[31 Days of Horror Part VII: The New Blood] Day 4 – Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Director: Philip Kaufman
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright
Screenplay: W.D. Richter
115 mins. Rated PG.

Remakes are an incredibly difficult trick to pull off, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned countless times before, and while they’ve sometimes worked, usually they just end up reminding the audience that there’s a better product in the original. It’s hard to go into a remake without immediately comparing it to the original. The goal is to win over those who haven’t seen the original, or perhaps those just looking for a single viewing, something easily digestible. Still, if you’re going to remake a classic, especially a horror classic, it’s probably a good idea to include Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park, The Mountain).

San Francisco seems a little off, and Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, The Burnt Orange Heresy) is starting to notice. Bennell, who works for the San Francisco Health Department with his colleague, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams, The Dead Zone, Snapshots), has been noticing something not quite right in the city, and when Elizabeth begins to suspect that her boyfriend is no longer her boyfriend but instead an impostor who resembles him, Matthew tries to deny it. He works to uncover the truth to this confusing situation, but the evidence is building all around him and he discovers that he’s in the middle of an invasion from beings not of this world. Now there’s the question: How do you know the enemy when the enemy looks just like you?

Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, Hemingway & Gellhorn) focused the direction of his narrative on paranoia and conspiracy (I phrase it this way because Jack Finney, the novel’s author, had no intention but to tell an interesting story and any parallels made in the film versions would be the action of a different storyteller), and it’s entirely effective. That’s what I loved so much about the story, especially when it concerns who can be trusted. This doesn’t even immediately have to do with who is an alien and who isn’t; there’s also the question of who’s a human that doesn’t know the conspiracy. Bennell and company certainly see antagonists on both ends of the spectrum, and knowing who is the enemy and who is merely unaware is a fundamental layer missed in some versions of this tale. It’s also where the narrative is more effective and most frightening.

These ideas of paranoia and conspiracy also work in a completely different light today. In our current political standing, there are two teams, it would seem, where both sides do not understand how anyone could be on the other side, and we are shocked to learn that our friends, our relatives, voted for the other guy. We feel like we’ve never even known them, and that shock is what I felt symbolically playing out on the screen with a 42 year old movie.

Sutherland handles Bennell very well, a skeptical character on both ends of the spectrum. He believes there’s something wrong with the norm but is unable to completely believe in anything outside of a rational explanation. He, like so many, trusts his gut, but that doesn’t allow him the answers to this mystery. His interplay with Brooke Adams is very well-orchestrated. I, as an audience member, completely understood the relationship without really any dialogue.

We also would be remiss if we did not celebrate the incomparable Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Adventures in Zambezia) as Dr. David Kibner. We will always remember Nimoy as Spock, but really, he’s one of the godfathers of modern classic science fiction with powerful appearances in films like this one and shows like Fringe, Nimoy played several unique characters in his time with us. Kibner has a little in common with Spock in that both characters are highly rational, science-based, and logical with their reasoning, but Kibner serves and a foil to Elizabeth for Matthew. Bennell is forced to play with his conflicted mind and while he finds himself more and more believing Elizabeth, he pushes toward Kibner for answers, someone to reassure him of his sanity.

Lastly, none of this matters, not the performances, not the themes, not the symbolism, none of it matters if the film is entertaining and a little scary (at the very least). Thankfully, there’s some truly unnerving visuals in the film that add layers of unease to the situation. It’s a very unsettling movie, thanks in part to Kaufman highlighting this perversion of the normal that is very much in the focus of the film. Cinematographer Michael Chapman gives a film noir feel to the film that works very well in forcing viewers to engage with their assumptions of who can be trusted. It’s a mystery in which multiple villains are hidden. Ben Burtt (the man who created the sounds of Star Wars) also aided the unease to the Body Snatchers with his distubing sound creation. The body snatchers have an audible screech and their gelatinous form as seen in the opening has an “evil soap bubble” squishiness that Burtt had a hand in. Then, there’s that damn dog. One of the creepiest effects in the film is also one done for incredibly cheap with practical effects, but it’s the way the dog frolics up to the focus and then we come to terms with his human face that just kind of boggled me. It’s done for cheap but it’s so incredibly effective.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an incredible experience. It’s one of those movies where you kind of know the ending and where we’re being taken, but the technical aspects and Kaufman’s direction made me not care because the journey is just so thrilling. On it’s surface, it’s a classic tale, but going beneath that, we have a very real, very human horror story on display, and I enjoyed the hell out of it.

-Kyle A. Goethe

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