Shot on a shoestring budget of approximately $350,000, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) became one of the most influential and profitable independent movies ever made. Few horror movies manage to retain their insidious charm and appeal with the passage of time. It is, after all, one of the ironies of the human condition that repeat exposure to impulses of shock and/or laughter tends to have a ‘been there/done that’ anesthetizing effect on an audience who already know a scene and therefore can anticipate either the ‘surprise’ or ‘humor’ yet to be derived from the first time viewer in it. Siegel’s original movie is an exception to this rule, perhaps because its subtext is timely rather than timeless; the movie’s harrowing depiction of humanity transformed into a mindless rabble of preprogrammed alien lifeforms, a rather spooky parable for the Joseph McCarthy witch hunts and Red Scare. The premise, based on Jack Finney’s 1954 novel (simply titled, ‘Body Snatchers’) also fit rather succinctly into filmdom’s B-budgeted matinee sci-fi craze, then afflicted by giant radioactive bugs and man-eating plants; the imagined lore of the atomic age kicking in with fanciful tales of cosmic terrors from outer space. Many postmodern critics and political historians have since reinterpreted Daniel Mainwaring’s screenplay as a scathing indictment of declining individualism in a radicalized conservative America, humans becoming soulless clones subservient to the will of a higher – if more insidious - authority. It all worked spectacularly well in 1956. But how would audiences react to a ‘remake’ in 1978? A better question: would they?
If Siegel’s original rang ominously true, playing to the built-in paranoia of communist infiltration, than Philip Kaufman’s remake emits a positively bone-chilling and apocalyptic majesty that goes strictly for the scares; sound logic in the gritty seventies and long since having become the template for all ‘end of the human life’ scenarios popularized in our present spate of sci-fi/horror movies. In hindsight, both the fifties and the seventies had this much in common: each, a decade plagued by high anxiety over circumstances beyond seemingly ‘everyone’s control’ that any clever film maker worth his weight in celluloid could tap into and feed off of to create an enduring masterpiece. And 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is, unquestionably, a magnum opus of the genre, railing against feminist-induced man-xiety: our hero, health inspector, Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) caught between his own internalized disassociation from the world and a staggering inefficiency in his unrequited affections for married chemist, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams); a failed flagrante delicto teetering on the verge of a crying gag. The original movie’s subliminal and propagandized communist threat is replaced herein by an agonizing fear of the unknown, and an increasingly ‘squirm-worthy’ sense of claustrophobic guilt for having survived the phase one deluge, rounded out by Russ Hessey and Dell Rheaume’s truly squeamish special effects as the city by the bay steadily descends into its supernatural day of reckoning.
In hindsight, the simplest effects proved the most effective; the initial interplanetary descent of these outer space spores achieved on a relatively limited scale and budget, employing a translucent and gelatinous substance purchased cheaply from a local art supply store, set against a plywood and paper mache backdrop convincingly substituted for outer space. For the record, the ominous ‘budding sequence’ - whereupon this gelatin takes on the more concrete form of miniature green rhizomes with their fan-like tentacles stretching across the unsuspecting foliage of various plants; a precious pink flower emerging from these tiny veined pods - was shot in reverse; the silken petals and spider-like talons pulled back gently by a series of cleverly concealed nylon threads; the flowers closing, their webby roots retreating; later, played back at the correct speed and backwards to uncannily suggest the opposite. Shooting mostly at night or on curiously gray afternoons, Kaufman and his cinematographer, Michael Chapman get a lot of mileage out of these unsettlingly sun-less California exteriors; San Francisco looking lifeless, anemically pale or darkly lit and extremely moody; a ‘not quite right’ metropolis where queer little pink flowers have already begun to grow from pods attached to virtually any and all plant life.
