If I were to ask you to name a movie that’s not only a remake of a black and white classic, but is also a sci-fi masterpiece of suspense and paranoia as it makes us question the very nature of identity, it would be deliriously understandable if you blurted out The Thing before I had even finished the question. However, John Carpenter’s monstrously relentless epic is hardly the only extra-terrestrial on the block when it comes to freaking people out with freakishly extreme examples of identity fraud.
Bursting into cinemas in 1978, Phillip Kaufman’s do-over of the sweat soaked, 1956, pulse pounder took the basic premise of alien “pod people” slowly replacing the inhabitants of a Californian town in order to spring board off into world domination, removed a lot of the themed of the “red menace” of communism and instead gave us a nuanced, incredibly creepy tale of the same thing taking advantage of the self absorbed culture of San Francisco in the 1970’s to stunning effect.
Spores from a distant planet drift into our atmosphere and are eventually rained down onto the San Francisco area where they take root and blossom into strange looking flowers that are simply begging to be plucked and taken into peoples homes. However, rather than a extreme case of hayfever, this plant actually disgorges a pod that duplicates a sleeping host exactly right up until the victim literally is dehydrated into a crumbling husk and the duplicate wakes, full of memories but crucially missing that thing that makes a person human.
By the time laboratory scientist Elizabeth Driscoll has noticed that something “ain’t quite right” with her boyfriend, the invasion of San Fran is already underway with clues literally dotted in plain sight. However, she finally gets the attention of her colleague at the Department of Health, Matthew Bennell, and together the two start to gradually crack open this plant-based conspiracy with the help of their social circle. However, while tortured author, Jack Bellicec and his new age wife Nancy start to see the tell-tale signs, noted psychiatrist David Kibner remains unconvinced and tries to persuade his friends that the paranoia they feel is merely side-effects of them trying to alter their lives for self benefit.
Regardless, it soon becomes clear that the evidence is insurmountable and after a close call that nearly sees the group duplicated by nearby pods while they sleep, they realise they’ll have to flee the city if they have any hope of raising the alarm. As they try to blend in with with these emotion-free, spore people from beyond the stars, fear runs rampant as the odds steadily tip towards the beings that would replace us…
Ironically, when you consider the premise of Body Snatchers, remakes are usually lifeless clones that sort of seem like the movie you knew but are ultimately missing an indefinable something that somehow makes all the difference – Kaufman, seemingly well aware of this, even back in the late 70’s, circumvented this problem by doing everything a good remake should do. Stripping away the story and location and leaving only the premise left, the director uses arguably sci-fi’s most unnerving “what if” to make damning observations on societal quirks while being as creepy as fuck.
This is no small town in the middle of nowhere, this is freakin’ San Francisco and Kaufman’s most upsetting shift is that this freakishly calm invasion is happening right under our noses because we’re too wrapped up in our own shit to notice. It’s a concept that’s worrying more prevalent today in the world of Tik Tok and other such self promoting forms of social media and the film toys with everyone’s inability to drop their personal crap and actually see what’s transpiring around them. While Bellicec agonises about his writing and Kibner goes off on another self-satisfied bout of rationalizing, we, audience, are privy to all the unsettling goings on that’s happening right next to them right from the second the movie starts. We might not know what any of it means at the time, but sights of a teacher instructing school kids to pick the alien flowers and then bring them inside for “nap time” gets only more insidious with repeated viewing, as is the sight of the increased volume of garbage trucks seen as we eventually realise that the pod people need them to dispose of the dusty husks that uses to be their host humans. As the dread steadily rises like a thermometer during a heatwave, the remaining humans realise that the individualism and humanity they once cherished is now nothing more than great big neon sign that buzzes above their head that points out their rampant non-conformity.
Kaufman has left nothing to chance, even with his casting as he seems to have gone out of his way to cast eccentric looking actors who couldn’t blend into a crowd if their fucking lives depended on it. Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, Leonard Nimoy and Veronica Cartwright all look vaguely alien to begin with (no offence, guys) so to have them be humanities only hope against a city full of passive faced conformists just stacks that deck against so high.
Another thing that strikes you about the Body Snatcher’s ’78 tour is that it’s almost unbearably nihilistic to the point that it makes Carpenter’s The Thing seem positively… well, positive in comparison. The fact that the pod people have such a head start on us due to the fact that mankind is sort of flakey is brutal enough, but as we watch Sutherland and Brooke Adams struggle against a problem that’s simply grown too big, the film deals us one cruel body blow after another starting with a magnificent cameo of the original film’s lead, Kevin McCarthy, bellowing out his iconic warnings only to be flattened in a hit and run while a crowd watches with a high level of disinterest. Not only has the movie rudely annihilated the saviour of the ’58 version, there’s a good chance that some, if not most, of the bored looking rubber neckers aren’t even pod people which leads further into the feeling that we’re all fucking doomed.
While some of the effects are inevitably dated (the human headed dog mutant is still startling despite not holding up all that well), Kaufman wisely makes sure that he’s not beholden to them by keeping things relatively subtle. The sight of a finger pointing pod person emitting an inhuman screech turns out to be far more spine chilling than a cool, but rubbery transformation sequence that sees quivering, unfinished duplicates pushed out of a pod that mocks natural birth by looking more like a leafy butthole.
Bolstered by a mean spirit and great performances, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers finishes up on one of the great, all-time, horror/sci-fi endings you’ve ever seen that sends you back out into the world, thoroughly creeped out, utterly spent and probably giving the people at your local bus stop the old suspicious side-eye.