Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) – Imposter Horror

The worst thing about losing your individuality is that you can’t even remember what you lost. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers used aliens to describe what Communism meant to the people who feared it, which was no less than the fear of losing their national identity in a time when this was inseparable from their personality. The 1978 remake directed by Philip Kaufman and written by the great W.D. Richter reads between the lines of the essence of the original and turns what it finds into a new worldview. This version is about more than a loss of a nation's individuality. It's about what the loss means for humanity as a species. Every slinking dolly shot and dutch angle does more than a normal horror film, which at heart is about succumbing to madness. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is much scarier: it’s about succumbing to normalcy.

Richter never lets the film wallow in sentiment, filling it with gags that develop its dark irony. Even the opening, which depicts the diaphanous alien wisps rising into space, contains unanswered questions about just how screwed we really are. Are we seeing the aliens’ true form, or merely the leftovers of the life on its latest planetary conquest? The images are eerie yet alluring, like those old educational videos of sperm traveling to its forbidden destination (earth is their oversized ovum). The strands of goo drift onto plants and begin cultivating. Of all the similar B-movie openings that seem to spoil some surprise (both Predator and The Thing showed a crashing UFO a good 40 minutes before the characters learn that anything is wrong), this opening style is vital in Body Snatchers. It establishes the ethereal seriousness of this entity before it mixes with humanity and becomes an ironic apocalypse. Seeing its natural form offers a baseline for its cruel cosmic biology, where the villain has no more personality than a sea of foam. And it leads to one of the best opening lines of any movie: “There’s some flowers kids. Go pick ‘em.” It’s impossible to know whether the world is about to be lost, or already has been.

When Elizabeth (Brooke Adams) suspects that her husband (Art Hindle) might not be her husband anymore, she’s scared of a stranger in the house (only later, she realizes she might be one too). Adams has a funny dignity that becomes tremendous in this movie: her frowny mouth is ironic yet unmistakably sexy (it’s a crime that she never played Lois Lane). She’s perfect at playing funny desperation in even the most brutal sequence, when people slink from their silent houses at brutally close angles, peeking around doorframes to see if their friends are still human. Her intellectual energy is the last rebellion, maybe of the whole human race, in a world that no longer has room for it after the entity excises all its hateful uniqueness. Her “romance” with Matthew (Donald Sutherland) doesn’t happen on-screen, but it’s as tragic as any that could. They love each other impossibly (“life got in the way”). Now, they cling to it as a last resort in a world where anyone who sleeps off-camera could wake up as someone else. Any cut in the film, where the viewer doesn’t see someone even for a moment, introduces the possibility that they're now as good as dead and worse: as good as normal in an invaded world.

San Francisco is a cultural jumble in this film, massed together by people who see in niches like they all live on one street corner at a time. It’s a free-thinking heap of cliques. A smog of ethos clouds everyone’s view. This vision of a city of in-groups is the perfect setting for an alien that threatens humanity with conformity since the city can already take any new idea and stick it on its blob of ideologies. Nothing changes its overall shape. A pop psychiatrist’s book signing is so packed with “original thinkers,” the audience feels cramped by aggressive niceness. “Don’t be trapped by old concepts,” an alien says later. He might as well be a city tour guide.

The normal routines of people on the street become scary (especially in rewatch) since normalcy is both what people usually do and what aliens do to pantomime human behavior. In the background, bright city garbage trucks drive around like mobile punchlines to any humans smart enough to notice that something is wrong, because they look so cheery and normal – later, we learn they’re carrying the remains of the real people after the pods suck out their marrow and walk away to work. In this film, there’s no danger from a psychopath or slasher – such a “horror” would prove that humanity is still humanity. Comparably, they would be a relief. Instead, the villain is the most facelessly amenable person on the street, the one who is so passive and decent that you don't even notice that they've already taken over your world. It's a villain tailormade to a humanity that values heroes yet insists that emotions complicate existence. The entity obliges by helping them achieve a world without either.

It’s essential that Richter created a romantic lead for this film that would not be an average blend-in type of person. The original film starred a manly community leader, your all-around gent; Donald Sutherland, who doesn’t look like anyone other than Donald Sutherland, is the ideal representative of uniqueness in a film whose villain consumes it. He’s the thing that humanity can’t afford to lose. He’s a health department worker whose cruelty is practiced to the point of being casual because Richter knew that a jerk is the perfect freedom fighter when the enemy is a force of ultimate agreement. The audience might be put off by his coarseness, at first. But as the terror of conformity sinks in, every one of Matthew’s ironic grins and angry snaps becomes a form of hope (he’s still human if he’s capable of them). This is the remake’s biggest improvement over its predecessor, whose protagonist was at times so strappy-agreeable that he seemed like a pod person already. Being nice and respectful is what makes us vulnerable to evil unity to begin with. Richter knew he needed an asshole savior, and Sutherland has the jowls for it.

