Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Philip Kaufman, 1978
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright

Strange pink flowers begin growing in San Francisco and a city Health Department scientist, Elizabeth, brings some home, fascinated because she can’t place the species and believes it is a new hybrid. The new morning, her boyfriend Geoffrey wakes up seemingly a different person. She voices her concerns to another Health Department worker, Matthew, who thinks she is merely tired of the relationship. Over the next few days, Elizabeth becomes more upset and has followed Geoffrey and witnessed him meeting with total strangers. 

Her paranoia becomes more real when Matthew’s friend Jack and his wife Nancy discover a strange body in their health spa. It appears to be alive, but is covered in strange hairs and looks somehow unformed, even though it is the size of an adult human. It disappears before they can get help. Elizabeth doesn’t answer her phone and Matthew breaks in to find her asleep, but with a duplicate body of her in the garden. He rescued her and they team up with Jack and Nancy. They try to reach out a local psychiatrist friend of Matthew’s, as well as police and state agencies, all with no avail. It becomes clear that some sort of alien conspiracy is happening and they must go on the run. They get cornered and Jack and Nancy separate in order to try to find help and make it easier for them all to escape. Will they bring back reinforcements or will they return as something else?

Based on Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, director Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) remade Don Siegel’s ‘50s horror classic as an updated tale of paranoia and insidious alien invasion. Siegel’s original film was concerned with issues like Communist paranoia and McCarthyism, as well as the kind of social conformity seen in ‘50s TV shows like Leave it to Beaver. Kaufman’s remake was made during a wave of government mistrust after Vietnam and Watergate and the sense of conspiracy and paranoia directed at the government is palpable. It has an early sense of The X-Files about it, a belief that fear and horror can come from alien, as well as governmental forces. Kaufman also addresses the issue of sexual and romantic relationships, which undoubtedly changed during the sexual revolution of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. 

With some very disturbing, creepy special effects from Russ Hessey and Del Rheaumes, a jarring score from Denny Zeitlin, and some disorienting cinematography and set pieces, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is not full of jump-out-at-you scares, but quietly disturbs nonetheless. It also quickly enters the territory of body horror. This was the first of a trilogy of body horror-themed sci-fi remakes and was followed by John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986). All of these films deal with the horrors of human transformation. While Cronenberg was already making body horror with Rabid and Shivers, it seems fairly obvious that Invasion of the Body Snatchers influenced The Thing

There are a number of great performances, particularly from Donald Sutherland (Don’t Look Now), as Matthew, the film’s rational center. There is something about Sutherland that makes him so perfect for subtle horror. He has an undefinable hypnotic quality that makes him compelling and watchable, despite issues like a bland script or insufficiently talented supporting actors. Fortunately neither of those are the case here.

Brooke Adams (Shock Waves) and Sutherland have good chemistry together and it’s surprising that Adams’ career didn’t take off more. She’s likable here and is somewhat reminiscent of Suspiria’s Jessica Harper. A young Jeff Goldblum (The Fly) and Veronica Cartwright (Alien) round out their small resistance group and Leonard Nimoy makes a welcome appearance as a psychiatrist and self-help guru. Keep an eye out for the weird half glove he wears. Kevin McCarthy of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and its director, Don Siegel, make some surreal cameos here. Director Philip Kaufman and actor Robert Duvall also have brief cameos throughout the film. 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers comes highly recommended. Apocalyptic and nihilistic, the film assumes that we’ve seen the original, which is both a good and bad thing. I’m going to guiltily admit that I have not. It didn’t take away my enjoyment of this film (I’m planning to watch it as soon as possible, I swear), but I’ve read from other reviewers that some things seemed confusing without knowledge of the original. Regardless, it is one of the finest sci-fi horrors of the ‘70s and is available on DVD and recently on Blu-ray, though it seems that the original Collector’s edition DVD has the greatest number of special features.

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