‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1978): Paranoid horror remake a treat for any era

Yes, he’s a pod that didn’t correctly transform. Look, he has to be, right? See—what else could explain that stumbling gait, that vacant, blank stare, that mouth agape, those sudden fits of crankiness inbetween the rather startling incoherence. Of course he’s a damaged pod.

By Paul Mavis

Domestic politics aside, summer’s here and that means popcorn movies. And when you get tired of those…you may want to watch the paranoid conspiracist’s ultimate horror/sci-fi flick. Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory line released on Blu-ray Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the dark, depressing 1978 noir horror thriller from United Artists, directed by Philip Kaufman, written by W.D. Richter (based loosely on the celebrated Jack Finney novel), and starring Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum, Art Hindle, and Veronica Cartwright.

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A nice-sized hit (against a pretty small budget) as U.A.’s big Christmas, 1978 release, Invasion of the Body Snatchers pleased most critics who recognized Kaufman and Richter did more than just ape director Don Siegel’s classic 1956 Allied Artists version of Finney’s story: they transformed it into a modern classic of alienation and paranoia that fit right in with what many perceived as America’s mid-to-late 70s post-hippie blues. Quite a few extras here for Scream Factory‘s Collector’s Edition—many of them ported over from previous standard and Blu releases, including director Kauffman’s commentary track and some production featurettes. Newer stuff includes a 2K transfer from the interpositive, a commentary track with Steve Haberman (which Shout! oddly doesn’t advertise on the box), new interviews with Brooke Adams, Art Hingle, scripter W.D. Richter, and composer Denny Zeitlin, TV and radio spots, a photo gallery, and a very sweet extra: Time is Just a Place, the second episode of the syndicated TV series, Science Fiction Theatre. There’s also reversible cover art for the disc case.

On a burnt-out, dying planet far off in the solar system, gelatinous spores lift off into the solar winds, traveling through space before eventually falling to Earth, landing smack dab in the middle of the rainy, fecund, pre-feces-strewn streets of San Francisco. Adhering to leaves and trees, the spores sprout into tiny seed pods with pretty little pink flowers—flowers of an unknown genus that fascinate Public Health Department scientist Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams). Her boyfriend, dentist Geoffrey (Art Hindle), is more interested in the basketball playoffs than botany, but curiously, after just one night of sleeping next to the little sprouting flower, Geoffrey seems entirely “changed” to Elizabeth the next morning: he’s even more unemotional and permanently distant than your average dentist.

Elizabeth tries to explain this to her co-worker and friend, Deputy Public Health Inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), but the kind, sympathetic Matthew thinks she would be better off speaking to his friend, pop psychologist and author Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy). At his latest book signing, Kibner does what any shrink does: he takes Elizabeth’s real concerns and turns them right back onto her. But that doesn’t fly when Matthew’s friends, mud bath spa owners Jack and Nancy Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright), find a half-formed, tendril-covered humanoid on one of their tables—a disgusting creature that sorta looks like Jack. Maybe Elizabeth was right: maybe people are being replaced, somehow, by pod-grown duplicate aliens.

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As a kid I was lucky enough to see Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers in our town’s old Dimension 150 high-end theater, with a massive wraparound screen and Dolby stereo capability (Toledo has always been an armpit…but tearing that theater down didn’t exactly help). I remember the movie’s frightening sounds as much as its creepy, unsettling images (Kaufman’s version is rightly famous for its mixture of Ben Burtt’s specialized sound effects and composer Denny Zeitlin’s eerie score). And while catching this snazzy Blu transfer today on a 65-inch monitor is certainly a big, big improvement over repeatedly re-watching it full screen on Showtime back in the early 1980s, nothing can quite compare to seeing in a theater, a movie with this level of sophisticated visual and aural integration. Invasion of the Body Snatcher’s overall schematic envelops and overwhelms you in that setting; at home you’re more likely to see the joins.

Quite often, however, many critics spend more time talking about the supposed politics behind director Kaufman’s version, as well as director Don Siegel’s 1956 original, than they do about the actual movies themselves (I don’t think too many people in the future are going to waste much time discussing the two subsequent remakes: Abel Ferrara’s 1993 Body Snatchers or 2007’s even worse The Invasion, from Oliver Hirschbiegel). Despite assertions of apolitical intent by everyone involved with both movies, many critics can’t help but state categorically that Siegel’s version was about the so-called McCarthyism “witchhunts,” and that Kaufman’s is about the rise of the yuppie and the death of the 1960s’ so-called “idealism” in the face of Vietnam, Watergate, and the coming conservative resurgence (both Richter and Kaufman stress they intended no specific political commentary…although Sutherland’s list of possible negatives for Geoffrey’s changed behavior includes: 1) having an affair 2) having a social disease 3) becoming gay—you’re canceled, Donald! 4) or horror of horrors…turning Republican—you’re absolved, Donald!).