Relying on the old mantra, ‘from little things come great beginnings,’ this Invasion of the Body Snatchers builds to a malignant crescendo of absolute dread. Kaufman can take an ordinary office janitor with a floor polisher, backlit in shadow and photographed from a low angle, and make him appear hideously suspect. He alters the darkened recesses of otherwise incredibly innocuous looking streets, afflicted as uneasily confined and shadow-cast dead ends of fatal intent. As example; an unassuming elevated backyard garden is unexpectedly transformed into a mortuary of thick mucusy/web-encrusted clone fetuses, oozing from pod-like cocoons. The effect, elaborately executed, is actually comprised of latex molded impressions of the actors with a tiny compressor pumping air to suggest the ‘birthing’ phase of these clones; the goo gushing from inside them little more than a mix of non-toxic chemicals with green dye added and spritzed lightly with water to glisten as embryonic fluid might. Oddly enough, the flashier SFX in the movie are less convincing; a pug, inexplicably having adopted the face of its homeless, guitar-strumming keeper; presumably, some Brundle fly DNA crisscrossing experiment gone horrible awry during the slumber mode of this alien exhumation. However crudely executed, it remains a seamless effect, yet somehow more inexplicably grotesque than terrifying.
Like so many horror movies from its vintage, this Invasion of the Body Snatchers hails from a decade where the concept of character development is neither foreign nor excluded to satisfy cheaper thrills. We get to know these characters about to be absorbed into the abyss; two ‘couples’ actually – the aforementioned Bennell and Elizabeth, and, failed poet, Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldbloom) and his wife, Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) – owners of a prototypically proletariat bathhouse, catering to new age relaxation therapies. Jack’s beef is with psychiatrist, Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy); a pop psychologist doling out ‘feel good’ therapy-in-ten-minutes-or-your-pizza’s-free and writing self-help books that are more about achieving and maintaining his own notoriety as a media darling than actually fixing the emotional problems of his high-paying clientele. Fittingly, Kibner turns out to be one of the early ‘pod people’ leading Matthew astray, murdering Jack and narrowly causing Matthew and Elizabeth to succumb to the transformative ‘black sleep’ from which no human ever returns. The best scenes in this remake play to a sort of social disunity and isolation. Mankind will not triumph over this intergalactic treason because we are neither focused nor of one mindset; the collective-ness of the pod people effortlessly gaining dominion over a species that chooses individualism over the solidarity of withstanding Armageddon together.
While the tone of the story represented on the screen remains tautly adversarial, attitudes behind-the-scenes proved anything but – cast and crew famously getting on. “It was a pleasure to do it,” Donald Sutherland recalls, “I’m proud to have played a part in its success.” While Sutherland’s participation was always assured, and, in fact, backed by the studio, Kaufman cast Leonard Nimoy against the strenuous objections of United Artists; their top brass fearing Nimoy’s iconic turn as the Vulcan genius ‘Spock’ on TV’s Star Trek (1966-69) had severely typecast him. Meanwhile, VP in Charge of Production, Mike Medavoy made a veiled ‘request’ of Donald Sutherland - to sport the same curly mop of hair he had first made famous in 1973’s Don’t Look Now; a rather ineffectual thriller. Sutherland was not adverse to the demand, despite the daily added requirements to maintain such meticulous grooming. Co-star, Veronica Cartwright would later muse, “They set poor Donald’s hair in pink rollers every morning to give him these ringlets…like Harpo Marx! He spent so many hours in that chair. I think they paid more attention to the way his hair looked in that movie than they did mine!” Today, one sincerely wonders about the point of it, except to argue Sutherland’s character was originally intended to be a sort of offbeat and aspiring jazz musician in the first draft of the screenplay. While the vocation did not survive, the hair did, looking rather frilly and foppish.
In reinventing Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the more morally ambiguous 1970s, Kaufman was to rely on at least one link with the past to carry over and reintroduce the narrative; a cameo agreed upon almost by accident with Kevin McCarthy reprising his role as the ‘last man standing’ at the end of Siegel’s classic, now more frantic than ever as he collides with Bennell’s sedan, pleading and pounding on its windshield for Bennell and Elizabeth to heed his warnings about the fast approaching Judgment Day. No – they don’t want to coexist. They want to take over. Naturally, this omen is not taken seriously. Despite repeat exposure to the increasingly dehumanized population (Elizabeth’s disassociation from her dentist/husband, Dr. Geoffrey Howell, played with menace by Art Hindle, or Mathew’s jarring realization that the wife of his Chinese launderer, Mr. Tong, played with great sincerity by Wood Moy, has already succumbed to a ‘sickness’ of the mind) Matthew and Elizabeth remain skeptics of the grandly dismissive sort for far too long, unable to fathom the horror they have as yet to witness with their own eyes. It is, after all, quite fanciful at a glance – the world taken over by aliens who come to us via plant form, and, capable of duplicating every aspect of the human condition except our ability to feel – the one characteristic that makes us truly compassionate.
