Friday, January 27, 2012

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS 1978


Smart movies are hard to come by. Smart remakes…near impossible. Why?
Well, maybe it’s because Hollywood’s attitude towards remakes is built on a kind of Catch-22 logic: If a film is poorly made and flops at the boxoffice—precisely the type of film, one would assume, to best benefit from being remade—Hollywood won’t touch it. However, if a film is accomplished and financially successful (leaning towards classic-status), superfluous existence aside, Hollywood can’t seem to wait to get a crack at churning out a remake.

Wholly motivated by a studio’s desire to repeat an earlier triumph without having to break a sweat, most remakes are cynical, dumbed-down affairs tricked-up with new technology and a paucity of inspiration. The lazier, more arrogant cousin of the sequel, remakes (which, by definition, presume an improvement over the original) have been responsible for some of the most painful moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had; e.g., The Stepford Wives (2004), The Haunting (1999), and The Women (2008). Just to name a few.

Yet, as if to prove the rule by exception, every now and then, when a remake is inspired by an idea rather than an accountant’s ledger, the results can be surprising, fresh, even transcendent. Such is the case with Phillip Kaufman’s shrewd and remarkably effective remake of the 1956 sci-fi/horror classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Donald Sutherland as Matthew Bennell
Brooke Adams as Elizabeth Driscoll
Jeff Goldblum as Jack Bellicec
Veronica Cartwright as Nancy Bellicec
Leonard Nimoy as Dr. David Kibner
The original Don Siegel film was a little B-movie masterpiece of paranoia and dread that, intentionally or not, tapped into America’s ambivalence to post-war conformity and anxiety over the anti-communist panic of McCarthyism. Staying true to the core story line of the original, Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (a deliciously pulpy title I’m glad the remake didn't abandon) is about an invasion of plant-like organisms from space that duplicate and replace human life— sans emotions. Life continues as before, the sole casualty (and ultimate tragedy) being a loss of personality and individuality.

The timeless appeal of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (it’s been remade at least two other times) may have a lot to do with the fact that we’re a culture which clings to the notion of individuality in the abstract, yet values conformity in the concrete. Even a cursory glimpse at the “comments” section of any Internet news site reveals that tolerance for opposing points of views and ways of life is not exactly America’s strong suit. Yet that doesn’t stop each of us from harboring, deep within our democratic bosoms, the romantic belief that we honor, above all else, the individual’s right to be just that: an individual.
What's HE doing here?
Robert Duvall's unbilled cameo as an unidentified priest  suspiciously eyeing Brooke Adams
as she picks one of the flowers that figure so significantly in the plot, was appropriately mysterious
enough to seriously unsettle 1978 audiences when the film premiered

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
What makes this Invasion of the Body Snatchers such a chilling delight is how acutely, and with such perceptive wit, it captures the mood and preoccupations of a particular point and place in time, and uses it to breathe fresh life into a familiar horror tale. The late Ira Levin (with both Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives) was a master at this sort of thing: creating tension out of tapping into the core anxieties lying at the center of a shifting cultural climate.

Instead of the small town setting of the original, the 1978 film makes the most of its “Me Decade” angst and takes place in that most defiantly individualistic of American cities; San Francisco. Which is, conceptually speaking, perfection personified. Where better to rage a war against conformity than a city that prides itself on being a haven for the eccentric, the unique, and the idiosyncratic.
San Francisco's Transamerica Pyramid
Throughout the film, shots are composed that juxtapose the unique elements of San Francisco's
unique "personality" with the threat of impending dehumanization and a loss of individuality

For those too young to have experienced the 70s firsthand, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an affectionate, but nonetheless spot-on, skewering of a certain West Coast sensibility. I was attending an arts college in San Francisco in 1978, and this film captures the feel of the time so authentically, it tweaks serious pangs of nostalgia every time I watch it. Seriously, most of the people I attended class with at The San Francisco Art Institute (myself included) were like the characters, Jack and Nancy Bellicec. 