The central premise of the story—everyone is soulless except me—not only fits any era’s paranoia about changing times (because it’s such a generalized yet universal sentiment), it also feeds right into people’s own narcissism (I feel more than you because you’re different than me. If you don’t feel what I feel…then you must not feel anything). The fact that whenever Finney’s book, regardless of his intent, is adapted into a movie subsequently results in an overwhelming number of liberal critical takes on the dangers supposedly revealed in the cautionary tale, is truly only a testament to the fact that about 99% of all movie critics are liberals. You can read anything you want into those two movies, and feel confidently smug about your take, because anything fits.

The clichéd reading for 1978’s IOTBS is the hippie era’s loss of individualism to the coming materialistic and conservative conformity of the Reagan era (all of which are just convenient, superficial pop culture and even marketing constructs, anyway—not everyone by a long shot experienced the 1960s like Woodstock and Easy Rider…nor the 1980s like J.R. Ewing or those even worse cretins over on Thirtysomething). I, on the other hand, can look at the 1978 IOTBS today and see grotesquely obvious parallels between the aliens’ desire to squash all individual thought, to eliminate all messy human emotions, to literally control other peoples’ bodies (stay back, wear a mask, get this jab…or you’re a murderer who doesn’t get to go buy food or go to school) coming to full pink flower bloom in the fascist P.C. world we live in today, where disagreement on social and political issues is drawn in absolute moralistic terms (with dissenters of the “wrong” skin color labeled “evil”) by increasingly violent, intolerant arbitrators on the Left. Hey, kids!—see how IOTBS movie criticism can work for anyone?

It’s much more fun, though, to just watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the genuinely off-putting, dazzlingly sustained paranoid tone, for the unexpected humor and the fine performances, and for the A-level gross-out special effects. Kaufman and Richter both pointed out that dark comedy elements were introduced on purpose, and you can certainly pick up a satirical, almost goofy undercurrent to many scenes. When Sutherland has his car windshield smashed with a wine bottle by pissed-off restaurant workers—he found rat droppings in the sauce in a very funny opening scene—he dejectedly tells Adams, “Not even a good wine,” (it’s smart to have Sutherland, who frequently projects a sly knowingness in his movie roles, be the “hero” who takes the longest to figure out what’s what).

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Cartwright, who has expert comedic timing with the absolutely flying Jeff Goldblum (too bad those characters couldn’t have had their own movie), screams at Goldblum, who can’t help fingering his pod clone, “Jack! Don’t touch it! You don’t know where it’s been!” Nimoy, all believably slimy, glib self-importance, is quite funny as the pop psychologist who’s just as vapid and pretentious in human form as he is as a pod (you can’t tell if he was ever human). And it’s a toss-up for the movie’s best sick joke: a beautifully unhinged Kevin McCarthy shouting the same warnings to Sutherland and Adams that he yelled in Siegel’s 1956 movie…before he’s chased down a street and run over with a car, or the unforgettable banjo player/doggie combo alien, a special effect shocker that gave me nightmares as a kid…but whose obvious trickery is now, perversely, revealed in Blu-ray’s increased fine image detail.

Those humorous moments are necessary in a movie that’s so resolutely downbeat. Kaufman’s and Richter’s goal is to put us on edge immediately, and they succeed with the first shots of the spores taking hold in drizzly, dank Frisco, as we suspect alien transformations of that first Asian woman staring out her window (is that the dry cleaner’s wife? “She wrong. She not my wife!”), the school teacher who looks suspiciously at Brooke Adams (why else is she giving Adams the stink eye?), and the brilliant spot casting of Robert Duvall as a priest, incongruously swinging on a child’s playground, staring intently at Adams’ departure (Duvall’s persona is so big for this blip cameo that we can’t help but giggle at the delightful notion that Kaufman might be trying to jokingly convince us that Duvall the actor—perhaps appearing in costume on location in San Francisco?—has been duplicated, such is our surprise at seeing him in such a nothing cameo).