It is one of those idiosyncratic and uniquely human traits that, as humans, we have steadily come to be more and more enamored by the prospect of our own demise. The classic disaster, horror and sci-fi movie all draw upon this fundamental beguilement to witness the end of times from the relative safety of a darkened theater. Particularly affecting when envisioned for the summer popcorn blockbuster, such devastation gets built into the DNA of our morbid curiosity. Sick – but fun too. And Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is much more than just a light smattering of death, playing into T.S. Elliot’s iconic poeticism “…this is how the world ends…not with a bang, but a whimper.” Indeed, it may be one of the greatest horror movies ever made. Quite easily, it is one of the best remakes yet done. The novel’s cosmic terrors were intriguing enough; the 56’ movie’s reinvention, tantalizing as a parable. The remake’s strength is that no such parable applies; the circumstances and the results left spuriously open to our own imaginative powers of deduction. In W. D. Ritcher's screenplay, the migration of these ‘pods’ preys upon humanity from the most innocent of circumstances, a cleansing spring rain, the pods themselves stealthily attaching to other plant life and producing colorful blooms to entice.
The flowers are first observed with curiosity by micro-biologist, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) as she heads home after a long day, working in the Public Health sector. Liz’s live-in boyfriend, Dr. Geoffrey Howell (Art Hindle) thinks her speculation about parasitic plants is farfetched to say the least. Actually, he doesn’t care about much of anything except sports. Very shortly however, Geoffrey discovers the truth firsthand – becoming one of the first human/alien hybrids. The new Geoffrey looks pretty much the same, except he is utterly void of emotions. At first Elizabeth suspects Geoffrey is having an affair. But she dispels this theory after witnessing him engaged in the silent transfer of strange pod-like materials between men and women from all walks of life, their clandestine meetings in deserted parking lots and back allies. To get a better handle on what might be going on Elizabeth consults her friend and mentor, Board of Health inspector, Matthew Bennell. At first, Matthew is just as reticent about entertaining Elizabeth’s theory of alien colonization: that is, until he begins to witness similar changes first hand afflicting patrons and owners from some of the local establishments in the city he frequents, only to discover an emotionless population staring back at him.
Meanwhile across town, massage therapist Nancy Bellicec and her husband, Jack suspect their establishment has already been frequented by the pod people. Eventually the Bellicecs approach Matthew and Elizabeth after discovering a look-a-like of Jack grown from a pod inside their backroom. The body is quickly disposed of by a mysterious group of ‘waste disposal’ men after Jack refuses to fall asleep and thus, succumb to the transformation from human into pod. Arriving too late to witness the proof firsthand, Matthew consults Kibner who readily assures him there is no cause for alarm. While many San Franciscans have approached him with similar stories, Kibner is almost entirely convinced the crux for this sudden and mass paranoia stems from a sort of congenital anxiety that has been stifled and resisted for too long and only now erupted to blindside the entire population, in the middle of having a collective nervous breakdown. Although Matthew does not realize it yet, he has had his first encounter with a pod. Kibner is not really Kibner. Sensing he is being led astray, Matthew gathers the Bellicecs and Elizabeth at his hillside home. Alas, one cannot remain awake forever. As sleep overtakes the group, pods begin to hatch around Matthew’s garden; each, containing a replica of one of the afflicted. Matthew is stirred from his slumber by Nancy’s terrorized shrieks, awakening to find his own likeness writhing in gasps of short, slimy breath at his feet. Unable to quantify what has almost happened to him, Matthew takes an axe to his likeness, destroying the pod person and then proceeding to kill the rest of the offspring to save his friends’ lives.