This is a post hippie-movement San Francisco during that transitional time when the aging, free-love crowd was having to make room for the navel-gazing yuppie. It was an age of alternatives: alternative medicine, alternative religion and alternative thinking. The media was full of cults, causes, conspiracy theories, est training, and best-selling pop psychologists. Communal living was replaced by pride in ownership (restored Victorian apartments became symbols of yuppie affluence) and a reverence for privacy and personal space (as exemplified by the high-tech stereo headphones worn by the character, Geoffrey). Ecology buttons replaced peace signs, and a 1973 book titled “The Sound of Music and Plants” by Dorothy Retallck (detailing the effects of music on plant growth…a point referenced humorously in the film) was just part of a larger exaltation of urban plant life and vegetation in general.

As in all times of social realignment, unacknowledged social anxiety and unease is part of the adaptive cultural landscape. It makes sense to me that in a city as welcoming of change as San Francisco, the perceptive observer might notice a distinct edginess and uncertainty behind the city's composed veneer of blissed-out broad-mindedness.
This barely perceptible nervousness is precisely what director Phillip Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter seize on in Invasion of the Body Snatchers to provide a contemporary kick to the sci-fi, body-switching horror. The threat appears to come from deep space, but when it comes down to it, what’s most frightening about the whole body-snatching idea is the possibility that what we most cling to in an interdependent way among friends and loved ones (our individuality), is what is least valued about us from a societal perspective. 

It hardly feels unintentional that the pod people taking over San Francisco are undetectable precisely because of their behavioral similarity to the urban professionals whose infiltration had been threatening the city’s loosey goosey vibe since the early 70s. Nor are we meant to ascertain unequivocally whether or not the psychobabble of Leonard Nimoy’s paperback psychologist is pod-talk or just the new language of the New-Age.

PERFORMANCES
It always puzzles me the way so many directors of horror and suspense films overlook the obvious fact that the effectiveness of any horror film rests in whatever investment the audience has in the fate of the protagonists. Take time to flesh out the characters and there’s no telling how far an audience will go with your premise.
This is especially true with a film whose plot pivots on that intangible quality known as “humanity.” Invasion of the Body Snatchers appears to have been cast with an eye towards emphasizing unique idiosyncrasies of its stars, and it makes a world of difference in how we respond to all the genre trappings of chases, close calls and suspicious red herrings. Donald Sutherland, sporting the same curly locks from 1973s Don’t Look Now, has always been a kind of goofy, off-beat leading man. He’s not the lantern-jawed, hero type, so he comes off a believably strong, yet vulnerable enough for you never to be quite sure if he’s up to the task at hand.
 Brooke Adams is one of my favorite underrated actresses. She was among a small group of intelligent, distinctive actresses (like Geneviève Bujold) the 70s produced and then discarded when audience tastes turned to blank prettiness.

As good as Adams and Sutherland are (and Adams is amazing), the prizes have to go to Jeff Goldblum and Angela Cartwright. As just kind of couple you’d expect to find in San Francisco (they run a mud-bath establishment; he’s a poet, she’s one of those espousers of crackpot theories that always sounds more sane than the people around her). They are a hilarious and touching pair, and I daresay that without their contribution, as excellent a film as Invasion of the Body Snatchers is, it wouldn’t soar the way it does.
And let’s not leave out Leonard Nimoy. I’ve never been a fan of Star Trek and no doubt I have a minimal awareness of his gifts as an actor, but I must say his role as the infuriatingly logical psychologist is an inspired bit of casting. Audiences were never likely to shed their image of him as Spock, so I like that the film intentionally makes use of our predisposed sense of him in a way that doesn’t intrude, but rather enhances.
A trade paper ad promoting Veronica Cartwright for Academy Award consideration
THE STUFF  OF FANTASY
Missed Opportunity or Cultural Sensitivity?
Perhaps it’s a sign of Kaufman’s good taste, but as a gay man, I find it hard to imagine how a film about human cloning set in San Francisco could resist the impulse to include a scene on Castro Street; home of the “Castro Street Clone.” For the uninitiated, The Castro is a gay district in San Francisco where (at least in the 70s) free-thinking gay men willfully abandoned all personal individuality so as to look identical to one another. Sporting identical mustaches, haircuts, clothing, and physiques, the Castro Street Clone was a city mainstay, as identifiable and generic to San Francisco as the Transamerica building.

