AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 115 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!
A race of gelatinous creatures abandon their dying world and, pushed through space by ‘the solar wind’, make their way to Earth and land in San Francisco, mostly falling on plant leaves, assimilating them and forming small pods with pink flowers. San Francisco Health Department worker Elizabeth Driscoll bring a flower home. The next morning, her boyfriend Geoffrey Howell is suddenly distant. Her colleague, health inspector Matthew Bennell, suggests that she see his friend, psychiatrist Dr. David Kibner. While driving to a book party David is attending, they are accosted by a hysterical man who runs off, and is soon seen dead, surrounded by a crowd of emotionless onlookers. At the party, Matthew calls the police, and finds them strangely indifferent. An agitated party attendee starts declaring that her husband is not her real husband. Meanwhile, Matthew’s friend Jack Bellicec, a struggling writer who owns a bathhouse with his wife Nancy, discovers a mysterious body which lacks distinguishing characteristics on one of the beds and calls Matthew to investigate. Matthew thinks that the body bears a slight resemblance to Jack….
There are a handful of films of the horror/science fiction kind where a remake is often considered equal to or even better than the already classic original. Though I can’t agree in any shape or form that, for example, the remake of Dawn Of The Dead even matches the original version, let alone tops it, I am on the side of those who consider the second versions of The Thing and The Fly to improve on the first ones, and am probably in the majority there. Now Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, ignoring for now the third and fourth versions which I am going to cover in due course, is one remake where folk seem to be virtually equally divided. For me, the 1978 version doesn’t quite match the 1956 masterpiece, though I might be saying that because, as you will know if you read my review of it, the black and white film had a huge effect on me as a youngster and haunted me for many years, while I never got to see the second version until a couple of decades later. I do think that, overall, Don Seigel’s film has a slight edge over Philip Kaufman’s, achieving just a little bit more with far less, but that’s not to slight Kaufman’s moodier, slower but possibly creepier version at all, which is a terrific slice of paranoid science fiction terror in its own right, and a good example of a remake which respects its predecessor but does plenty of new things. And there’s certainly one thing it improves on….the ending. It was felt that 1956 audiences couldn’t take the downbeat ending originally intended to they added a more positive coda. The 70’s was the decade of unhappy endings, so in 1978, even if it was just after Star Wars, a negative finish was just fine.
Despite the larger scope of this version, it was still a relatively low budget production, made independently and set up partially because Kaufman has failed to set up a Star Trek film due to a perception that “nobody was interested in science fiction” [then of course Star Wars came out], and wanted to do another sci-fi movie that could be done with limited funds. W. D. Richter’s screenplay followed Jack Finney’s novel less than the 1956 film, which it took more from, but did add a bit more detail about the aliens. Filmed entirely on location in San Francisco, with much of the footage of people walking around shot by Kaufman and cinematographer Michael Chapman when they just wondered about the city with a camera hidden, the film had a large number of cameo appearances, including one by the 1956 version’s director Don Siegel as a taxi driver. Siegel had lost much of his vision and was driving through the dark streets of San Francisco without his glasses, meaning that Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams’ nervousness onscreen is genuine. Whilst shooting an cameo by star of the original Kevin McCarthy, a homeless person asked: “Weren’t you in the first one”? McCarthy replied: “Yes” and the other said: “That’s the better one”. Sutherland insisted on doing his own stunts, despite being told that “He was the clumsiest person in the world” and narrowly missed being hit by a fireball which badly burned an extra. He was hit by a car during filming, fell onto the windshield and was able to see the driver saying “Oh, my God! Not you!” The film was a moderate commercial success and garnered surprisingly good reviews for a film of its type.
Now one oddity about this picture is that it seems to assume that very few people will watch it who aren’t already familiar with the original. For a start the ‘twist’ is given away immediately with its highly unusual opening of whispy alien beings [pretty good special effects here] leaving their planet and travelling through space to land on Earth and assimilate with plant leaves. Then there are a number of statements from characters in this film, such as the first time we hear the advice to not fall asleep, that only make sense if one already knows things from the 1956 movie, such as just why people shouldn’t fall asleep. And then of course we have, in an early scene, McCarthy still warning people just as his character was at the end of the first film. It makes me wonder if this version is partly intended as a sequel. Perhaps the invaders were defeated after the events of the first film, but now they’re back, in slightly evolved form; the pods spout flowers and it’s the flowers which people tend to bring home, while a great touch also has aliens emit a hideous scream when they see a human. And, while they initially took over a small town, now it’s the big city where they take route, a concept superbly exploited in several effectively off-kilter scenes, shot with a handheld camera, where characters are walking through the streets of San Francisco and are disorientated while people tend to stare at them. Of course the main reason they feel this way is because they could be surrounded by Pod People, but who hasn’t felt like this at times?
