Commentary by Andy Ray
In 1978, director Philip Kaufman committed one of the greatest sins of moviemaking. He remade a classic.
Now granted, Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is no “Casablanca,” but it certainly stands out within the context of 1950s low-budget science fiction and horror flicks. Far superior to most films of that genre, “Body Snatchers” was truly frightening – in a grainy, black and white sort of way. It involved an invasion of alien seed spores which duplicate and replace humans when they fall asleep. Farfetched? Yes. Believable within the context screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring established at the outset? Yes. And it became a cult classic – lending itself to the concept of “pod people” in the late 20th century.
So why would Kaufman risk remaking a highly regarded champion among a long dormant category of film? I don’t know. The stakes were almost too high for success. It was the low-budget look of the original that endeared it to many fans. To shoot a big budget remake (in color, no less) with big-name stars seemed almost sacrilegious. In fact, the only reason we’re even talking about Kaufman’s remake is that, against all odds, he succeeded. To this day, the 1978 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is considered one of the greatest remakes in motion picture history – and one of the greatest sci-fi/horror films ever made.
Starring Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams as San Francisco Health Dept. inspectors Matthew and Elizabeth, Kaufman’s version follows a group of friends’ travails through one long night of terror when they learn (a) that people are being replaced by lifeless “pod” doubles, and (b) that falling asleep allows the pods to overtake the human body. Unfortunately, no one can stay awake forever, requiring a conclusion that is atypical of most Hollywood fare – even in the realm of horror. In fact, the “invasion” is so swift and severe that experts do not have time to devise a solution. The “joy” of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is watching the characters slowly realize the encroachment of their situation.
No one is better at treating this implausible material with the impassive gravity it requires than Donald Sutherland. Save for, perhaps, Leonard Nimoy. And what do you know? Leonard Nimoy plays Matthew and Elizabeth’s psychiatrist friend Dr. David Kibner – whose skills are employed when Elizabeth’s boyfriend begins showing signs of detachment. Quickly diagnosing Elizabeth’s subconscious desire to end their relationship, Dr. Kibner and the health department representatives are rattled when a writer friend and his wife (again, the perfectly cast Jeff Goldblum, along with Veronica Cartwright) call Matthew to report partially-formed body doubles in their bathhouse when they were awakened from their sleep.
The ensuing scenes are the real meat of the film, as Sutherland, Nimoy and Goldblum deftly handle screenwriter W.D. Richter’s complex and layered dialogue. As in John Boorman’s “Deliverance,” I’m more impressed with the proficient discussion of the action than I am the action itself. The final act reminds me of a Steven Spielberg picture, complete with a frightened mass of humanity and a conspiracy theory or two. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is great fun, and renews my faith in the horror genre – one often abused by low-budget shlock merchants.
Donald Sutherland again proves he has to be the greatest American actor never nominated for an Oscar. But it is Philip Kaufman’s direction that endears me to this film. Coming five years before “The Right Stuff” and 10 years before “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” Kaufman solidified his notoriety as a director unafraid to take enormous risks in bringing demanding material to the screen. Again, most directors would be adverse to attempting to remake a classic – even of a low-budget horror film. Likewise, most directors would be adverse to filming Tom Wolfe’s involved and expansive novel “The Right Stuff” to the big screen as well. Never one to scorn ambition, Kaufman proved he had the right stuff as a director with “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
Fortunately, we have the opportunity to watch “Body Snatchers” as a midnight show this coming weekend, Oct. 7 and 8, at Keystone Arts Cinema at the Fashion Mall. Mark your calendars. This one’s a winner.