At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Invasion of the Body Snatchers “78”

MPAA Rating: PG/ Genre: Sci-Fi Horror/ Stars: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, Art Hindle, Lelia Goldoni, Kevin McCarthy, Don Siegel, Tom Luddy, Jerry Walter, Philip Kaufman, Rose Kaufman, Robert Duvall/ Runtime: 115 minutes

For a long time I think it is safe to say that genuinely good, modern-day films in the horror genre of movie making were not as readily available. In fact, up until Blumhouse started changing the game and studios actually tried to make good caliber films, there was only a scarce few which managed to avoid the giant, overflowing heap of wasted attempts. Indeed those were films which way too often were made up of the same old clichés and cheap and horribly not effective methods of scares thus negating them the opportunity to really leave an impact on the memory of their audience and instead was more devoted to leaving the door open for numerous sequels of varying degrees of either pointless and/or unnecessary. As such, for many a viewer myself included, it just truly became a lot simpler to look for and find iconic films from the 70s and 80s for horror films worthy of our time and energy. Indeed when looking back on that time, some of the ones that I immediately and quite vividly remember watching include such noteworthy titles as The Omen, Sleepaway Camp, The Changeling, The Wicker Man, The Fog, Creepshow, Friday the 13th, Black Christmas, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween amongst many others. Indeed the vast majority of the ones I mentioned were definitely regarded for being startling, subversive, but highly entertaining. Yet there is one that perhaps may not have been watched by nearly as many people as it deserved to have even though it came equipped with a well-known title was the 1978 remake of the iconic sci-fi nightmare Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Indeed this remake of a timeless sci-fi film from the 50s with terrific actor Kevin McCarthy in the lead is one that could have crashed and burned quite easily. Yet thanks to terrific work on both sides of the camera, this take on the story is a both profound yet also riveting and unnerving saga of alien occupation that brilliantly is aware of just how to chill its target audience to their core without having to try too hard.

The plot is as follows: Now very much unlike the first movie adaptation in 1956 which actually tried to keep us in the dark about what was really going on, this version ingeniously makes the assumption that we have watched the first cinematic version and therefore know what to expect. To that end, our film starts on a distant, unnamed, and dying world in the far off corners of the galaxy where we see a group of shiny, aerodynamic spores begin making a journey through the vast, dark, and cold depths of outer space and make their way to our blue and green planet where they eventually choose to arrive in San Francisco courtesy of a downpour and eventually form little pod-like flowers on our native flora and fauna. To that end, we soon see a member of the health department by the name of Elizabeth Driscoll pick one and take it home so she can take it into work to study the next day. However things soon get weird when the next day the flower is missing and her usually quite vibrant and lively boyfriend Geoffrey is oddly stoic and very one-note. Not sure what to make of all this, we see Elizabeth tell her colleague and close friend Matthew Bennell about the event and, out of a sense of general concern among other things, he suggests they go see a friend of his, and popular self-help therapist, by the name of David Kibner who tells the pair that he has encountered similar cases, but simply tries to write off what is going on through his trademark pop psychology. Yet despite that, both Matthew and Elizabeth soon begin feeling that more and more people all around them seem to be….off in some unexplainable way, but it isn’t until the discovery of a half-constructed humanoid body covered in tendrils by Matthew’s friends the Bellicecs in their mud bath spa that the true scope of the crisis is finally pieced together. Now it is up to our intrepid group of heroes to not only find a way to stop the subtle yet lethal invasion taking place right in front of them, but to also do whatever it takes to both stay awake and, more importantly, stay human……

Now given the time between the two it should come as no surprise to learn that, in terms of content, this film is a wee bit more graphic than the first adaptation and is also, in many ways, very much akin to some of the horror films helmed by David Cronenberg such as his 1986 reimagining of The Fly where the human body finds itself being put through some truly revolting and downright nightmarish moments of metamorphosis. That being said, whilst the practical effects work in this film is most assuredly unnerving including twitching bodies drenched in some kind of slime, Pod humanoids being born out of a plant that seems eerily reminiscent of certain body parts on the human anatomy, a dog walks around with the head of a person to name but a few examples, the terror in this film is, for the most part, vague and subtle. Indeed this is a film which has a key mood and vibe of riveting paranoid and slowly, but surely realizing that something on our planet has changed and most certainly not for the better. To that end, we see film helmer Philip Kaufman play this paranoia up significantly in the fact that he, alongside truly gifted film cinematographer Michael Chapman, chooses to give this film a noir-like, drenched in darkness and shadow in equal measure look that is then enhanced not only by the crew making the camera almost another performer in the film, but also by quite often filming through cracked glass as a subtle yet effective way of playing on the idea that the film’s characters are not even able to trust what it is they simply see anymore. Of course it is not a spoiler to say that we as the audience already know what’s going down, oh dramatic irony you vixen, but this manages to do a wonderful job of ratcheting up the suspense even more due to knowing what will become of our main characters if they don’t find a way out of this. To that end, it should be noted that in the roles of Matthew and Elizabeth, both Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams do truly wonderful work in bringing both a humanity and a sincerity to their parts. A fact that not only makes their performances truly great, but also makes the end to the film that much more potent. Yet in addition to the wonderful work done by Sutherland and Adams, we also get a trio of delightfully effective co-starring performances from Leonard Nimoy who as Kibner seems to be emulating the stern demeanor of Spock with a degree of warmth you’d expect more from Kirk, and Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright who bring a relatability and much-needed sense of humanity to this living nightmare as Matthew’s friends the Bellicecs. Suffice it to say then that Kaufman found a terrific quintet to really bring this riveting tale to life and all do a great job with their respective arcs in the film.