Thinking back though, I recall with great sadness that Invasion of the Body Snatchers was released about a month after the murders of openly-gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Under these circumstances there would have been no place in the film for a reference of this nature. I might have this wrong, but I even seem to remember that a jokey line of dialog Donald Sutherland speaks to psychologist Nimoy (“The Mayor’s a patient of yours, isn’t he?”) may have been temporarily cut out of sensitivity.
In any event, it was strange watching a movie with so many scenes taking place at its City Hall. San Francisco felt like a very scary place at the time, and, as one might imagine, that tragic real-life event—auguring a mounting intolerance and conservatism in the city known for its liberalism—only made watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers an even more unsettling experience than it already was.
"It was like the whole city had changed overnight."
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I don’t know if director Phillip Kaufman is an admirer of Roman Polanski, but Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a film I’m certain Polanski would appreciate. From the very first frames there is attention paid to establishing an atmosphere of ever escalating paranoia and claustrophobia. Every shot has something; whether in the foreground or distance, that supports its themes. Plants are in almost every shot, sometimes crowding the frame creating a small space of activity for the actors.  There’s a brilliant sense of danger taking place beyond the confines of the story we’re witnessing. People are seen running in the distance, every window seems to have someone staring out of it. The tension grows to the point that even banal human activities like flossing take on an ominous air (Elizabeth’s boyfriend is seen flossing in an early scene, later at a secret meeting in Union Square Donald Sutherland’s character passes a man flossing in public). 
Of course, it’s wonderful that all this ambiance is piled on and we’re left to fill in many of the blanks ourselves. The act of which engages us even further and pulls us into the story.
I've always liked how Sutherland's shattered windshield (result of a run in with disgruntled restaurant staff) never gets repaired and offers us a view of a city fractured. Reminds me of how Polanski has Jack Nicholson spend the lion's share of Chinatown with a huge bandage on his nose. Its incongruity and hint of unexpected violence is unsettling.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers has the most amusingly witty and dark screenplay. Here are just a smattering of my favorite lines:

Jack: "Of course it's a conspiracy"
Matthew: "What is?"
Jack: "Everything!"

Nancy: (recoiling from a lifesize pod replica of her husband) "Jack, don't touch it! You don't know where it's been!"

Jack: "Who are you calling?"
Matthew: "Washington."
Jack: "What...the CIA? The FBI? They're pods already!"

Nancy: "Well, why not a 'space flower'? Why do we always expect metal ships?"
Jack: "I've never expected metal ships."

After Rosemary’s Baby, which, to me, is the best horror/suspense film ever made, I have to count Invasion of the Body Snatchers as one of the most consistently scary (and fun) thrillers I’ve ever seen. It delivers as drama, black comedy, sci-fi, and horror.  
Although set in a marvelously evoked 70s San Francisco, the film is so smart that it remains a relevant nightmare-maker even after all these years.

Today, with all the pierced, body-inked, automatons walking around with their earbuds buried in their brains, eyes trained on texting fingers, with nary a moment of eye-contact or human interaction passed between them, we might be ripe for another remake. But I think we’d better hurry up. From what I’m seeing there’s not a lot of individuality left to be fearful of losing.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

12 comments:

  1. Ken, your perspective as one whom lived in San Francisco in the 1970s is definitely helpful to someone such as myself, who lives on the other side of the globe and was born the same year this film was released. I must say, I am rather chuffed when I consider films made in my birth year, and this, one of my all-time favourites, is one of them!

