19 August 2007


With Olivier Hirschbiegel James McTeigue Warner Bros.' film The Invasion fresh in theaters, the world now has a startling four cinematic versions of Jack Finney's 1955 novel The Body Snatchers. So it seemed like a perfect time to sit down with the new film's three forebears, and explore just what it is that makes such a famously supple work, easily bent to changing social concerns and the various stylistic tendencies of some very different directors. And perhaps along the way, we'll notice the none-too-slow drift of the science fiction genre from a thoughtful, immaculately intelligent game for philosophers to a noisy summertime money magnet. Ah, Progress!

Don Siegel is one of the great American auteurs that nobody ever really thinks about. Partly, I suppose this is because his most famous film is Pauline Kael's favorite fascist cop movie, Dirty Harry, and nobody really wants to be a Dirty Harry apologist.

That doesn't change the fact that Siegel left behind him a pretty damn solid body of work, linked perhaps more by theme than by technique, but still unmistakably the product of a man with a consistent worldview: the highest respect reserved for the rugged individuals who buck the system, whatever "bucking the system" means in a given context.

It's my contention that this belief is at the core of the notoriously tetchy politics of the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a film made well into Siegel's career but probably his first work that still carries any sort of reputation. By this point it's not anything other than a cliché to observe that science fiction in the 1950s was more obsessed with social commentary than at perhaps any other point in the genre's history, and even within that context, the original Invasion is pretty unsubtly allegorical; but what the hell that allegory means, exactly, is the subject of much debate.

I hope you're familiar with at least the raw outline of the plot: a bucolic California town is suffering from what an epidemic, as more and more residents of the tight-knit community become convinced, to the point of near-insanity, that their friends and loved ones aren't who they seem to be. At first, the Sensible People (embodied in this version by Dr. Miles Bennell) scoff at this paranoia, but it becomes obvious that something is not quite right in the world, and then it becomes obvious that "something" in this case means "large alien seed pods that turn into clones of human beings with all the memories but none of the emotions intact."

Broadly, there are two ways that this has been read: the pods are Communists, which fits the plot specifics well, or the pods are McCarthyists, which fits the film's general snarky tone against suburban Americana well (for the record, Siegel claimed that he intended no such themes, which proves once again that artists can't interpret their own work). Some people argue that it's about "both," which is almost what I believe; but I'm happier saying that it's about "neither."

Instead, I think it's a cautionary tale about letting people do your thinking for you: in other words, an anti-conformity tale, and while that includes both anti-Communist and anti-anti-Communist themes, it includes a whole lot more than that, too. It's easy to lack back on the 1950s from our lofty historical perspective, and feel haughty about our comparative sophistication: we are not such white-bread milquetoasts! We are not afraid of our own shadows! Etc.

Like everything else, the truth is much more interesting than that. Sure, there was a lot of stress on "normal American living" in the 1950s (when isn't there?), but there were plenty of people bent on mocking that mentality (when aren't there?).

All great horror...and yes, I recognise the danger of starting a sentence with "all great" anything...all great horror starts by showing us a peaceful, even ideal situation, into which a terrible, destructive, alien force intrudes, destroying the peacefulness. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is surely a great horror film. The first 25 of its 80 minutes are dedicated to nothing but the establishment of the wonderful little small town where everybody knows everybody else, and the remainder is focused on watching that wonderful little small town die.

By focusing on the fragility of the idealised suburban life, the film argues against the simple mentality of "I will do what other people think is right" that leads to all authoritarianism, and was such an important part of the appearance, if not the reality, of the post-war era. There's no particular conservative or socialist bent to any of that: it's a film about not letting other people do your thinking, period.

So much for theme.

The film qua the film is extraordinary, one of the very best sci-fi/horror pictures of one of that genre's best decades. Its 80 minutes are essentially flawless: by the standards of cheapo b-pictures, that's not a particularly short running time, but it seems impossibly brief to the modern eye, and the film absolutely flies past, without a single moment of fat. Although there's not much plot in the early going, the attention paid to character and setting is extremely efficient and valuable. The film has a very quiet sarcasm about it, that bleeds into its later themes, in which the "perfect" face of the community hides secrets and lies: my particular favorite moment is the smiling use of "a trip to Reno" as a euphemism for divorce, in a society that views such things as unmentionable.

Once the plot kicks in, the ride begins in earnest, and although most of what happens is just a variation on two people hiding and running, it's extraordinarily exciting and even frightening (which is not a word that you get to use about '50s horror, like, ever). This is where Siegel and his under-appreciated talents come into play. He's a great director of tension, which is an odd thing to say, but the ability to drag a moment out for its maximum effect without killing the scene's momentum is quite rare.