The victory is short-lived, as Matthew places a frantic phone call to the police for help. “Wait right there, Mr. Bennell,” the 9-11 operator coolly insists; both her tone and the fact she knows his name without first asking for it, leading Matthew to concur with Jack. It’s too late for San Francisco. The pod people have taken over and outnumber the human populace of the city. Fleeing into the night moments before a pod congregation overtakes the house, Matthew, Elizabeth, Jack and Nancy attempt to mask their feelings and infiltrate the city center to learn the true extent of the pod occupation. To their collective horror, they discover the city overtaken by pods, carrying more and more of this embryonic plague to various destinations around the globe from stockpiles awaiting shipment at the wharf. Nancy and Elizabeth are startled by a genetic mutation; the distorted face of a local homeless musician grafted onto the diminutive form of his beloved pug. The animal/human hybrid is repulsive and the women scream, revealing to the pods they still possess the innate human ability to feel fear. The pods retaliate, pursuing the Bellicecs and Matthew and Elizabeth down darkened streets. Jack and Nancy become separated from Matthew and Elizabeth; the latter couple eluding capture and making their way to the wharf where Matthew assumes they might find safety aboard one of the newly docked freighters.
Regrettably, the ship has already been commandeered by pods. Matthew is defeated and exhausted. He collapses in a sorrowful heap in the nearby rushes, clutching Elizabeth in his arms. But she has already fallen under the spell of the ‘black sleep’; her body disintegrating before Matthew’s eyes; her pod clone rising from the ashes only a few feet away. Matthew flees, discovering a warehouse nearby where even more pods are being readied for their deliveries abroad. Climbing the scaffolding to the second story, Matthew seizes a fire axe from the wall and chops away at the overhead lighting; sending banks of fluorescent lamps tumbling into the pod greenhouses below, electrocuting and destroying many pods in the process. Elizabeth’s clone identifies Matthew to her brethren. There is no time for regrets. Matthew flees into the night as the warehouse is consumed in a fiery blaze. The next day, Matthew is seen strolling through the Board of Health, his emotions presumably guarded as he makes his way into the park just beyond City Hall. Nancy emerges from the tree-lined periphery, cautious but assuming she has found the last surviving human on the planet. Regrettably, her trust is misplaced. For as she calls to Matthew he suddenly turns on her with the ominous shriek of a pod – having been consumed sometime between the last evening’s encounter and this hellish morning after. Nancy is the only human left and likely to befall a similar fate now that she has been found out.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a sobering horror movie, chiefly because it relies on a good solid story with exceptionally well-crafted characterizations to buoy its’ implausible narrative. Kaufman’s foreboding prescience promotes incremental dread and suspicion. The most elaborate of the special effects are truly grotesque, yet mere icing on an already well-frosted cake and continue to hold up under contemporary scrutiny. But it is the exceptional cast who really sell this monster mash as plausible entertainment. The net result is that this Invasion of the Body Snatchers plays much more like Shakespearean tragedy than a traditional B-grade horror flick shot on a shoestring – the penultimate moment where Nancy approaches Matthew, only to discover much too late he has become a pod, leaves the audience shell-shocked and uncertain as to who – or what - we might encounter exiting the theater. The ensemble acting herein is uniformly among the best ever featured in a ‘horror’ movie. We can easily bypass the star personas of Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum and Leonard Nemoy with Veronica Cartwright and Brook Adams simply taken at face value. Even better, Michael Chapman’s moody cinematography transforms Frisco into a dreary, very careworn, and, exceptionally creepy landscape, truly fit for these night terrors. Most of the movie takes place at night. Yet, even daytime sequences exhibit a constricting sensation – suggesting everything belonging to the age of man is already in very steep decline. Bone-chilling on every level and sure to lead to a few sleepless nights once seen, this Invasion of the Body Snatchers is never easily dismissed from our consciousness. The horror presented from without in our story is devastating to say the least. But the real horror that continues to linger, long after the houselights have come up, is undeniably born from within.
