Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978)
I was planning to write a review of Man Of Steel, but aside from the tight sections focused on Clark growing up in Smallville, it was a complete mess. That it’s a mess is not really a surprise if you surf around for a few reviews, you’ll quickly realise it’s a boring mess at that. Just because we have the CGI to fold a building in half, doesn’t necessarily make it interesting.
So I thought about what I’ve seen that I’ve found interesting, and the 1978 remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers sprang to mind. Directed by Philip Kaufman and staring Donald Sutherland as Matthew and Brooke Adams as Elizabeth it’s generally considered to be one of the best remakes of the classic fifties science fiction B movies. The original is seeped in red menace paranoia, set in that most American of places: a small rural town. This remake moves the action to an equally American, if more uncommon setting: San Francisco.
I have seen the film before, but I was hankering for a bit of a fix of the place after visiting it recently. The choice of location is apt. As we watch the alien seeds descend on the city we fall across long lingering shots of San Francisco. You realise that it has a peculiar old charm with its soaring hills and Victorian buildings. It’s a different California. For one thing it’s raining in the opening scene – a common occurrence – but not weather anyone outside California would normally associate with the state.
The main character Matthew and his friend Elizabeth work for the department of health, and they already know what it’s like to feel like an outsider – especially Matthew, who works as a health inspector. He knows people are talking about him and conspiring against him whenever he shows up. But there’s also something about the setting. The Transamerica Pyramid features so heavily it should get a credit, but it’s never explained why it’s there, it just is. San Francisco is shown as a very fecund kind of place: the parks are blooming and houses have decks where the outside comes inside and takes root in interiors strewn with pot plants. And there’s also a very weird undercurrent to the city too. The first shot with any humans features Robert Duvall, dressed as a priest on a swing in a play park. Where did that come from? Gerry Garcia dubbed the banjo for the hobo in the park. What a long winded, but gleeful way of doing things! Also, the prevailing culture of self-examination is a big theme. When Elizabeth’s husband starts to change (because obviously he’s a pod man now), Matthew’s answer is take her to see a psychiatrist friend of his, Dr. David Kibner, played superbly straight by Leonard Nimoy. ‘He may have some sort of social disease’, says Matthew, casually over home cooked noodles – suggesting the idioms of psychiatry are common parlance. This is fantastic stuff: we do not fear the Reds; we fear who we truly are and our place in society. When things start getting weird, it happens quickly.
The way the film is lit and composed only adds to the creeping sense that something is wrong as we watch Matthew and Elizabeth following the people they suspect. We are forever sitting in the back of Matthew’s car listening to him tell half-remembered jokes. More oddness is thrown in the mix: a man with bright white hair stares at them from behind a pane of frosted glass in city hall. A janitor looms menacingly with a floor polisher from a long zoom down a corridor. Kevin McCarthy (who stared in the original film) makes a memorable cameo of a deranged man banging on the windows of Matthew’s car to warn them, ‘they’re coming’. We see Kevin chased down the street by a crowd of ordinary looking people. Only when we turn the corner with Matthew and Elizabeth do we see his body under a car with an expressionless crowd standing around. ‘He must have done something,’ says Matthew suggesting his resolute belief in the natural order of society.
When Matthew tries to call council contacts to find out what happened to the body, it’s a really claustrophobic scene. The entire sequence is framed around distended reflections in a mirror. And the tension is further ramped up by Matthew’s friend Jack Bellicec (super skinny Jeff Goldblum) raving on about Kibner.
It’s not long before we learn the truth of the plot and watch mewling pod people spring from their chrysalises. It’s a thoroughly icky section of the film and although there are some interesting exposition about what’s happening, it’s here the film starts to falter. Matthew Elizabeth, Jack and his girlfriend Nancy, spend far too long running down dimly lit alleyways, avoiding assimilation.
But still, the action, like the original, is still centred on its setting. We only realise what’s going on through menacing long-distance phone calls and snatched glimpses of school children being led into theatres.
It’s difficult to not to give away the memorable shock ending, especially if you’ve bought the DVD. The packaging suffers from Wicker Man syndrome; the design totally gives away any chance of a thrilling surprise. But if you put your hand over the DVD as you load it, and then only look at the bottom right of the DVD menu screen when you press play, you’ll still be none the wiser, and in for a right creepy treat.
Great soundtrack too by Danny Zeitlin – the only one he has ever composed.