Most of the tension in Invasion comes from the simple matter of not quite knowing where things are, which in turn comes from a lighting scheme that bears a strong debt to the contemporaneous films noirs. Really, it's almost barbarically simple: in the early part of the movie, there are many bright outdoorsy scenes, and later on there are almost nothing but night scenes, and even the interiors are usually lit so as to make the shadows just as prevalent as the patches of light. The dark is dangerous in film, and in Invasion the dark is everywhere, around and ultimately inside our homes. This is made all the stronger by the connection between sleeping and death: it's only when you sleep that the pods can take over your body, and this turns perhaps the most intimate and personal of all human actions into the most dangerous. This is smashingly effective horror, turning those things that give us strength - home and community - into deadly traps.

Which is ordinarily where I'd leave things, but I have to say a word in praise of Kevin McCarthy, a character actor of no particular notice who plays Dr. Bennell. The '50s were a decade of square jaws and manly heroes, almost comically, so, and McCarthy is frankly, a little soft and schlubby. Of course, he's got more movie-star good looks than 90% of the real world, but that's still pretty dull-looking by Hollywood standards. Because of that, he is a more believable Everyman than just about any hero I can think of from any other film of the same era, and when paired with a mostly good performance - he's not so good at doing anything but the paranoia, but given how important that is, especially in the rather bleak final five minutes, it doesn't feel like too big of a liability that he can't do the love story so much - he stands out as one of the most believably human protagonists of any 1950s b-movie I can name.

* * * * *

In the 1950s, people were paranoid about the Commies, the bomb, their neighbors, whatever. In the 1970s, they were just paranoid. After Watergate essentially destroyed any chance that a whole generation of Americans would ever trust their government, the decade witnessed a cycle of movies whose entire theme consisted mostly of "they're trying to get you. Who? Doesn't matter."

At the same time, the American cinema witnessed an explosion of remake fever: not so dire as our current decade, perhaps, but it's still pretty shocking to witness the A-list classics that got do-overs around the turn of the '80s.

So it was really a perfect time to remake Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And under the hand of up-and-coming director Philip Kaufman, it turned out to be, if not quite as great as its predecessor, still a pretty damn fine genre picture for its day.

First things first: it's not steeped in politics, and whether that is a good thing or not, I will leave to the conscience of the individual. It is, however, unmistakably and utterly a '70s film: from the casting of Donald Sutherland in brown suits as the hero, to the fixation on self-help gurus, no-one could ever mistake this as being a product of any other time.

Perhaps the chief distinction between the two films - and one that certainly reflects their different eras - is that the 1978 Invasion is no longer set in a quiet community on the edge of nowhere. The original small-town "everybody knows your name" mentality was very much a part of the pre-Vietnam American mindset, and by the end of the Me Decade, it would have come across as hopelessly quaint. Instead, the 1978 film takes place in the bustling city of San Francisco.

It's hard to over-emphasise how important this shift is to the relative differences between the two films. The 1956 film drew most if not all of its horror from the suggestion that the people we've known and trusted our entire lives can turn on us just like that, and the comforting places that we've always loved do not offer us even a hint of protection when we're up against the wall. 22 years later, the remake takes a look at the new cosmopolitan world that so many either lived in or aspired to, with its concomitant loss of neighborly affection, and proposes that this urban isolation leaves us abandoned in times of need.

Given that seismic shift, the plot actually follows the original fairly closely: Bennell, now given the first name Matthew (Sutherland) is a public health inspector now, but he still spends the first portion of the movie slowly noticing that a lot of the people around him are convinced that their nearest and dearest are different, so different as to hardly count as the same person. He still poohs this idea until he witnesses a half-formed clone with his own eyes, and by that point, half the people he would ordinarily turn to for help have already been snatched. All that's left is to gather the few people he can trust and get as far from the city as possible - a distant cry from the original, where "the city" was looked to as the only hope for salvation.

Your twist can only be so shocking when you've titled a film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but the 1956 film gamely attempted to make us wonder what the hell was going on right up until Bennell saw a half-formed "corpse" lying on his friends' pool table. In the 1978 version, Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter do something that is really quite elemental, and yet hardly ever happens in any remake I can name offhand: they assume that we've seen the original, and that we therefore know what's going on. It's so extraordinarily simple and idea, and yet such a useful one, that you have to wonder why more filmmakers haven't tried it.

Thus it takes literally seconds until the new film confesses that it's a film about aliens: the opening credits take place over a montage of gelatinous bubbles floating through space and landing on earth plants, where they bloom into two-inch long pods with pink flowers. This sequence isn't "scary" in even the slightest degree, but the mere fact that we're aware of what these bubbles portend gives it a tension that rivals anything in the first film.

