We continue our journey through a month of frightening, bloody and violent films. For more, check out our 31 Days of Horror homepage.
Synopsis: Jack Finney’s novel “The Body Snatchers” gets its second film adaptation by Philip Kaufman in 1978. This time, the setting is changed from a small California town to the teeming metropolis of San Francisco. Donald Sutherland plays Matthew Bennell, a health inspector who stumbles across reports of people claiming their loved ones are not themselves. His colleague Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) faces similar stories and even suspects her live-in boyfriend Geoffrey has been infected.
After conferring with Matthew’s pop psychology guru friend David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), they settle on mass hysteria as a cause. However, when Matthew’s other friends (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright) discover a mysterious body in the back of their spa, the group soon discovers an insidious alien force has come to earth with the ability to duplicate people.
Like the original 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, this film relies more on psychological terror than actual horrific scenes. Though, with greater special effects 22 years down the road, the filmmakers were able to show some more intense moments. Most people will point to (no pun intended) the final scene of the film as its most shocking moment, and they’d be right. However, the scene that stuck with me the most for sheer emotionally-draining terror was the duplication scene. In the original movie, Kevin McCarthy and company saw the seed pods bursting open with foam and plastic. That worked for its day, but in this newer version, things were more organic. With Donald Sutherland asleep in a lawn chair and the thin, hairy tendrils of the pods reaching out to his arms, I was hooked. The growth of the pod and the embryonic development of the duplicated bodies were frighteningly realistic. Part of the realism was Sutherland’s spot-on acting as someone drugged into sleep, struggling to wake up. That’s the scene that haunted me as a child.
Invasion of the Body Snatcherscarries a PG rating, though it was made at a time when PG packed more of a punch than it does today (partly because movies of the 70s were more intense and partly because the PG-13 rating hadn’t yet been established). There’s some significant violence, particularly when Matthew destroys one of the duplicated bodies, or when the dog-human hybrid shows up. However, what stands out more is the icky nature of the pods. Wrapped in a thin, white hair-like substance, these early duplicated bodies are significantly gross, even by today’s standards, in my opinion.
Again, I cite the PG rating as a warning that this film won’t be a cavalcade of tits and ass. However, there is a nice shot of a topless Brooke Adams at the end. She’s cropped out and later wearing a red dress in the TV version, but the original theatrical cut showed plenty. Sigh… they don’t make PG movies like they used to.
To this date, I consider Invasion of the Body Snatchers to be one of the scariest movies ever made. Forget masked killers, monsters and torture porn. It is the psychological skull-fucking this movie gives you that makes it work. The original film was meant to be an allegory of the Red Scare. This movie works more as a standard horror movie, though it has some sociological implications as well, taking some well-deserved stabs at pop psychology and the burgeoning self-help trend of the 70s. But all that aside, there’s nothing that will make me lose sleep more than a threat of an unseen invader who will take me over while I sleep. It wasn’t until I was well into high school that I could watch this movie and fall asleep at night, and it’s the only film that has ever had this effect on me.
Jack Finney’s novel has been made into two films since 1978: Body Snatchers in 1993 with Gabrielle Anwar and The Invasion in 2007 with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Both films were a sorry let-down from the near perfection of this movie. Of course, this is not to suppress the brilliance of the 1956 film, which was equally awesome. That movie is, as far as I’m concerned, Kevin McCarthy’s legacy, and I usually revisit at least one of these first two films once a year. Along with John Carpenter’s The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a cinematic treasure, which was recently given a Blu-ray treatment. Ignore the goofy hairstyles, the godawful 70s production design and the general silliness of the era in which it was made. It’s a powerful, visceral and disturbing movie, one that any horror fan is remiss having not seen.