Now this film on the outside is quite riveting if not downright terrifying at times, but what truly makes this one of the finer sci-fi/horror movies of the 1970s is the fact that this film is filled with subtle jabs at the culture of the time period in which it was made. Indeed a lot had come and gone between the I Love Lucy-happy go lucky style domestic ways of the 50s and the aftermath of Vietnam, and driven by individual sense of accomplishment “Me Generation” found in droves during the 70s and this is showcased by the setting of this movie which trades a small town aka the place where everyone knows everyone for the streets of San Francisco where you know a group of people and everyone else is a complete enigma to you. Even more ironic is the fact that San Francisco during the 60s was the place where you could insert a flower in your long locks and subsequently be accepted by the hippies, but in this film, the city is very off putting and the flower, previously seen as a symbol for peace and love, is now being utilized as a tool for a forced evolution of sorts. To that end, this movie, on a broad level, is all about the perils of being self-centered as an individual and group conformity. Indeed, as showcased in this film, certain characters like Goldblum’s downtrodden, aspiring poet Jack Bellicec and Nimoy’s pop shrink Kibner to represent the former category, really aren’t any better than the emotionless, self-serving Pod Humanoids that are the latter. That and let’s face it: a street filled to the brim with people focusing solely on themselves and their own interests really does after a while start to look suspiciously like a lacking in emotion, soul, and mind community. Thus this film may be riveting and terrifying, but it also serves as a crucial analysis of the idea that you can attempt to distinguish yourself, but at the end of the day this also will result in turning you into everyone else.

All in all as of this writing of this review, I can easily say that writer Jack Finney’s 1954 classic novel of the sci-fi genre known plain and simply as The Body Snatchers has had the dubious honor of being the direct inspiration of a quartet of films, 2 great, 1 good, and 1 not worth talking about, to come from the land of movie magic in Hollywood and honestly it is not difficult for me to comprehend just why this is the case. Indeed this is because after all not only what could be more terrifying to the average movie goer than the possibility of those we love, our close friends, our next door neighbor, and even that annoying little kid down the block being transformed overnight, and with no warning, into emotionally void organisms, but also what is more menacing than a silent yet deadly takeover by an threat from another world? Of course, it should come as no surprise to learn that the original story and the first cinematic adaptation brought to us in 1956 and helmed by iconic helmer Don Siegel are very obviously reflecting back for audiences the paranoia and turmoil that was riveting the United States at the beginning of the Cold War due to the fact that McCarthy and HUAC were just beginning to get their witch-hunts underway. Suffice it to say then that, at that time, it was not the biggest stretch in the world to go from the possibility of your neighbor simply being a undercover Communist who is deadset on spreading their political beliefs in order to take over the country subtly to the idea that your neighbor has now been transformed into an emotionless alien copy of themselves operating with the intent of working with other members of their species to silently yet lethally taking our planet for themselves. Suffice it to say the political nuances in the first stab with this material have largely been shown the door for this attempt which instead chooses to utilize the worries from a culture and sociology point of view of the Me Decade known as the 1970s. Indeed as far as remakes of beloved sci-fi/horror properties go, I am pleased to tell you that this version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is just as good as the 1982 remake of The Thing. Indeed here are a pair of films which stick to the plot of the original, but then manage to give it an intriguing and just downright nihilistic updating. Indeed one of those distinct yet greatly appreciated remakes which is just as great as the original film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers “78” is unnerving, suspenseful, wonderfully acted, terrifically helmed, actually frightening to some degree, and is quite the sly jab at the Me Generation in all its glory. To that end if you have a fondness for sci-fi/horror that works on the best level possible you will most assuredly want to find this one as soon as possible. Just make sure when you do to really take a moment to give the cashier a long, hard look. Not out of paranoia mind you, but just to make sure that all is well and that they are hopefully still human because you never know…..On a scale of 1-5 I give Invasion of the Body Snatchers “78” a solid 4 out of 5.