Friday, September 24, 2010

New on Blu: "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"

Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers has proven one of the most fruitful pieces of modern literature for screen adaptations, with no less than four film versions (so far): Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake under the same title, Abel Ferrara’s 1993 Body Snatchers, and Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2007 version, The Invasion. (The title variations now appear to have been exhausted.) Siegel’s original was reportedly hamstrung by studio interference; the humor was mostly stripped out and the downbeat ending was amended with a more hopeful coda. Kaufman sought to rectify both of those issues with his take, which is a high-spirited, giggly, scary-movie kick, capped off with a sucker-punch of an ending.

Kaufman changed his setting from Siegel’s small town America to eccentric big-city San Francisco, which is slowly turned upside down by the arrival (via thunderstorm) of an alien life force that forms into small pods in pink flowers. Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) brings one home and notices an immediate change in her live-in boyfriend Geoffrey (Art Hindle), who goes from laid-back to button-up. Elizabeth and her boss, health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) begin to pick up on other reports of strange behavior around the city—people saying that their loved ones don’t seem like themselves. Bennell’s friend and psychiatric author, Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy) dismisses the talk as “some kind of hallucinatory flu going around,” but when Jack Bellicec (Jeff Golblum) and his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) find a gooey, hair covered pod person in their Turkish bath, they understandably have a full-on freak-out.

The story of replicated “pod people” replacing humans is presumably so timeless because it is so adaptable. The McCarthy-era novel and original film were a fairly obvious allegory for fear of the Red Menace (they could be your friends! Your neighbors! You’d never know!); Kaufman’s adaptation, made in the shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, sinks its fingernails into the fruitful bounty of anti-government paranoia. “It’s a conspiracy,” notes Jack at one point. “What’s a conspiracy?” asks Matthew. “Everything,” Jack replies. Later, as the scope of the invasion becomes clear, Nancy says (with a tremor in her voice), “They’re all a part of it.”

As with the best of politically-tinged science fiction, however, Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter have some fun with the tale—while, at the same time, never ribbing or winking at the audience too broadly. The picture works on two levels: as a basic creature feature shocker, and as a knowing indulgence in the tricks (and treats) of the genre. Kaufman keeps the first third or so (before the Bellicecs find that first pod) at a pretty slow boil, using stillness and dead quiet to build dread, but once the narrative gets going it’s like a locomotive, with Kaufman tossing in a full compliment of scary sound effects, trilling shock cues, and slam-bang tilts and zooms.

Kaufman’s cinematographer, the great Michael Chapman, replicates the angularity of the Frisco locations with delightfully askew compositions. The camerawork, while dark and moody, is simultaneously playful; for instance, our first look at the already-angular Sutherland is in a fisheye peephole shot. Sutherland, traipsing around the city in his gumshoe-style brown trenchcoat, is just right in the leading role—he plays it serious without taking it too seriously—and Adams is charmingly unpredictable in what is, by no stretch, a standard ingénue role. The supporting cast is quite capable, though Goldblum is certainly the standout; though still relatively new to film, he arrives with his oddball persona already fully formed, and he and Sutherland share a scene of delightfully overlapping dialogue early on.

In little moments like that, we can see that Kaufman was interested in doing more than a standard remake, though throwaway gags and overheated set pieces can only carry a narrative so far. By the time the film arrives at the arsony climax, the events on screen begin to feel a tad rote and lifeless, as if the action-heavy ending was an obligation. No matter; up until then, Invasion of the Body Snatchers packs in plenty of laughs and thrills, and that closing scene is still a chiller.

In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, director Philip Kaufman visits some familiar scary movie themes (don’t go to sleep!) and pokes at some fascinating subtext (who can you trust, really?) without sacrificing a genuine sense of full-on, B-movie fun. He’s telling a story that’s only grown more familiar and iconic in the passing years, but his Invasion remains the genuine article.

"Invasion of the Body Snatchers" was released on Blu-ray on September 14th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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