Body Snatchers (1993)
Directed by: Abel Ferrara
Written by: Dennis Paoli, Jack Finney, Nicholas St John, Raymond Cistheri, Stuart Gordon
Starring: Gabrielle Anwar, Meg Tilly, Reilly Murphy, Terry Kinney
AKA BODY SNATCHERS: THE INVASION CONTINUES
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 87 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!
Steve Malone, an agent from the Environmental Protection Agency, is sent to an army base in Alabama to test possible effects on the surrounding ecological system caused by military actions. With him is his teenage daughter from his first marriage, Marti, his second wife Carol, and Marti’s half brother Andy. On the way, Marti is threatened in a gas station by an soldier who lets her go when he notices her fear. Before she leaves the room, he warns her, “they get you when you sleep”. The family moves into their new home on the base, and Marti makes friends with the base commander’s daughter Jenn. On his first day in day care, Andy runs away because he is recognised as an outsider among the other somehow conformist children, while that night Marti sees a screaming man being taken away by soldiers. Steve is approached by medical officer Major Collins, who says that toxication of the environment could be causing strange physiological reactions in people….
Compared to the first, second and fourth versions of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, this third version is almost a forgotten movie. While easily available to buy, it’s far less known and talked about, and I even struggled to find much in the way of background information about it. In fact, I hadn’t even seen it before, despite it being from a filmmaker who I’m not hugely fond of but who I do admit is certainly an interesting one who has a very personal world view. The general opinion seems to be that it’s fairly good but nowhere near as strong a movie as the 1956 and 1978 versions, and now I’ve finally seen the film, it’s an opinion I agree with. It’s a decent sci-fi/horror picture that certainly chills and has a few moments here and there that equal highlights in the earlier films, but comes across as a both a bit undeveloped and a bit rushed, while it doesn’t really feel much like an Abel Ferrera film at all except for some of the camera work. When it finished, I’d been entertained and sometimes frightened, but I was also left with a slight feeling of pointlessness. Part of the reason for that, I suppose, is that the two previous versions are so good. The 1978 film deserves so much credit for building on things in the 1956 film, but this 1993 one doesn’t really do that except for certain things like more special effects.
Robert H. Solo, who had produced the first remake, first tried to get a new version off the ground in 1988 and had Larry Cohen and Raymon Cisteri write a treatment which took very little indeed from Jack Finney’s novel but took bits and pieces from the two previous film versions, before Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli, the duo who scripted Re-animator, wrote a full script. Both Cohen and Gordon were attached as director for a while but the project took ages to get off the ground and eventually Ferrera, who did a more mainstream movie every now and again to pay the bills, was given the job. He got his usual collaborator Nicholas St. John to rewrite the script but studio interference caused further alterations during filming, notably increasing the love interest and the removal of a final shot reminiscent of The Birds where you see loads of the pod filled trucks cruising up Independence Ave. in Washington D.C. [which admittedly doesn’t really harm the film’s ending which is still pretty downbeat if you interpret it a certain way], while Ferrera was uncomfortable shooting a much bigger budgeted film than he was used to. After a very protracted shoot and even a showing at the Cannes Film Festival, Warner Bros, for reasons which are unfathomable as it had the potential to be a major hit, essentially buried the film, only releasing it in a handful of cinemas in America, while in the UK it went straight to video, though reviews were generally quite favourable.
The opening titles occur over what is basically a hugely simplified version of the 1978 version’s beginning, with shots of space and aerial shots of Earth countryside but no visible aliens….though we do get some whooshing sounds. It’s not a very good beginning to be honest and I was beginning to expect the worst, but the film soon recovered and soon intrigued me because its setting and main characters are very different to what we’ve seen before. Having the story take place in and around an army base immediately suggests great potential because the rigidity of military life isn’t that different from the way the Pod People are. And, while we do have a main character who has a medical/scientific profession, the chief person in this film is his daughter Marti. The character of Becky/Elizabeth, the hero’s companion during his escape attempt from the invaders, is dropped completely, as are his acquaintances and later antagonists Dr. Kaufman/Kibner and the Belicecs. Re-invented, however, are two elements which had been dropped from the 1978 version: a voiceover by the lead character, which thankfully is only heard in three places, and the disturbing device of a young boy claiming that his mother is not his “real” mother, here Marti’s half brother Andy. In fact Andy is a major character here and is at the centre of many of the film’s best moments, such as when he’s at school and every other child in class has drawn the same picture.
