Sunday, 23 October 2016

THE LEIGH SPENCE MOMENT: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978)


10. “There’s no need for hate now, or love.”



22/10/2016




Like Pierre Boulle’s novel “La Planète des Singes,” Jack Finney’s 1954 novel “The Body Snatchers” is famous only for the films made from it, having a strong central premise – the replacement of humanity by alien duplicates, devoid of emotion - that is retold by each successive generation, attempting to reflect and understand itself. “The Body Snatchers” has been made into a film four times so far, but the second version, from 1978, is considered the best version of the story, and often the best remake of any film.

Where the original, low-budget 1956 film was made, it was seen as a commentary on the bland conformity found in American society at the time, and as a criticism of the paranoia surrounding McCarthyism – replace signs of alien life with Communism, and the rest is easily worked out from there. The 1978 update keeps the same themes, but with the Watergate scandal almost proving that the warnings from the first film were not heeded, the feeling of paranoia, and horror, is heightened in the audience without the film having to do anything specifically to do that – the film’s only task is to tell the story as well as it can.


This remake features solid acting, stylised directing, vivid colour - any grit can be put down to it being set in 1970s San Francisco – and a serious intention (again, 1970s New Hollywood-style grit). Donald Sutherland’s doctor character is now a health inspector, more likely to have contact with the alien pods; Jeff Goldblum makes an early appearance in his career, before he became “Jeff Goldblum”; and Leonard Nimoy plays a psychiatrist, dealing with emotion in a way his Spock never could, in a role that marks the major change in the remake’s plot.

In the 1956 original, the distributor requested a change to make the story less pessimistic, so a prologue and epilogue were added, in which a psychiatrist is heard listening to a doctor’s account of how he uncovered the alien infiltration. This provides a chance for the story, told in flashback, to be dismissed as paranoia: even when the psychiatrist later sees the evidence of what happened, the call is made to seal off the town, and call the FBI.

This time, at the centre of the action, Nimoy is ready to debunk everything the characters, and audience sees, almost as they see it, giving them, and us, a change to second-guess ourselves. Therefore, when you see Nimoy, at the film’s start, calmly explaining away what must really be going on in people’s minds – that people move between relationships too easily! – he casts doubt on his role as the expert. That he becomes one of the “pod people” is, perhaps, a fitting end.

Overall, I got the feeling that films like this are not really made nowadays. It was a bit like watching “Silence of the Lambs” – horror films do not usually have a top-drawer cast, at the peak of the career, but usually either those just starting out, or on their way down. If horror wasn’t treated so often as a more low-budget, easy-scare genre, I might watch more of them.

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