It's no insult to say that Kaufman's directorial style is meditative, by which I mean, he allows moments to linger on without anything much happening. He does a lot of that in Invasion, starting right here at the credits sequence, and the effect is typically unnerving: while Siegel made his film terrifying by never letting up, Kaufman makes his terrifying by filling it full of "breathing room," moments that allow the audience and the characters to stop and think about what's going on. If it's not as viscerally frightening as the original, it's more existential, and this is a good thing: if it worked exactly the same way that the first movie did, there would be no reason for it to exist. By changing the "mode" of the horror, Kaufman justifies his film's existence far more than most remakes ever do.

In a way, the 1978 Invasion is more effective than the original, for the simple reason that our contemporary world is are generally more like the late-70s than the mid-'50s. Therefore, the concerns expressed in the movie are closer to our own concerns: both films have a scene in which one of the pod people tries to convince the hero to stop resisting, using a twisted kind of logic and appeal to the fears of the Zeitgeist: in the first, that appeal is couched in terms of "be with us again, be a part of your community like you know is right," while in the second, it's much more like, "you don't need to be alone any more. We will all be together, in a way that you've always hoped for." The remake is concerned with the way that society does not always allow for the communal wholeness that the small town in the original took for granted.

The ending, too, is perhaps a bit more modern; the '70s, we could argue, were the most nihilistic decade for cinema in American history, and that is a major part of the film's conclusion. In the 1956 film, a frame narrative instituted at the studio's demand takes away the bitterest part of the ending, but still provides no real hope; the end of the film turns out to be the end of the first act of our fight against the seemingly unstoppable alien force. There's a sense of, "now it's time to fight," and while the film offers no hint at all that we'll be successful or not, the feeling all humanity being in it together speaks of the can-do '50s in a way that we're no longer completely familiar with. In contrast, the remake ends with a strong implication that the war ended before it really began: the last moment of the film is a completely unexpected and completely devastating twist. The last line of the original is "It's an emergency!"; the last line of the remake is a scream of terror.

* * * * *

Here's what happened between 1956 and 1978: John Kennedy's assassination, the war in Vietnam, and Watergate. Here's what happened between 1978 and 1993: Jason Voorhees.

At any rate, that was my first thought at the opening of Abel Ferrara's 1993 Body Snatchers, as it became obvious that our hero for this entry was going to be a seventeen-year-old girl named Marti (Gabrielle Anwar). I'm not sure which of the post-slasher tropes is more annoying: that we can no longer have a horror film with an adult protagonist, or that girls always have androgynous names (and in Marti's case, an androgynous costume for the first couple scenes, that made it hard for me to tell, initially, that the undeniably lovely Ms. Anwar was in fact a woman).

The good thing about this intro, though, was that it immediately reset my expectations. Once I realized that this adaptation was going to be just another early-nineties horror flick, it made the stark tumble in quality much easier to bear. Ultimately, given how many changes this film makes to the story, it's almost - almost! - possible to view this film on its own terms, not as a remake of a brace of masterpieces, but as an occasionally successful horror film that might feel like a particularly well-made Sci Fi Channel original, if that station had been producing original movies in 1993.

In this outing, Marti is the daughter of Steve Malone (Terry Kinney), an EPA official visiting a military base somewhere in the South to investigate toxic chemicals that may or may not be contaminating a nearby river. Along for the three-month project are Steve's wife Carol (Meg Tilly) and their son, Marti's half-brother Andy (Reilly Murphy).

At roughly the same moment, Marti makes a psychotic new best friend in Jenn Platt (Christine Elise), while Steve makes a new adversary in Jenn's father, General Platt (R. Lee Ermey, playing to the cheap seats). Life on the military base sure does seem kind of crappy for everybody!

Especially when Andy goes to daycare for the first time. In the film's second-best moment, the attendant has all the children finger-painting, and she asks the kids to raise their pictures up so she can see them. Every single child has painted a virtually identical snarl of bright red with a green shape in the middle, except for Andy, who looks around with rather pronounced dread. This scene takes place mostly in one hand-held shot that pans across the row of identical paintings, and it's better than scary: it's creepy. Damn creepy. The insistent musical score doesn't help out much, but it also doesn't hurt.

Meanwhile: Steve meets Major Collins (Forest Whitaker), the base psychiatrist, who asks vague questions about the psychological ramifications of the chemicals: could they make somebody hallucinate that their loved ones aren't who they seem to be? Steve downplays this connection, and it's actually kind of neat to see a genre film like this one have such a major plot thread that absolutely fails to connect back to the main conflict. Life is like that sometimes.