Things get eerie right away with a rather unsettling shot of a priest [another cameo, this time Robert Duvall] and a child on a swing, though there is less accumulation of eerie details here and it seems that Pod People are all over the place extremely quickly….which also strengthens my view that it’s a sequel. After the first ten minutes though this version settles into a much more leisurely pace than the original, which both benefits and hampers it. It allows a much more sinister atmosphere to build, but it also means that this film is a bit less exciting. The story progresses in a relatively similar manner though. Again, we have mysterious bodies being found, and again we have two couples trying to find out what is going on, though the main guy is now a civil servant and the heroine is almost a combination of Wilma, the woman who thought her father wasn’t the same, and Becky. Rather than fall back in love with the hero with whom she had a romance many years ago, she has a boyfriend, though he’s soon duplicated and we wait for Elisabeth and Matthew to fall in love, which I suppose they do, though Elisabeth’s sudden declaration of love for Matthew may be just principally a desperate reassertion of her humanity. Then there’s a fifth person of the group, David, though we find out that he’s an alien quite quickly so we’re just waiting for him to betray the others. Of course Matthew and Elisabeth end up on the run, but at least this time the hero gets to torch a factory of pods. The terrifying moment where Miles realises Becky is an alien is somewhat weakly replicated, but then we have some very clever wrong-footing of the audience where Matthew seems to be the hero until the very last scene where he comes across Nancy, who disappeared earlier and we thought could be a Pod Person….only it’s Matthew who screams and points her in a truly bone-chilling final momemt.
The limited ‘birthing’ scene in the original is now a lengthy set piece where we can see the aliens come to life in quite disturbing images, though, aside from one shot of an alien face being smashed, and a weird dog with the face of a human, this version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is still fairly subtle and avoids the temptation to become a gore fest. Kaufman’s film doesn’t seem to comment on the time it was made in nearly as much as the original – in fact it seems to struggle for subtext, made as it was when the social upheaval of the late 1960’s/ early 1970’s had pretty much vanished – but does throw in some fine post-Watergate anti-government paranoia and a few comments about other things like the sexual revolution [“the family unit is shot to hell”, moans David, and one wonders what he would have to day about today’s time]. Kaufman’s direction is a lot more elaborate than Siegel’s and he stages many moments in unusual ways, beginning with an early dialogue scene where a couple are talking in a kitchen but off-camera, the camera instead very slowly tracking into the side of the kitchen that we can see. There’s good use of deliberately jarring editing, whip pans, almost ultra-violet green and purple lighting [usually employed when the pods are nearby], and, by contrast, cinematography that is almost black and white and very film noir-like with its use of darkness and shadows. Chapman’s photography throughout is just simply superb.
The principal characters are all fairly well written and distinguished by how they view the epidemic that is all around them. Sutherland, Adams, Jeff Goldblum [especially enjoyable in a very early role as a neurotic writer who can’t take criticism], Cartwright and Leonard Nimoy [proving he was more than Mr. Spock] all do well playing believable people. Jazz composer Danny Zeitlin, whose only film score this sadly was, provides a splendidly unsettling soundtrack where it’s sometimes hard to tell where music ends and sound begins. The aural design of this movie is meticulously crafted. Overall I still find Siegel’s film a bit more frightening than Kaufman’s. Kaufman’s more mannered approach works extremely well, but for me Siegel’s film evokes certain things like the idea of horror in the mundane better because of its more matter of fact handling, like more scenes taking place during the day [a good example being when some of our principal characters are hiding from the aliens] rather than the night, and therefore seems to me to be just a little bit more appropriate for the subject matter. Watching it again for this review though, I was still struck by how impressive this version is, and I realised that there’s not that much in it between the two films. I can totally understand why many prefer this one. It’s as worthy a remake as you could possibly imagine of such a fantastic original, and a true classic in its own right.
My review of Body Snatchers  Coming Soon!