Way back in a high-school film class, I was lucky enough to get the chance to check out Don Siegel's 1956 horror classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Adopted from a novel by Jack Finney, the story delivers major suspense through paranoia instead of cheap tricks. Released during the Red Scare of the mid-'50s, it commented on the frenzy of that time period. The closing image of a manic Kevin McCarthy running through traffic and screaming "you're next!" is one of the great movie moments from this genre. There have been three other movie variations on this story, including 2007's The Invasion with Nicole Kidman. I didn't have much interest in the remakes but heard good things about the 1978 version. This seemed like the perfect way to start this new marathon of alien-invasion films.
So, what's this story about?
Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) is a health-department inspector who slowly begins to realize that people are changing. His co-worker Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) wakes up one day to find that her boyfriend Geoffrey (Art Hindle) seems completely different. Although friends like Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy) are skeptical, Matthew's suspicions continue to grow. When strange pods start appearing with humanoids inside them, he realizes this force is a lot more sinister than a strange anomaly. While Matthew and Elizabeth try to escape San Francisco, the pursuit by the growing enemy becomes more vigilant. The chance for escape looks grim, and this subtle threat appears primed to take down the entire planet.
What are the key themes of this film?
Released in the late '70s, this story doesn't connect to the paranoia of McCarthyism. However, it heightens the feeling that society is crumbling into nothingness. Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff) fills the frame with activity, particularly on the edges of shots. While Matthew strolls through San Francisco, we see unexplained activities in the background, including a man being chased. Garbage men scoop up a strange fuzzy substance, yet no one questions it. Following the Vietnam War and domestic crises like the gas shortage, optimism wasn't high in the United States. The feeling of hopelessness increases throughout the film, and few chances appear for Matthew and his friends to escape. The alien forces are overtaking everything with ease, and it's only a matter of time before the holdouts become emotionless automatons like the rest of the crowd.
Are the aliens interesting and original?
Since the aliens' methods come from the original novel and film, they're not entirely original. However, their methods are a lot clearer within this remake. Along with the danger posed by this new species of plant, characters are also in danger by just being outside. In one grisly scene, Donald Sutherland falls asleep in the backyard, and the grass takes him over and quickly starts building a double. Once they've taken over a group of humans, it gets easier to expand their scope to eventually include everyone. Their actions are simplistic, but they're also very effective, especially since people can't even trust their friends. Matthew repeatedly takes advice from Dr. Kibner, who's hesitant to believe the news about the changes. This might not be a wise move for his long-term survival.
How is the creature design?
Invasion of the Body Snatchers had a $3.5 million budget, which was pretty hefty by the standards of the era. That investment pays off with some truly clever special effects, particularly in the realm of stop motion. The sequence where the alien plant takes over and starts doubling Matthew remains horrifying today. The most surprising moment comes near the end when a strange dog-man hybrid shocks Elizabeth and gives her away to the pod people. Thus far, we'd seen little evidence that the aliens were conducting experiments on humans. While the result looks hilarious, it's shocking within the context of the film. One big change from the original movie is the opening sequence, which shows the entities leaving their planet and traveling towards Earth. While it removes some mystery from their background, it does provide an eerie method to begin the movie.
Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
Since many of the characters become shells for the aliens, there are limits to the depth within these individuals. Their success comes from the actors, who make us interested in their survival without much development. Sutherland is the perfect choice for the lead role because he seems like a regular guy but remains charismatic. Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright play their typical roles; he's a quirky writer and she's likable but frazzled. As the romantic lead, Brooke Adams does solid work but never seems as interesting as she needs to be. While her eventual fate is tragic, it doesn't pack a huge punch. It's also fun that Leonard Nimoy plays a skeptic who scoffs at the idea that aliens are involved. While it's possible that he's already a pod by that point, I'm not sure that's the case.
What are some of the most memorable scenes?
There are plenty of great moments in this excellent thriller, but I'll just focus on a few of my favorites. The highlight is a cameo from Kevin McCarthy as a crazed guy trying to warn about the alien arrival. The kicker is that he's actually shouting the same lines that he said at the end of the original. I have this fun image of the character spending the past 20 years running through the streets like a crazed lunatic. He stands right at the windshield of Matthew's car and creates just the right level of fear, even if you haven't seen the original. Another great moment is the nasty finale, which kicks you right in the stomach and reveals the hopelessness of the entire situation. It's a classic twist that feels earned and matches the nihilistic atmosphere of the entire picture.