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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT
Say the words “remake” and “reimagining” in a room full of movie aficionados, and you’re sure to hear moans and groans, and rightly so. Nine times out of ten moviegoers are left scratching their heads wondering why someone would mess with the original.
But sometimes remakes get it right. Take INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978), for example. This first remake of the 1956 classic science fiction film INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS based on the novel by Jack Finney, is so good that some argue it’s even better than the original. I wouldn’t go that far. But this 1978 version is far superior to the remakes which followed in 1993 and 2007.
My favorite part of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) is that director Philip Kaufman gives it a distinctive style. There’s a sense of unease which runs throughout this movie. It keeps the viewer on edge from beginning to end.
It also doesn’t hurt that Kaufman had a terrific cast.
In INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS aliens invade Earth, not with spaceships, but with pods. People fall asleep, and aliens take over their bodies.
The movie follows Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams), Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum) and his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) as they gradually realize that the world around them is changing, that people are acting differently, and in spite of the advice given to them by Matthew’s friend, psychiatrist and best-selling author Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy) that they should just all get some rest and stop freaking out about things, they persist with their inquiries. Soon, they discover the horror is all too true: they are in the midst of an alien invasion.
Space flowers have travelled through space, landed on Earth, and are aggressively transforming into life forms that look exactly like human beings. In this way, the invasion occurs without people noticing. It’s brilliant.
From the opening scene, in which we see a priest swinging on a child’s swing in a playground (yes, that is Robert Duvall on the swing!) to later when a man runs past Elizabeth as if being chased, and there’s a scream moments later that Elizabeth doesn’t seem to notice, the audience knows that something isn’t quite right with the world.
There’s an ongoing debate over when Leonard Nimoy’s character Dr. Kibner changes into a pod person. Some people believe he’s already changed in his very first scene at the book signing, and they cite as evidence his advice to Matthew and Elizabeth that they should get some sleep, and that Elizabeth should go home to her boyfriend, who we already know is a pod person.
Others claim Kibner isn’t turned until later, and they cite as evidence that at the book signing, Kibner is seen smiling, and pod people can’t smile.
I saw INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS at the movies when it first came out in1978, and I distinctly remember feeling strongly during the book signing scene that something was off about Dr. Kibner, and I didn’t trust him and suspected him immediately of being a pod person. So, my gut has always told me that he was a pod person even at the book signing scene, even though the evidence tells me otherwise.
And this is one of the reasons this version works so well. There’s a lot going on here. It’s not cut and dry.
In the late 1970s, Donald Sutherland was enjoying a plethora of both starring and supporting roles and was very popular during these years, turning up all over the place, in films like ANIMAL HOUSE (1978), THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1978), and ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980). Sutherland is still going strong today, but he was particularly enjoyable as a leading man during the late 1970s, and his work in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is no exception.
Some of his reactions here are priceless. When he tries to call the police, for instance, and they call him by name, he freaks out, saying, “How did you know my name? I didn’t tell you my name!” It’s one of the more memorable scenes in the movie.
Brooke Adams is very good as Elizabeth Driscoll, and she and Sutherland share a nice chemistry together. Their characters aren’t involved with each other when the movie starts, but as the story goes along, they grow closer and closer, and it’s all very believable.
Jeff Goldblum does his wisecracking genius shtick, and it’s very similar to what he would do later in THE FLY (1986) and JURASSIC PARK (1993). It’s a shtick he does well.
Veronica Cartwright, the sister of Angela Cartwright, Penny from TV’s LOST IN SPACE (1965-68), is particularly good here as Nancy Bellicec. She’s both a frightened victim and a strong-willed heroine, and it’s the latter that makes her more memorable. She’s got more gumption than Brooke Adam’s lead character, Elizabeth. It’s the reason why I like Cartwright here better than in her role in ALIEN (1979).
Leonard Nimoy is perfectly cast as Dr. Kibner. He makes it nearly impossible to determine if Dr. Kibner is just a pompous irritating know-it-all all by his lonesome, or if he’s a pod person at the outset. It’s a terrific performance. It’s also a rarity, seeing Nimoy playing someone other than STAR TREK’s Mr. Spock. It’s very refreshing.
The script by W.D. Richter captures the nuances of the uncertain world, as the characters struggle first to recognize that something is wrong and then to identify the threat as alien. It also does a great job showing us that these characters are scared to death.
This version also benefits from pre-CGI special effects. There’s a very neat very gruesome scene where Donald Sutherland shoves a sharp hoe through his duplicate’s face. There are a lot of other neat scenes in this one as well. How about that dog with the human face?
This version also has a terrifying ending. The final shot is one of the more memorable and frightening last scenes of any science fiction movie. Once you see it, you never forget it.
It also has one of the strangest music scores ever, by Denny Zeitlin.
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS comes off as completely believable. It convinces its audience that the invasion is real, that alien flowers really have landed on Earth, that pods are hatching, that people are being replaced with identical duplicates, and it’s all done in such a horrifying way, all the way down to its chilling conclusion.
As such, the 1978 version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is more than just an excellent remake. It’s also a classic science fiction film in its own right, and more than holds its own against the 1956 original.
So, this holiday season, if your relatives suddenly start acting differently, like someone you don’t even know, then you might want to quietly excuse yourself and check the coat room or a closet to see if there are any watermelon-sized pods hanging around, and if there are, promptly find the front door and get in your car and drive away, drive long and far and fast, not stopping until you see the light of day, and whatever you do, no matter how tired you may become, don’t fall asleep.