Invasion of the Body Snatchers - 1978
Director(s): Philip Kaufman
Writer(s): W.D. Richter (screenplay) / Jack Finney (novel)
Cinematography by: Michael Chapman
Editor(s): Douglas Stewart
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright and Leonard Nimoy
We are in the month of October, so what better excuse could I have to watch this horror classic that happens to be turning forty years old at the end of 2018. The decade of the 70s can easily be called one of the best, if not the best, decade for the horror genre, and this movie stands tall amongst juggernauts such as The Exorcist, Halloween, Carrie, Suspiria and The Omen, just to name a few. Often regarded as one of the best examples that remakes can work (the original came out in 1956), it’s only fitting that the core of the story is aliens cloning humans and taking over their lives, as this movie has completely erased the original from the minds of horror fans (hyperbole, don’t attack me ‘56 fans).
The story centers around an alien invasion, but not the silver spaceships kind like we often imagine. The aliens come in as a gelatinous form and assimilate to our environment in the form of plants. After adapting to our world, they slowly start to take over the human race. We follow Matthew Bennell (Sutherland) and Elizabeth Driscoll (Adams), both employees of the San Francisco Health Department, as they start to notice that things around them aren’t what they used to be and that they are in a fight for their lives. It is a unique and terrifying way to look at an alien invasion, as you can’t fight what you can’t see. We always tend to imagine an all-out war, not a subtle insurrection of our society. Not knowing who is human and who is an alien clone only adds to the terror of knowing you are under attack.
Quick note: the practical effects in this movie are highly underrated. The sequence of the pod giving birth to clones was unnerving and a bit disgusting. But you know, in a good way.
One of the aspects that I most love about this movie is how they sprinkle in the information throughout the beginning of the movie. Philip Kaufman used every single inch of the frame to pack in as much information as he could. The flowers, garbage truck, people running, people carrying around packages - there is always something to notice happening in the background. Sure, by the end they tell you close to everything, but if you are paying attention to the background and the subtle details you can connect the dots on your own. Also, this adds to the desperate sense of paranoia they created as you are overwhelmed by seeing things the protagonists aren’t. This helps both set the tone and grab the audience, not letting go till the very end.
Quick note: the music by Denny Zeitlin combined with the sound design of the environment play off the visuals perfectly. The sounds felt like a natural extension of the paranoia of Elizabeth and Matthew.
Kaufman and cinematographer Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Ragging Bull) shot most of the film’s scenes through gritty, handheld camerawork that adds to the sense of being watched. The angles and the shadows used through creative lighting that evoke a feeling of dread and doom as the world around them slowly consumes them. One of my favorite scenes comes during a book party where Matthew takes Elizabeth to meet phycologist Dr. Kibner (Nimoy). Matthew is calling the police to report an accident he just witnessed (quick note: the actor in the accident is the star of the original Body Snatchers, Kevin McCarthy. He is running from the aliens and warning Sutherland that they are coming. It’s almost as if his been running for the past two decades and is handing off the torch) and his friend and self-obsessed “writer” Jack (Goldblum) is talking his ear off despite him having the phone over it. The conversation is set in front of a mirror that is distorting their image, foreshadowing their fate at the hands of the aliens.
While the script W.D. Richter penned stands out in the sequences of terror and dread, it shines thanks to the natural and warm dialogue between Matthew and Elizabeth; a dialogue that is elevated by two great performances from Sutherland and Adams. Kaufman shot most of their conversations at a tight close-up of the two, contrasting the wide angle and birds eye view shots used to establish the world and the aliens. Their relationship felt real, playful, friendly and flirtatious full of emotions in a world that is slowing becoming void of emotions. It naturally grows and it serves as character motivation for Matthew as she is the lynch-pin of his action in the second act of the movie.
Quick note: this and Don’t Look Now are overlooked performances from Sutherland and overlooked movies in the horror genre.
It was a nice touch to place this movie in San Francisco, a city that many associate with the hippie movement. Being filmed in the late 70s, the corporate mindset that took over in the 80s was already starting to develop and you can see how many feared the way our society was shifting. The story can be considered an allegory of the loss of that “sense of self” and conforming to what society wants, avoiding all emotions that get in the way of success.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a great, well-crafted movie on all fronts, I don’t have to use its genre to justify that sentence. It’s a slow build up filled with tension and paranoia that leads to a great pay-off that is elevated by the hands of Kaufman and the eye of Chapman. Boasting wonderful performances from the entire cast, a well-executed plot and amazing practical effects, it’s a movie that has aged extremely well, making it worth an add to your October horror marathon. Kaufman is why I love movies.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Go watch it.
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