Keeping with that fated tone, the script refuses to waste time on exposition build-up; Invasion of the Body Snatchers has Adams knowing immediately that something has changed with Hindle, giving the movie a relentless, driving push as the characters are introduced into a scenario that’s already a nightmare…and only getting worse. Kaufman and cinematographer Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) saturate the frequently open frames with shadow, putting in bits of unexplained background business within the frenetic camera movements, bits which start to make sense as we buy into their increasing paranoia (people being chased down the street in broad daylight while others ignore them; the man in the glass door starring at Sutherland and Adams; Sutherland’s intro shot, through a fisheye peephole; those discomforting, disorienting shots inside Sutherland’s car).

As for Invasion of the Body Snatcher’s gross special effects, they may be sparse in appearance by today’s standards, but the practical method by which they’re achieved blows away the now-common digital efforts. Built with a vegetable/plant-based structure, overlaid with obvious human reproductive imagery (all the hairy tendrils, inflamed vaginal constructs, and alien birth-by-seed pod squishiness), Invasion of the Body Snatcher’s transformation scenes are marvels of stomach-turning viscera—you don’t want the pods to succeed just because they’re so disgusting…but it disturbs you deep down that their physical delivery approximates our own births.

It’s too bad the “big” action finale, with Sutherland knocking out a few lights at a pod-growing station, was included (you can hear defensiveness in Kaufman’s excuses for its chintziness). It just distracts from Adams’ horrific, sad end, in a nuanced, nicely-realized romantic relationship with Sutherland that we actually bought—a real rarity in a horror/sci-fi movie (Adams was one of the most uniquely talented—and criminally underutilized—actresses of the 1970s; she should have had a huge career). Invasion of the Body Snatcher’s infamous final scene, though, forgives that single lapse in an otherwise preternaturally well-designed movie, as we’re presented with a view of modern society that is irredeemably devoid of even the smallest shred of hope—it’s remarkable that this utter downer of a movie was such a substantial hit at the box office. It only works because we liked the characters so much: we know at the end what’s really lost.

A quick note about the extras. Previously released extras include a commentary track with director Kaufman (I believe it was recorded in 2007?). There’s some good info on the production (he confirms the restrictions they were under due to the low budget…including the five dollar bottle of art gel used for the opening space spores scene), but Kaufman is very low key, and he tends to peter out over the length of the track. Re-Visitors From Outer Space, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Pod (16:14) features 2007 interviews with Kaufman, Richter, Chapman, Sutherland and Cartwright looking back on the impact of the movie. The Man Behind The Scream: The Sound Effects Pod (12:47), which has Ben Burtt and sound editor Bonnie Koehler discussing how they achieved the sound effects (nicely done with explanation first, then movie clip to illustrate—the pod screams were pigs; the birth stuff were vegetables ripped apart). The Invasion Will Be Televised: The Cinematography Pod (5:24), has Michael Chapman, along with Kaufman, Richter, and author Christopher Vogler, discussing the noir aspects of the movie’s visual scheme (Chapman describes it interestingly as “self-conscious” camerawork). Practical Magic: The Special Effects Pod (4:38) has Howard Preston explaining how simple it was to achieve that cool opening space spores sequence (it sounds like something they would have done in the 1950s…only not quite as sophisticated).

What’s new for this Blu release includes a commentary track from Steve Haberman. When Haberman does comment on the actual movie (which is infrequently, at best), it’s interesting…but mostly he reads bio information on the cast and crew that can be found on IMDB or Wikipedia. Four new interviews include Star-Crossed in The Invasion (9:06), where Brooke Adams dishes on her co-stars and director (so was she really in love with Sutherland…or did they have problems, as others suggest?). Leading the Invasion (25:04) gives Art Hindle plenty of time to discuss his experiences with the cast (he has nice things to say about Nimoy, but thought Sutherland aloof and distant). Re-Creating The Invasion (15:43) has scripter Richter detailing the sometimes hectic shoot. The locale was changed to big city Frisco a few weeks before shooting, so the script was written during production, while his thoughts on the cast include having no problem saying “reserved” Nimoy “had a way of making himself seem more important than he was,” (Trek fans ain’t gonna like that one). Scoring the Invasion (15.36) has one-shot movie composer Denny Zeitlin explain why he was a one-shot movie composer (just too difficult a job versus time involvement). Zeitlin even plays the love theme on the piano. The original theatrical trailer (2:13), TV spots (1:02), radio spots (4:46), and a cool photo gallery (6:17) with all those sweet versions of the one-sheets. A real treat is Time is Just a Place, the second episode from Science Fiction Theatre, directed by sci-fi icon Jack Arnold, based on Finney’s short story (love those old Ziv syndicated TV shows).

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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