    I noted your references to Castro Street and the like, but I think that some of the things you highlighted may have been a little too culturally specific for the wider audience. The film is already crammed full of things to watch. Just the cameos alone: Don Siegel driving the taxi, Kevin McCarthy running through traffic, Philip Kaufman tapping on the telephone box occupied by Donald Sutherland, even Rose Kaufman (the director's wife) at the book party, and so on.

    I didn't notice the flossing fellow in Union Square--I'll be sure to look for him! One thing I have noticed is how certain characters, such as Matthew and Elizabeth, are seen drinking water after nearly being cloned. Note that when the pods clone people, the original turns to dust. After her near-pod experience, Elizabeth says she feels like she has been "poisoned" --the sickly feeling of dehydration, perhaps? Could this be how the pods work? The thing about drinking water might go past you, but once you look for it, it's quite obvious and an extremely clever touch.

    This film also opened in theatres across America just a few weeks after the Jonestown massacre. Talk about timing of a movie release. Fear of extremist cults must have been running high indeed.

    I found the final paragraph of your review extremely gratifying. It says exactly all the things that I have been trying to tell people for the last few years, alas most people think I'm crazy or exaggerating:

    To quote your review: "pierced, body-inked, automatons walking around with their earbuds buried in their brains, eyes trained on texting fingers, with nary a moment of eye-contact or human interaction passed between them..."

    Isn't that the truth? I find it highly amusing that people shall go to tremendous lengths to modify their bodies for the sake of expressing their individuality, only to wind up looking like clones of one another.

    As for those annoying little white headphones...how ironic is it that it's called the i-POD? Take the train or bus and observe the passengers, tapping away at screens no larger than the palm of their hand. Dozens of pod people all around you on the bus, the train, the shopping centre and the subway station--they're here already!

    Films about people who try to remain human and hold onto their individuality in an increasingly dehumanised, conformist society usually appeal to me very much. I adore the 1956 cinematic version of the story from novelist Jack Finney, and this 1978 remake is another great film.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Mark,
      Thanks for such a thoughtful and informative comment. I'll even forgive your bringing up the fact that you were born in the year I was already attending college. :-)
      It's nice reading about how much you enjoy the film and you bring up several interesting points. I had no idea the director's wife appeared in the film. Have to look at the movie again!

      Great also that you picked up on the pod people drinking water throughout the film (plants literally watering themselves!)
      Best perception: in all the years I’ve been using an iPod, and as many times as I’ve seen this film, I’ve never once thought about what an appropriately dehumanizing name the iPod is! Thanks for that!
      You really seem to get the vibe of this terrific film, and I’m happy it’s a favorite of someone so far away from the shores of San Francisco. Appreciate your reading my blog and sharing your thoughts!

      Delete
    2. I saw this film years and years ago on TV and thought it was creepy. I bought it on DVD years later and found it so unsettling! Once again, you have delved below the surface of a movie I enjoy and somehow encapsulated and expressed feelings about it that help to illuminate my own unsifted ones. I couldn't quite put my finger on why the movie stuck with me so much. The day after I watched it on DVD, I went walking in a local park on my lunch hour and I was actually nauseous because the place was filled with plants of every sort, some of them very large and looming. I was, believe it or not, sort of scared!! That was the power of this movie; to instill feelings like that in a (supposedly) grown man... I will never forget Sutherland's final utterance in the movie, either. Yikes! Thanks for your post on this.

      Delete
    3. Thanks very much Poseidon3! I love that film has the ability to sometime override our adult responses and effect us in some visceral way that has nothing to do with logic. Your park experience sounds like the best compliment Kaufman could ever get about this film. "Invasion..." really has something about it that gets under your skin.