Generally speaking, I am not in favor of reissues, my philosophy akin to the old MGM motto of do it once, do it big and give it class. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a UA title: translation, it belongs to the ‘new’ MGM which in no way, shape or form resembles that spectacular ‘dream factory’ of yesteryear where the Gables, Garlands, Garbos and Hepburns freely roamed. We are constantly hearing of the financial crises rocking MGM’s corporate boardroom. And MGM’s track record for producing quality hi-def transfers for their deep catalog is not good to say the least. I mean, here is a company presently mismanaged by an executive brain trust who have virtually zero interest (and, if we are to believe the trades, zero funds) to restore John Wayne’s The Alamo (1960, and about as big a catalog title as one might hope to find anywhere in filmdom history), and furthermore, have force fed consumers a steady stream of lackluster Blu-ray releases of such iconic film fare as Separate Tables, A Kiss Before Dying and Hawaii among others, in pathetic reincarnations so woefully undernourished they barely are worth mentioning except to say – they’re terrible! So, it is more than a little surprising to see a reinvestment on Invasion of the Body Snatchers in this brand ‘spanking’ new release via Shout!/Scream Factory, cited as a new 2K scan of the inter-positive. Without a doubt, this is a ‘new’ scan; considerably different from the previously issued Blu-rays and favoring a cooler palette of hues.
Never having seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers projected theatrically I can only offer the following observations. That, at least to my eyes, the new Blu-ray looks more pleasing and refined. Colors are not more saturated, but somehow less artificially boosted; browns, reds, blues and greens brought back into balance. In direct comparison, the old Blu-ray leans rather heavily toward a boosting of the warmer/browner tones. Flesh tones on the new Blu-ray are extremely satisfying and there is slightly more information revealed on the left and right sides of the film frame. The image is also augmented by a light and consistently represented smattering of indigenous grain. Curiously, the bit rate on this new disc is lower. Nevertheless, the results are the same – a solid, crisp image, free of age-related debris. Really good stuff! Shout! provides us with two audio options: the previously available DTS 5.1 and the similarly purposed 2.0. Extras are a bit of a mutt, culled from various ‘previously’ available sources and a few new goodies. We get the same audio commentary from Kaufman, the fifteen minute junket, ‘Re-Visitors from Outer Space: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pod’, ‘The Man Behind the Scream’ interview, ‘The Invasion Will Be Televised’ and ‘Practical Magic: The Special Effect Pod’. These were featured on the old MGM/Fox Blu-ray and are little more than perfunctory in their praise; a shame too, because they feature Kaufman, Veronica Cartwright and Donald Sutherland – among others, all of whom look as they have much more to say but are somehow being stifled in their comments by an editor eager to simply move on to something else.
More gratifying on every level is the new audio commentary by author/film historian, Steve Haberman who provides comprehensive back stories that are fascinating. As edifying: the 10-minute interview with Brooke Adams entitled “Star-Crossed in The Invasion.” The lengthiest new featurette teeters around the 25 minute mark with actor, Art Hindle offering more revelations you won’t find elsewhere on this disc. There are also short interviews with writer, W.D. Richter and composer, Denny Zeitlin. Lastly, Shout! dips into the archives for some TV Spots, Radio Spots a Photo Gallery and a vintage episode of Science Fiction Theater; “Time is Just A Place”, based on another Jack Finney short story.
Lost in the shuffle are a few very comprehensive extras that remain exclusively the domain of the Region B Arrow Blu-ray release from a few years ago: a 51 minute, 'Pod Discussion' with critic, Kim Newman and filmmakers, Ben Wheatley and Norman J. Warren; Dissecting the Pod: 20 minutes with Kaufman biographer, Annette Insdorf, and, Pod Novel: an 11 minute interview with Jack Seabrook, author of ‘Stealing through Time: On the Writings of Jack Finney’. Personally, I continue to be more than a little miffed by the fact Euro-releases of classic Hollywood movies remain more plentiful and more comprehensively produced for the Euro/Asian market than for their North American counterparts. There are fans on this side of the pond too, fellas. Cut us some slack, why don’t you? By now, this compartmentalizing and parceling off of ‘rights’ and special features to various regions – especially for ‘vintage’ deep catalog releases – ought to be antique rather than the gold standard bearer. But I digress. Bottom line: for we who reside in Region A, Shout!’s new Blu-ray of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the way to go. It’s still missing some good stuff compared to the Arrow release, but well worth a double dip. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)