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EMPIRE ESSAY: Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers Review

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A small-town doctor comes to believe that his fellow citizens are being replaced with identical alien impostors; some kind of invasion is underway.

★★★★

Jack Finney's quietly creepy novel The Body Snatchers (1955), serialised not in some wild sci-fi pulp but the relatively cosy Colliers Magazine, evidently struck a real chord with its tale of an America infiltrated and taken over by vegetable people from outer space who look and act just like the ordinary folks they've replaced, but can only fake emotional responses.

Don Siegel swiftly filmed the book as Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956), a black and white nightmare classic, and the property has been remade by producer Robert H. Solo in excellent updated versions tailored for subsequent decades, Philip Kaufman's Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978) and Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers (1993).

You can tell how America itself is changing by the settings each film uses to represent the most vulnerable, typically American location for their creepy invasions: a small town in the 50s, a big city in the 70s, an army base in the 90s. If the 1956 film is informed by the paranoia of the McCarthy Era, with the pod people representing either commie infiltrators or right-wing witch-hunters, Kaufman's movie asks "Where have all the flowers gone?" in depicting a San Francisco ten years on from the Summer Of Love, where the fragile hopes of the counterculture have been squashed (Veronica Cartwright and Jeff Goldblum are the leftover hippies, reduced to managing a health spa) and everyone is withdrawing into their own little isolation cells even before the alien seeds drift to Earth.

Cinematographer Michael Chapman had come from making New York look like Hell for Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver and has a real eye for the telling detail that — like the rat-turd found in the soup at a fancy French restaurant by health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) in his introductory scene — suggests something deeply wrong. Even before the story starts, the credits play out over effects shots of strange germinations and off-centre vignettes (Robert Duvall in an uncredited cameo as a priest on a swing) that clue us in to the invasion long before Bennell catches on.

The 1978 Invasion is not merely a remake of the 1956 film, though it reuses some character names and plot twists, but an upgrade (the Tom and Ellis Burman effects are especially striking) and, even, a sequel. After encountering a sinister cab driver played by Don Siegel himself, Bennell and his neurotic love-interest Elizabeth (wide-mouthed Brooke Adams, who never had the career she deserved) run into a screaming, unshaven lunatic played by Kevin McCarthy, hero of the 1956 original, who is still ranting at the top of his voice, continuing the terrifying speech he delivered to an uncaring world during the climax of the earlier film, "They're taking over... You're next!"

Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter — who also did the Frank Langella Dracula and the oddball Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai — don't tell their story in the straight-ahead fashion of Don Siegel. They allow a pattern to build up after disjointed scenes that have Bennell running into people who are convinced that people they know have been replaced with duplicates — Elizabeth takes a while to catch on, because her boyfriend (Art Hindle) was such a stiff even before he was podded. Bits of vital exposition are delivered as background chatter Altman-style or themes expressed through odd footnotes like the irrational (and therefore un-podlike) dislike that exists between drop-out poet Jack Belicec (Goldbulm) and smooth pop psychiatrist David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy, faking warmth like a true alien).

      The characters catch on when it's too late, and the film turns into a terrific chase-action adventure, with the destruction of a pod greenhouse as a finale (a scene from the book Siegel didn't use). The downbeat punchline finds everyone transformed but waiflike Nancy (Cartwright) and the whole city going about its usual business in an eerie quiet interrupted only by the memorably ghastly open-mouthed pod yell (reprised by Ferrara for his version) a duplicate Bennell uses to accuse the last human in San Francisco and maybe the world.



      Like Don Siegel, Philip Kaufman was not associated with science fiction,  which means that he has few of the bad habits that come with genre filmmaking and occasionally has the smarts to make a hoary trick work. There's one great shock-horror moment as a human-headed dog (a mutant pod fusing a banjo player and his pet) trots into frame, and the scenes with unformed aliens hatching out of their seedpods or the duplicated humans crumbling to dust are flesh-creepy in a way many subsequent effects bonanza horrors are not. 

Also a key player is sound-man Ben Burtt (who had just worked on Star Wars): the 1978 Body Snatchers has one of the subtlest, most layered soundtracks in science fiction cinema, incorporating a very unusual score by Denny Zeitlin and a great many almost subliminal noises and tics that add up to a genuinely unearthly feel.

Finney's original premise is good enough to stand a topically-skewed remake every 15 years — not to mention funky new spin-offs like The Faculty — but conoisseurs of 70s cinema will recognise this as among the most intelligent, most frightening American science fiction films of that decade.

Finney's original premise is good enough to stand a topically-skewed remake every 15 years — not to mention funky new spin-offs like The Faculty — but conoisseurs of 70s cinema will recognise this as among the most intelligent, most frightening American s