      Delete
  2. Apart from the cameos that I have mentioned, you also get Michael Chapman, cinematographer, as the janitor cleaning the hallways of the health department building. Jerry Garcia plays the banjo on the soundtrack but does not appear in the film. Philip Kaufman actually has a double cameo of sorts: apart from tapping on the telephone booth used by Matthew (Donald Sutherland), he is also the voice heard over the public address system when pods are being loaded onto trucks. I love the Rose Kaufman cameo, the way she upsets frustrated poet Jack (Jeff Goldblum) at the book party and Jack’s agitated response.

    The film is so rich in visual detail and in every scene in the movie, there is something to notice—and if it’s not a visual clue, it’s something to be heard. Listen very closely to the scene where Geoffrey is watching the basketball game: the play-by-play announcer says, “I can’t believe these are the same players we’ve been watching all year!” Later in the film, Matthew and Elizabeth are moving about the city, attempting to avoid capture by the pod people. A spruiker outside one of the strip clubs attempts to lure Matthew inside with the promise that the experience is guaranteed to make him “feel like a new man”. In the same scene, a woman’s voice outside a club can be heard promising “totally new girls”. How many films (particularly in the sci-fi and horror genres) have such attention to detail?

    Another key component of the film is its musical soundtrack by Denny Zeitlin (his sole feature film credit). I’ve even managed to find a vinyl record copy. It’s such strange, unique music. The sound design from Ben Burtt is another big plus. Is there a more disconcerting sound than that hideous pod person squeal? This film is strong in every major department. Aspiring sci-fi horror filmmakers, please take note.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. One of the reasons it's so easy to re-watch this film is because Kaufman did indeed make the film so rich in throwaway details that you keep catching new things each time you see it. As you point out with the dialog...I love how, in the average horror film, people keep telling each other "You've got to get some sleep!", when they do that here, it's spooky!
      Thanks for the info about the soundtrack, it always reminded me of the score to "Demon Seed." You draw attention to what I've always liked about this film...it's atypically rich in content. Thanks!

      Delete
  3. I often think, that as society continues to dumb down and the rise of the idiots takes hold, that I'm Donald Sutherland. The whole world has changed and no one can see it! Thankfully glimmers of hope appear that intelligence and culture still abounds, and one of these is your blog :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi Mark, Thank you for reading the blog and the very nice compliment about the blog. Although there is more of Jeff Goldblum's Jack Bellicec about me than Sutherland, I know what you mean. Here in the States, if you suggest that, culturally, movies aren't living up to the potential they promised in the 70s, you get called "a hater." Everything's good, all output is equal, and discernment is elitism.

    Jack- Where's Homer, where's Kazantzankis, where's Jack London...?

    Matthew - (worried) Where's Elizabeth?

    I hope you don't mind my linking your blog to my site. It's terrific and lots of cool cultural observations.
    http://randomramblingsthoughtsandfiction.blogspot.com/

    ReplyDelete
  5. Not at all, thank you! Yes, I know just what you mean

    ReplyDelete
  6. Another remake? Sounds great! We've only had Don Siegel's original, Kaufmann's remake, Ferrara's remake, that awful film The Invasion with Daniel Craig and more recently the tribute/parody The World's End. How about we have a movie in which an alien infiltrates Hollywood and slowly starts ensuring that all new movie releases are nothing but thinly veiled Body Snatchers remakes to summon in the coming of his race and their take over of the movie industry, where individuality will never thrive again (if it ever did).

    Great review though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Marcus (I'm going to take the leap and guess you are the fellow from the following post?)
      It is rather surprising how many remakes the original film and 1954 novel have spawned. No problem when they're as innovative as Kaufmann's, dismaying when they have absolutely nothing new to add. Ironic that Hollywood, a bastion of real-life soulless pod people, finds this story so compelling they need to keep telling it again and again.
      Thank you very much for stopping by on Mark's recommendation, and I'm very happy you enjoy the blog. Looking forward to hearing from you again!

      Delete
  7. My name is Marcus Killerby by the way and I love your blog. My friend Mark Vanselow put me onto it.

    ReplyDelete