In fact, the precise manner in which the alien pods arrive is never quite addressed in this film, but Ferrara and his cadre of writers seem to playing the same game that Kaufman did - you know what's happening, why should we spell it out for you? - and it works almost as well here. Anyway, things get creepy, Marti meets the hot helicopter pilot Tim Young (Billy Wirth), and as Andy gets more and more freaked out about what's going on, he walks on on his mother's dried-out body, just in time to see it collapse into a pile of dust as she steps out of the closet, naked, without any expression on her face (awesomely, the end credits note: "Body double for Meg: Jennifer").

I was a little disappointed to see that this film lacked the now-traditional discovery of a featureless, unformed human body, jumping straight into the "holy shit!" moment, but you know what? I've seen that moment twice now. And fair is fair, the action part of this film is pretty good, all things considered. It takes something like 35 minutes to get here, out of 87, and most of that opening act is deadly dull "I'm a sad teen" angsty crap. But from the moment that Meg Tilly looks at the boy with a teeny tiny smile, the film generally works more than it fails. Oh, there's plenty of teen angst to come, a lot of it centered in the hugely problematic love story between the girl and the (presumably significantly older) helicopter pilot. That doesn't take away from the scenes that work, often surprising well. It's worth pointing out that neither of the first two films actually show us the domestic scenes in which the humans start to realise that something is very wrong, and Body Snatchers finally gets around to doing just that, using Tilly's natural weirdness to dynamite effect.

It's also around this point that the film reminds us that it was made during the Gore Age. In the film's third-best moment, Marti is drifting off to sleep in a bubble bath, when a pod hidden in the ceiling tiles above starts to drop tendrils down to her face. They snake around into her nose and ears and all over her face, and then we're treated to some rather discomfiting shots of an alien plant womb, and the human-shaped "fetus" forming inside. It's sexualized horror in a manner that the films had previously not attempted to tap into, and it works. It was at this point that I felt particularly annoyed that I had never seen any of Ferrara's films before: this is surely not a good entry point, and I was deeply curious to see whether this oh-so-Cronenbergian scene was typical of his style.

The customary running around happens, and it's not nearly as tense as in the first two movies, and there's only one reason I can come up with: the characters aren't as good. Not just the heroes, but pretty much everyone around them in the first two, were sympathetic or at least understandable humans, and watching them turn to robotic clones was genuinely horrifying. Here, nobody's death "takes," because nobody feels real, and it's hard to work up too much anxiety over the fates of our cardboard protagonists.

That said, there are a few scenes that are pretty unnerving: certainly, the moment where Marti decided on essentially no evidence that Steve is a pod person and shoots him is startling in a great way, although the film immediately demonstrates that, oh wait, he is, and that takes the sting away. That's got nothing on a scene later on: Marti and Tim have figured out that if they don't show any emotion, the clones won't notice them, and they are slowly making their way to a helicopter when they meet Jenn. She whispers to Marti that Andy was looking for her, and without breaking her stride, Marti takes a step...another...and a third...then she turns and asks, "where is he," and Jenn screams to the other pods that there are two humans. It's a brilliantly tense moment that humanises Marti in a way that the rest of the film never even approaches, and it's the emotional highlight of the film, and its best single moment.

Without giving away any more plot, I think it's worthe mentioning that this film has a much more ambiguous ending than the previous films, almost annoyingly so, and it works a little too hard to make sure we're not completely bummed out as we leave the theater (contrast the 1978 film, whose objective seemed to be to send us straight to a bottle of vodka). I've noticed elsewhere that horror films started getting "nice" around the mid-'80s, and this is surely a relic of that tendency.

So, to sum up: how is this a film of its age, après the first two? Well, it's paranoid about the military and only the military (first US screening: 28 January, 1994. Debut of The X-Files: 10 September, 1993). Really, most of its cultural specificity comes because of the very particular time it was made in the evolution of its genre. It's a teen horror film with grown-up violence, and just enough clever plotting to stay out of the slasher pits, and that combination dates it just as much as Don Siegel's invocation of the Reds dates his film. Body Snatchers doesn't have a lot to tell us, but it's just close enough to scary, and it has just enough well-observed details in amidst the clichéd dreck, that it's a good bit of fun. It's not terribly smart, but it's entertaining in its flashiness, and that means it's just the remake that the 1990s deserved.

1 comment:

Mr. K said...

Hmmm... you kind of cut poor Kevin McCarthy short shrift. Joe Dante's used him a lot, and he was a delight in UHF (which might sound like faint praise, but he does a good job playing the hell out of an intentionally absurdly evil character).