The uneasy build-up is well handled, if slightly rushed, from odd details like a dead lizard and a fake jaw being found to moments where soldiers appear very menacing and even take people away, moments which unsettled me because I still recall nightmares from when I was really young of soldiers kidnapping me. Andy entering his mother’s room where she crumbles to dust and a soulless double emerges from the closet is positively nightmarish, and the subsequent scenes with him and his ‘fake’ mother really have a sinister edge, aided greatly by a truly effective, well balanced performance by Meg Tilly who delivers a memorable monologue in chilling fashion. The budding romance between Marti and soldier Jim is weakened by a terrible performance from Billy Wirth and threatens to take the edge of things, but then the film peaks with a fine combination of special effects and quiet suspense as two characters are cloned and we even get to see a double growing inside a pod, not to mention tentacles going up noses [these pods do look quite different to before]. However, after this, one gets the impression that much footage is missing as we rush to the ‘two lone humans trying to survive’ stuff and the feeling of cold fear present in much of the first half of the film just isn’t there anymore. The climax in a helicopter falls flat due to terrible staging and a terrible ‘falling’ effect, though the ending works quite well though because it can seem either positive or negative depending on your view of things. I reckon that Marti and Jim are the last humans on earth as their helicopter is being cleared to land, and ain’t gonna last long, but that’s just me.
Two ideas invented by the 1978 version are picked up here again: the mortal remains of the ‘original’ human beings being picked up by garbage trucks, and the duplicates uttering an otherworldly scream when they discover a genuine human, thereby calling assistance from other pod people, though the latter is a bit overused here, even though one moment when Marti gives herself away and the duplicate of Jenn notices her is almost as bone-chilling as that classic Donald Sutherland moment. Effects are pretty good, with some great melting heads. The screenplay is both confused in the way it seems to suggest ecological elements, beginning with a toxic spill, but not follow through on them, and in the end doesn’t do enough with its military conformist subtext. In fact, despite its setting, it’s hardly there at all and this one is really first and foremost about fear of family, for instance Marti already having had an impostor of a kind replace her mother right from the offset. Ferrera and his cinematographer Bojan Bazelli visually isolate Marti right from the beginning, while for much of the first half of the film, whenever we see someone doing something, we are usually viewing them through blinds or paned windows, the movie perhaps telling us that we shouldn’t be privy to the action or that we shouldn’t be seeing it yet. I say “yet”, because once Marti discovers the pod-people, the film is no longer shot this way. Elsewhere there’s effective use of slanted angles and close-ups, though overall this version isn’t as interesting to look at as the previous two.
Gabrielle Anwar is a little uneasy in the lead role – she has done much better – but little Reilly Murphy is amazingly convincing in the part of Andy. When he says: “my mother’s dead”, it’s so quietly powerful because Murphy underplays it and you get a sense that he’s totally traumatised without it being laid on. By contrast, Forest Whitaker seems too calm in his role as Major Collins, who notices that some men on the base are behaving oddly, but then has a really barnstorming scene just before he dies, and R. Lee Ermey shines in exactly the kind of role who would expect him to play. Joe Delia’s synthesiser score is adequate in a film that oddly feels cheap at times despite its moderate budget. I get the feeling that studio meddling considerably weakened this film [not for the first time in a Body Snatchers film] and I’d love to see a director’s cut, though it’s highly unlikely to happen. This version can’t touch the first two. Taken on its own though, it still packs enough of the required fear and panache from such a cast-iron [or so you would think, but I will say no more on that for now!] premise to work in the way that it should for much of the time. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with this version, but it still gave me just about enough, and it’s possible that I might well have been truly affected by it indeed if the Don Siegel and Philip Kaufman ones didn’t exist.
Review of The Invasion  Coming Soon!