Movies We LoveBody Snatchers (1993)

Abandon yourself and join us.

Synopsis
Brooding teenager Marti Malone is having the worst summer of her life. She’s stuck on an extended road trip with her stepmom, little half-brother and her dad — an EPA agent. Dad’s assignment is to inspect military bases in the South. What he finds at his final stop is worse than any Superfund site: Aliens are invading the earth by cloning us out of existence.

Why We Love It

Abel Ferrara’s remake of Body Snatchers is the kind of film that seduces you by degrees. It starts off feeling awfully familiar. A family cruises down a lonely highway somewhere in the Alabama bayou. There’s a brief stop at some redneck gas station for directions — and creepy foreshadowing — and we’re back on the road.

Just when you think you’ve seen this all before, here comes the first hint that Body Snatchers is something weirder. The Malone family arrives at the military base and we’re treated to a POV shot out the family station wagon’s windshield. The only thing in focus is the dad’s (Terry Kinney’s) profile. The view through the glass — a soldier checking his clipboard and a fluttering American flag — is an eerie haze.

That’s the first in a chain of surreal, subtle cues suggesting things are horribly awry. If Ferrara’s 1979 breakthrough The Driller Killer was a gutter-punk homage to Polanski’s Repulsion, you could make a case that Body Snatchers finds him channeling the stifling paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby. As the suspense is built layer-upon-layer, you can sense dark forces swimming just below the surface.

As in Rosemary’s Baby, the trappings of polite society take on sinister meaning. Playful, even nurturing gestures become acts of sabotage. When the recently cloned stepmom (Meg Tilly) gives her unsuspecting hubby a backrub, she’s really just trying to lull him into a fatal sleep. When she draws Marti a bath, it’s not because she’s warming up to her. She’s trying to lure Marti into a slumber so the pod in the attic can do its work undisturbed.

As Body Snatchers finally shows its hand, the imagery gets even more disturbing. Example: When the time comes for me to shuffle off this mortal coil, I suppose I’d like to go in my sleep. But I’d prefer not to do so because some oversized hairy brussel sprout drained my life essence by skullfucking me with its wormlike tendrils.

Like most of Ferrara’s other films, Body Snatchers makes a virtue of its tight budget. Visual effects are used sparsely. When someone gets shot or something explodes, it’s treated almost as an afterthought. It’s not that Ferrara doesn’t know how to craft an action sequence. His 1990 gangster classic King of New York is evidence enough of his chops. No, Body Snatchers just doesn’t need explosive pyrotechnics when its slow burn approach works just fine.

Moment We Fell In Love

There’s plenty to love about Body Snatchers. I always smirk at the scene where Marti’s young half-brother (Reilly Murphy) is revealed as the only human child among all the clones in his daycare. How? His fingerpainting is the only unique creation among all the other identical, cookie-cutter works. Do you suppose Ferrara sympathizes?

R. Lee Ermey also has a small but memorable part as “head cabbage” Gen. Platt. The scene where Ermey fixes his thousand-yard stare directly into the camera and rapturously describes the virtues of being assimilated is menace made manifest.

But the moment I knew for sure that Body Snatchers would become one of my all-time favorites was far more understated. It’s a shot that comes when Marti’s dad, having seemingly survived a near-brush with the clones, is driving his children to “safety.” The camera lingers on his right hand, which clutches the steering wheel in a somewhat awkward overhand grip. Having been taught by this point to question every seemingly casual gesture, this detail was all I needed to know Dad wasn’t Dad anymore.

Final Thoughts

Body Snatchers was never given a chance to thrive in theatrical release. It premiered at Cannes, was shelved for a year, then given a limited release. Even with a relatively small $13 million budget, it failed to break even, grossing about $425,000.

Ferrara has blamed studio politics for its shabby treatment, but there are plenty of reasons why Warner Bros. might have gotten cold feet. With the dust of the Gulf War still fresh on American soldiers’ boots, maybe WB was fearful of casting U.S. troops (or even their clones) as bad guys. Or maybe studio execs just couldn’t recognize a newly minted classic when they saw it.

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