basically tells her all dentists are crazy (Geoff is a dentist, you see) and she should end the relationship immediately. You (and Elizabeth) should take Matthew’s counsel with not so much a grain of salt but a veritable boulder of it. This is because Matthew has a serious jones for Elizabeth. You can tell this easily by the way he leers at her and makes her do weird things with her eyeballs for his amusement (don’t ask – just trust that I wouldn’t make this crap up). So I suppose you could say that Matthew may have a vested interest in breaking up Elizabeth and Geoffrey. And you thought I was kidding when I said there were some douchebags in this movie.

At any rate, things go from weird to “oh damn it’s time to book it the hell out of Frisco” when other people begin complaining that their family and friends are all behaving strangely: Elizabeth meets a woman who also claims the man in her life has changed; Matthew’s dry cleaner claims his wife has changed and is “not right,” asking desperately for Matthew’s help; and (most ominously) Leonard Nimoy shows up as pop psychiatrist Dr. David Kibner, explaining  there has been a rash of “delusional people” making reports of loved ones “changing” but there is really no reason to be concerned because it is all a misunderstanding. RIght. In a movie about aliens taking over the Earth, the voice of comfort shouldn’t come from someone who looks like Spock. And if it does – watch out. Don’t any of these imbeciles watch Star Trek?

Sure enough, it becomes clear that Dr. Kibner is utterly full of crap when Matthew’s best pal, Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum), and his wife (and our second leading lady), Nancy (Veronica Cartwright), discover a “duplicate” of Jack in their massage parlor. This version, however, is somehow, erm, unfinished – as if it needed one more lacquer of varnish or something before being officially declared “Jack 2.0.” To top it off, across town Matthew barely rescues Elizabeth in time from being cloned herself at the hands of the transformed (i.e., less douchey) Geoffrey. At this point, Elizabeth and Nancy do the Bechdel Test proud and correctly deduce the flower that Elizabeth found a few days ago is mysteriously spreading across the city – and may be linked to the recent sinister events, including the appearance of the “duplicate” bodies.  Matthew and Jack, being dolts of the highest order, basically just nod and go, “Yeah, sure, that fits.”

Matthew, Elizabeth, Nancy, and Jack try running their theory by Dr. Spock, er, Dr. Kibner. It doesn’t qualify as the most unforeseen plot twist in the world that he basically tells them they’re all nuts. Even then, our foolish foursome’s warning bells still don’t go off about him. I mean, even if there was the tiniest shred of doubt about this choad possibly being in league with the bad guys, would you actually trust someone who looks like the world’s most famous alien/cold fish TV character? This is definitely one case where a little more tube-watching would’ve been a good thing.

Alas, our foolish fousome are clearly “intellectuals” who don’t have time for Network TV – to their dire detriment. Soon, the “Pod People” (aka Duplicates) are spreading across San Francisco and threatening to spill across the country. Can Matthew, Elizabeth, Nancy, and Jack find a way to stop them before it’s too late? Or should they just worry about saving their own keisters and get out of the city while they can? Is Nancy right when she says the pods clone you when you sleep? If so, how long can our foursome stay awake and avoid a similar fate? Do the Pod People have a secret weakness they can exploit? If so, will they discover it before it’s too late? Or is Dr. Kibner right? Is this is all just  a terrible misunderstanding? Is it much ado about nothing? Is the real reason the people of San Francisco are starting to look like emotionless, expressionless drones is because someone secretly discovered an early form of… BOTOX???

body snatchers guys
BUT SERIOUSLY: Few cinematic franchises have consistently hit the bull’s eye, quality-wise, like the Body Snatchers series. All versions are good movies. Based on the 1954 novel by Jack Finney, the first cinematic adaptation was Don SIegel’s 1956 classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which was faithful to the book’s small-town setting and how the alien contagion turns everything familiar into something sinister, marred only slightly by a studio-imposed voice-over narration and tacked-on “happy” ending. The 1978 version by Phillip Kaufman has the same title, and moves the action to a big city, adding themes of pop psychology, modern relationship politics, and urban alienation/isolation. It is also much more uncompromising in its bleak vision of humanity under siege from not-so-human interlopers. If that ending doesn’t get under your skin even just a little, you may already be a Pod Person.

Next came Body Snatchers, the 1993 entry directed by Abel Ferrara that cleverly sets the mayhem on a small military base in the Deep South, where everyone is already essentially behaving the same way even before the threat of the pod people spreads. So much so that when the protagonists begin to realize the threat in their midst, it’s hard to plead their case with anyone. After all, aren’t soldiers all supposed to be stoic and act the same? It’s a shame this version didn’t get the promotion and release it deserved: it’s a memorably claustrophobic and creepy thriller that, like its predecessors, is both intelligent and scary. Body Snatchers also deserves credit for making the lead a female this time, giving us a different perspective to the invasion. She is just an average teenager, in contrast to the older male professional leads in the first two films. Gabrielle Anwar of Burn Notice fame shines in this early starring role. Meg Tilly’s performance as Anwar’s character’s stepmother, an early victim of the contagion, is unforgettably frightening. Tilly’s delivery of her classic monologue is bone-chilling: “Where are you going to go? Where are you going to run? Where are you going to hide? There’s nowhere. Because. There’s no one. Like you. Left.”   

