Remakes are a tricky business. Well, I should specify remakes of great movies are a tricky business (e.g. “The Maltese Falcon” had been adapted for the screen twice before Huston & Bogart got their hands on it, and no one seemed to notice). Don Siegel’s 1956 film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is, to my view a great movie. However, it was a B-movie, made on the cheap with few resources beyond a great story (adapted from Jack Finney’s novel “The Body Snatchers”) and a terrifically skilled director. Maybe that’s what drove Philip Kaufman to remake “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in 1978. Whatever his motivations were, it’s one of the few remakes that really work: respectful of its source material, while carving out its own distinct cinematic territory in its own time. It’s also a very entertaining and truly creepy movie that blends horror with a genre that’s always been a personal favorite: the 1970s paranoia thriller.
Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland, still with the shaggy curls and mustache you all loved in “Don’t Look Now” and “National Lampoon’s Animal House”) is a city health inspector and Brooke Adams pays Elizabeth, the co-worker and friend he’s clearly pining over. Together, they begin to piece together something strange going on. Soon after the appearance of a strange new plant no one can identify, a flowering pod, people start to behave strangely. Elizabeth’s boyfriend and Matthew’s dry cleaner, among others, just don’t seem like normal anymore. Matthew’s friends Jack and Nancy Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright, both excellent) find something even more disturbing at their mud bath spa. As fans of any of the film versions of Body Snatchers know, and our heroes soon discover, the pods are from “deep space” and are creating perfect, soulless replicas of everyone in sight as they sleep.
They attempt to enlist the help of Matthew’s good friend David Kibler (Leonard Nimoy) a noted psychiatrist and best-selling self-help author. Nimoy’s performance is crucial – he’s having so much fun playing Kibler, with such aloofness and measure, that the audience can’t help but keep wondering, “Is he or isn’t he?” He manages to seem both warm and friendly and cold and calculating, whether trying to reunite a concerned wife to her pod person husband, or assessing the validity of his friends’ story.
While Siegel’s film was set in a small town in California, Kaufman’s (scripted by W.D. Richter) transplants it to a big city: San Francisco. The crowds and architecture of the city serve the story well, amping up the sense of dread and paranoia. What if that cold stranger who just passed you on the street wasn’t just a cold stranger? Why is that janitor staring at you like that? Why is that mob chasing that man down the street? (The man being chased through the streets is played by the star of the 1956 film, Kevin McCarthy, in a witty and smart cameo. Kafuman even gives Siegel himself a part as a cab driver.) Just who, really, do you trust?
Siegel’s film is widely read as an allegory about the Cold War hysteria of the 1950s. (But from which side? The fear that evil, soulless beings that look just like us could be infiltrating our happy society or that McCarthyism had turned us into unthinking, uncaring, sleeping drones?) Kaufman and Richter set their film in the then present, the late 1970s and seem to be spoofing the near fascistic groupthink and narcissism of the “me generation.” Once overtaken by the space pods, people claim to be happy and relaxed, but show no emotion or individuality. They’re told that it will be easier if they just relent, fall asleep and join them, where they’ll no longer feel hate or love. It’s a future Matthew wants no part of.
However, this is no bloated, didactic lecture – the film is a hell of a lot of fun. Kaufman’s compositions and pacing keep the film taut and also give it a persistent undercurrent of dread. We know something’s wrong, even if the characters haven’t figured it out yet.
Kaufman’s remake was a critical and box-office success. (I can recall going to see it back in the winter of ’79 with a group of neighborhood kids led by my friend Will’s dad, an actor, who told us all about the original version and Kevin McCarthy on the walk home.) Pauline Kael was one of the film’s critical champions and called the film “undiluted pleasure and excitement.” She also wrote,
“…the director, Phil Kaufman, provides such confident professionalism that you sit back in the assurance that every spooky nuance you’re catching is just what was intended.”
Writing in New York magazine, David Denby said that he found Kaufman’s film even more entertaining than Siegel’s and offered this:
“Like all great horror films, is an insinuatingly sensual experience: Our morbid curiosity is engaged and then exploited. We are drawn into complicity with the dark, oozy terrors of nature run riot and human beings deformed and mutated.”
If the pod people ever do land on Earth, just make sure to throw in a copy of this movie – you’re sure not to fall asleep.