Day three of the apocalypse, boys and girls, and isn’t it swell! I’ve always thought you could categorise films in four groups: eternal classics; enjoyable watches; trashy, yet watchable; and, obviously, complete and utter burning balls of fermenting garbage. But here’s a question: could a film possibly be all four? We may have a contender.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 1978 remake of the 1956 horror, is about Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), an employee of San Francisco’s department of public health, who assumes Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) is simply going through marital problems when she complains of her husband’s unusual mood. However, when others begin reporting similar concerns, and his close friends Jack (Jeff Goldblum) and Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright) discover a growing body, Bennell tries to find out what’s going on.
I have something to admit: I’ve never actually watched the 1956 original. I know. So, unfortunately, I won’t be able to tell you which one is better – but, perhaps that’s for the best. We all know what happened that time I read Stephen King’s book before watching Kubrick’s film. Never repeat that mistake again.
Is this a good film? Sometimes, that question is easy to answer. In this case, less so. For a surprisingly good cast, Invasion of the Body Snatchers can’t pretend to be anything more than a cheap B-movie. Yet, despite being very outdated, it still holds some shock moments. I mean, what the hell was that dog? It’s a sci-fi horror full of incomprehensible contrasts and complexities that makes Invasion of the Body Snatchers one of most baffling enigmas ever made.
Well, first let’s try to focus on the good. Unlike it’s ’56 predecessor, which was mainly motivated by the Red Scare and the idea that if you join those darn Commies, you’re going to become a senseless, unfeeling monster with no individuality, the ’78 version is very much a 70s film.
Full of neurotic paranoia just like many of the greatest from the decade, Invasion of the Body Snatchers takes it to a new level. Aliens are invading, duplicating humans and living inside them – and only four people know. And, as the plot is so insane and unrealistic, no one believes this crack pot conspiracy. Not only that, people are actively working against them. Of course, they’ve massively misjudged the scale of this operation: everyone has been replicated into these aliens – and they’re next. It’s very well done: subtle, slowly growing and with the eventual big reveal.
Because this film is, actually, pretty scary. It doesn’t need violence or gore to create a feeling of claustrophobia, the feeling of helplessness slowly tightening and tightening towards the inevitable ending that you know can be the only reasonable conclusion to the story, but still deny.
Scenes like the eye-opening pod, the drug yielding Dr. Kibner, played by Leonard Nimoy on a rare appearance outside of Star Trek, or Bennell’s duplicate are all pretty creepy and tense. Unlike an Independence Day, with bloated special effects, big spaceships and violence, Body Snatchers understands the benefits of keeping everything on a smaller scale – and, because of it, in true 70s fashion, it feels rawer and realer.
And it’s worth coming back to the ending. Faced with an unconquerable challenge, it was predictable, sure, but very well executed. Even with the most uncompromising odds against our characters, we always expect they’ll overcome those challenges – so it’s a pleasantly realistic and chilling kick in the teeth when they don’t. Body Snatchers going with a happy ending would have been dodging the main themes the film is built on.
But look at that picture above. Without context, it looks – not almost, but completely – comical. Soon after, we head into the black cavern that is Donald Sutherland’s mouth. Why? Who knows. Critic Janet Maslin said upon it’s release:
The creepiness (Kaufman) generates is so crazily ubiquitous it becomes funnyJanet Maslin
And you can’t help but feel that she’s on to something. There’s something so absurd here that you feel you can’t take the film seriously. It’s not a well known case of ‘so bad it’s good’ – that would feel far too harsh. Yet… no, I couldn’t say it. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is very entertaining, and that’s what films are supposed to do, right? But sometimes it’s concerning when the entertainment comes more from swooning inanity rather than the horrors.
It hasn’t aged well either – it’s 43 years old, to be fair, but it’s worth remembering that visually arresting flicks like Star Wars: A New Hope and Close Encounters of the Third Kind came just a year before it. The Deer Hunter was released in the same year. Really, Body Snatchers is nothing more than a dodgy B-movie which somehow managed to garner a really good cast. I’m not a fan of the direction, and the editing and soundtrack is even worse. The opening scene showing the aliens drifting through space looks absurd today. The film ends up feeling cheap and tacky, only to reinforced by a formulaic script.
But cast is great. Sutherland could be in anything and still put in a respectful performance; Brooke Adams walking through fire, naked, alien and making disturbed noises was her highlight; Jeff Goldblum really lets loose as an unhinged, temperamental writer; and Alien’s Veronica Cartwright is just as loony – to great effect – as usual.
So how does it do it? How can Invasion of the Body Snatchers be so interesting and thrilling but so outdated and corny simultaneously? I don’t have a darn clue. To be honest, this film has left me completely disorientated. I don’t know what to believe. It’s one of the most confusing conundrums I’ve seen, perfectly reflected a completely unexplained cameo by Robert Duvall on a swing dressed as priest at the beginning of the film. Why? Don’t ask me! I can only hope the original is less mind bending…
Invasion of the Body Snatchers – 7.5 out of 10