The most recent entry in the franchise was the 2007 Nicole Kidman-starrer, simply titled The Invasion, which once again moves the action back to the big city. This time, though, it’s Washington DC. Female-driven like its 1993 predecessor, The Invasion appropriately mixes in themes of feminism, global geo-politics, and government bureaucracy while retaining some of the 1978 version’s reliance on psychiatric doubt: Kidman’s character is a psychiatrist who is one of the first to notice the signs of danger, but rationalizes everything until it’s almost too late. Plagued by re-shoots, delays, and bad buzz, this version fared poorly at the box-office when it was finally released and was unjustly labeled a bad film. It is far from that, featuring solid performances from Kidman and a good supporting cast that includes Daniel Craig, Jeremy Northam, Jeffrey Wright, Josef Sommer, and Veronica Cartwright (in a nod to her pivotal role in the 1978 version). It also brings an interesting twist to the classic premise: the contagion is an extra-terrestrial virus this time that doesn’t clone the victims, but brainwashes them. The aliens also believe that humans and human nature create the global conflicts currently proliferating around the world. As the invasion spreads and more people are “changed” by the virus, war after war after war around the world mysteriously ends, resulting in an eerie sort of global peace. As one of the pod people asks Kidman’s still-unconverted character at the end: “Why would you want to go back to that? All that war? Ours is a better way.” It’s hard to argue against that. The Invasion deserves credit for trying to be a thoughtful, intelligent sci-fi thriller remake that asks some complex questions. It needs to be re-assessed apart from its baffling negative hype and seen for the engaging movie that it actually is.

However, as good as the 1956, 1993, and 2007 versions are, it’s the 1978 version that remains the best of them.  Whereas the first film made effective use of small town citizenry’s deep familiarity with one another and the gradual build of tension as everyone perceptibly changes, the 1978 version intriguingly shifts the dynamic with it’s big-city setting. In Kaufman’s narrative, the tension comes from the realization that while we may notice the change in those closest to us, the disconnected nature of big-city living may prevent us from seeing the change in many others until it is already dangerously wide-spread. Kaufman uses odd angles and weird shots to further underscore the unsettling notion that any slight shift in an urban area’s populace would not go as easily noticed as it would in a small town. Danny Zeitlin’s eerie, atonal score also adds considerably to this vibe. These elements manage the neat trick of making sunny, expansive San Francisco seem claustrophobic and oppressive.

However, the main reason Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978 really works is because it deftly establishes its main characters and their humanity well before that humanity is threatened. Donald Sutherland lends a nice everyman quality to Matthew Bennell, and his relationship to Brooke Adam’s Elizabeth Driscoll is very believable. Clearly, they are an example of what I like to call a “work husband and wife,” essentially two colleagues who have a close friendship – and, were it not for existing individual romantic commitments (at least in Elizabeth’s case), would probably be something more than friends. Kaufman nicely turns Matthew and Elizabeth’s “love that dare not speak its name” into the emotional spine of the story – which makes the ultimate outcome all the more poignant. As for Adams, she is spot-on as the sweet-but-strong Elizabeth, whose sensitive nature is what allows her to intuit and detect the danger around them well before anyone else does.

Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright, like Sutherland and Adams, also bring oddball quirks to their characters. Jack and Nancy Bellicec provide most of the humor in the film. Both are a bundle of nerves and tics, which Goldblum and Cartwright make endearing rather than annoying. The script also surprises by giving them some unexpected shadings, allowing them to subvert expectations and have moments of heroism and ingenuity (particularly Nancy). Cartwright would also appear 29 years later in The Invasion in a smaller role, a patient of Nicole Kidman’s psychiatrist lead character who clues the good doctor in on the fact that something sinister is afoot. Between her role here and in Alien just a year later, Cartwright is now Genre Royalty. Another Genre Royalty present is Leonard Nimoy, playing a somewhat obvious “villain” in Dr. David Kibner. While Nimoy is good, I have to wonder if another actor less associated with such a well-known sci-fi role as Star Trek’s Spock would’ve defied audience expectations a bit more and telegraphed Kibner’s villainy a little less.  Someone like, say, David Hemmings or Sean Connery. Nevertheless, Nimoy is okay in the role and maybe even contributes to the off-center vibe of the film. I suppose it’s a matter of perspective. Finally, Kevin McCarthy, who played the lead in the 1956 version, has a nice cameo that echoes part of  the ending of the original film and is an amusing callback.

Ultimately, Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978 is probably the scariest and best of the Body Snatchers films. It embodies some of the best qualities of films from the 70s: a slow-burn approach to the story and characters, intelligent scripting, genuine atmosphere, and a steadfast refusal to take the easy way out. Sadly, that’s the kind of film we see less and less these days. So enjoy this one.

RATING: 9.5 out of 10 (Modern Classic – Must See)

P.S. My ratings for the other three Body Snatchers flicks:

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – 9 out of 10 (the one most faithful to the novel by Jack Finney; lags a bit behind the 1978 version because of that studio-imposed narration and tacked-on “it’s-gonna-be-okay-after-all” ending)

Body Snatchers (1993) – 8 out of 10 (smart move switching the setting to a military base; some memorably creepy performances and scenes; could have used a little more build-up before all hell breaks loose, but very effective nonetheless)

The Invasion (2007) – 7.5 out of 10 (sleek update that is much, much better than it’s given credit for, with some clever twists and provocative themes; unlike the other versions, it suggests that humans are the real problem on Earth and not the invading aliens – Nicole Kidman’s face in the very last shot says it all; may pack the least punch of them all, but still has a lot going for it)

(All four Body Snatchers flicks are available in the Psychotronic Room on the second floor in the Sci-Fi section.  For the month of April, Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978 is also co-located in the World War Tree display at the end of the New Release/Second Take Aisle.)

John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Dario Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Peanut M&Ms with popcorn, Julia Roberts in PRETTY WOMAN, Theo James in anything, HALLOWEEN (movie and holiday), Scarecrow Video, Russell Crowe as a villain, strawberry soda, and Karaoke – not necessarily in that order.

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