Invasion of the Body Snatchers

We're talking about the 1978 version, bub. Steve O'Brien tells the story behind one of the few remakes that's better than the orginal...

 

 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers poster

 

We're talking about the 1978 version, bub. Steve O'Brien tells the story behind one of the few remakes that's better than the orginal...

 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Jack Finney's 1955 dime-store novel, The Body Snatchers, now has a flattering four film versions, and counting. For a book published only 56 years ago that's a mighty impressive feat. There's something deliciously adaptable about the story's tale of aliens taking over our bodies, and replacing our civilisation with one without love, hate, pleasure or pain.

 

Let's get this out of the way. Don Siegel's 1956 version is good, but this is better. Philip Kaufman, surely one of the great lost American directors, crafted a film which, though at its basest level might even read like an Ed Wood schlocker, ranks as one of the great post-Watergate paranoia movies. A film that tells you more about the the hungover wake-up call from the 1960s and the drowsy emergence of the "me generation," than any of its more superficially, high-minded stablemates.

 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Whether he intended it or not, Siegel's version was widely viewed as an allegorical tale of "Reds under the bed" paranoia, a fear that was rife in a country riddled with Joseph McCarthy-fuelled fear of Commie infiltration. In the 22 years that separate Siegel's and Kaufman's versions, the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement and Watergate were pulling at the stitches of America's delicate social fabric. Mistrust of your own government had replaced Commie paranoia. The old certainties were gone and a new pluralism took root, with the emerging counter culture of its loudest offspring.

 

But if the hippies and revolutionaries had a cultural legacy, it was in the myopic introspection that characterised American life in the 70s and 80s. Ann Rand-propagrated individualism was the natural child of the fuzzy political and social ideals of the 60s radicals When the fires died down and there were no more fights to fight, San Fran became the nesting city for those newly mortgage-saddled thirtysomethings.

 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

"There's no future in science fiction," Kaufman was told in 1976 after his beloved planned Star Trek film was canned due to the bad smell coming from the set of Star Wars. A big SF fan, an unbowed Kaufman started work on an updated version of one of his favourite science fiction movies.

 

Kaufman's Trek, which has little to do with the eventual Star Trek: The Motion Picture, was to have centred around Spock, and it was Leonard Nimoy he carried over from that movie. In Kaufman's Body Snatchers, Nimoy plays a psycho-therapist soaked in the psychiatrist trends of the 1970s. Only a year after he published his book, I Am Not Spock, Body Snatchers reminded the public that he wasn't. "Leonard had got typecast and this [film] was an attempt to break him out of that," said Kaufman.

 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Where the original hero of 1956 was the broad, lantern-jawed Kevin McCarthy, Kaufman's vision needed a different, less conventional sort of leading man. Frederico Fellini had said of Donald Sutherland, "He looks like a sperm-filled waxwork with the eyes of a masturbator." With the same mop of permed hair that he sported in Don't Look Now ("They would have to set his hair with pink rollers every day," recalled co-star Veronica Cartwright), Sutherland had been out of American cinema for a few years, indulging his arty side with Euro-fare like 1900 and Casanova. "We needed a name actor and [United Artists Head of Production] Mike Medavoy suggested Donald," said Kaufman. "He came back to America, read the script and suddenly we were in business."

 

Kaufman peppered the film with knowing nods to the original. Director Don Siegel, in a rare acting turn, pops up as a taxi driver and Kevin McCarthy appears, still screaming, "They're here!" as he was, in the final moments of the original film. "I thought he would provide the continuity from the first movie," said Kaufman, "which was 20 years earlier in a small town, and would give this feeling that he'd run for 20 years trying to warn people about this ongoing process."

 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

McCarthy's appearance makes the movie as much a sequel - or at least echo - as a remake. But Kaufman's version is bleaker and much more obviously designed with social comment intent. In the movie, when Matthew Bennell (Sutherland) is breaking into Elizabeth Driscoll's (Brooke Adams) house, he passes her already "podded" husband, blankly watching what appear to be a collection of clocks on the TV. "The pods will watch anything that's on," Kaufman said. "It's how commercials are trying to get us. It's part of the podding of America that we watch these commercials and our minds go out the window."

 

Nimoy's Dr Kibner was indicatative of the culture Kaufman was commenting on. "In the 70s a lot changed," Kaufman said recently. "You had a lot of therapies that are trying to tell us and make us understand that everything is alright, and as we all know, everything is not alright. I feel like everything that was being talked about in the film has come to pass and we're now living in a world largely controlled by pods."

 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

The film is built on paranoia and Matthew Bennell is our eyes and ears in this diseased world. One of the most searing images of 70s cinema is found in the film's final scene, when Veronica Cartwright's Nancy, who's managed to survive the podding, approaches Bennell, thinking - like us - that he too has managed to escape the body-snatchers, only for him to let out a curdling, high pitched shriek . Only a few people knew how the movie was to end and Cartwright and Sutherland were only told on the day of filming. Not even United Artists were told, and only found out at the film's first screening.

 

"I didn't want an ending like, 'We'll call the FBI and everything will be be hunky dory once again,'" said Kaufman. "It's a film about the process of change, and it's a metaphor humanity being lost and for a certain kind of person, a certain kind of life that can vanish or fade away or be tranformed in some way."

 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Which is why the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the more durable of the two. Don Siegel's is a fascinating timepiece but it's contaminated with McCarthyite baggage. Kaufman's speaks a more timeless truth.

 

But there will always be some who will rubbish the 1978 version simply for being a remake. When Kevin McCarthy was filming his cameo, in one of the most run down areas of San Fran, a naked homeless man asked him, "Wasn't you in the first one?" McCarthy said yes. "Well, that's the better one," the man said.

 

But what did he know?

 

 

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers
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