John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) deals with some of this concept of forced unity, but the pressure was only biological rather than intellectual. Its monster was an organic conqueror, life that spread life (and was weak to flamethrowers). The special ingredient in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) is that it takes the disease of unity and accelerates it to include its metaphysics. It doesn’t just spread biology – it thwarts the ambition of other life to exist as anything other than a part of it. It’s the virus of conformity, the chic anti-Christ. This is how the script relies on humor to support its most grotesque truths. Jack (Jeff Goldblum) is a brash socialite, a part of the social clique of being anti-social, and Goldblum is just handsome enough to pull off pretending not to notice how easy he makes it look. He spits in the eye of a world that would rather buy pop psychology from a therapy showman (Leonard Nimoy) than be miserable with him and his poetry (he takes six months to write one line). He needs no convincing to fight a battle against cosmic conformity – he already imagines he does it every day. According to Jack, humanity will lose against this particular invasion not because it lacks rebels but because they were tired from fighting a version of the same evil to begin with, in the form of stylish social confirmations and philosophical pop idols. Jack is all too familiar with the fight against being turned into a vegetable in a city where vegetables are already in vogue.

His wife (Veronica Cartwright) is a well-meaning loon, a masseuse with a UFO fetish. Cartwright has a funny intensity, like she’s always about to laugh or cry and the audience is waiting to see which. In this and Alien, she manages to become the most memorable parts of grotesque scenes with apprehensive yet natural humor, which doesn’t seem to notice that it could be sensual with just a little effort. Her presence in Invasion of the Body Snatchers elevates the bimbo sidekicks of all the laboratory B-movies of the mid-century with her personality. She’s too much like a big kid to quite be an object of desire, but she never loses that slightly sensual edge that makes the audience want to protect her from monsters. And Leonard Nimoy, of course, brings sci-fi with him everywhere in his quizzical eyes and knowing drawl. He's sci-fi as a fantasy of human difference. He rounds out an ensemble cast that's so brilliant, grungy, normal, and aberrant, that they're a test tube of humanity. They're everything we have to lose.

When FDR said that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he may not have considered that fear could be proof that humanity remains. For Body Snatchers, fear is the hero of the story, the last hope for redemption in a world threatened by acquiescence. The camera continually follows this fear, stretching hallways and streets into leery infinities with long shadows crowded around the famous architecture of this city of ideas. Every shot in the film is accounted for, directed to enhance the spaces that even the frame doesn’t reach (“What’s a conspiracy?” someone asks; “Everything,” Jack says). The bystanders in the film, an “other” so aggressive that eventually the protagonists are the new “other,” become progressively more unnerving despite and because they act so normal. They intangibly seem to become aware of the movie, like they can see the camera and the protagonists can’t. They take out walkie talkies and seem to be giving cosmic stage directions; at a certain point, the extras are in complete control of the film’s reality. They're the neighbors in Rosemary's Baby, just as Rosemary feared them to be, extended to the entire world.

As the protagonists realize who controls the world, the film turns to an absolute chill aided by its masterful sound design. Ben Burtt reduces the score to a heartbeat, then accelerates the tension with piano runs and omniscient humming (it’s Danny Zeitlin’s only film score, a man who transitioned from a jazz pianist to a clinical psychiatrist like any good pod person and managed to recreate the feeling audibly). The alien’s screams, when there’s occasion to “react” to anything at all, is like a train’s brakes squealing from a human throat. They’re scary in the way that thunder and rain are to dogs, a way that makes you feel fragile and unseen. The fear in this movie seems to say something about everything. When the dog with a human face jumps innocently into frame, it's scary enough to be disillusioning. The aliens don't know the difference between that and the differently assembled meat of a normal human. A normal horror movie would spend all its energy making you "jump" at a monster like that. This one knows that the true horror is how casual it is.

Matthew can’t bring himself to kill the adult fetuses of his former friends, but he brings himself to destroy himself. Kaufman, an auteur who turned a trashy film concept into a societal self-portrait, creates a monster that’s only as scary as we are. The hero smashes his own face as the ultimate act of defiance, not only against nicety but against movie protagonists as an idea. At one point, an aged Kevin McCarthy, who played the lead in the original film, screams in the street that the world is coming to an end. He locks eyes with the new protagonists through their windshield, then runs down a street as people casually keep walking that way doing their normal business, which in this film is the most ominous thing they could do. That’s the moment Invasion of the Body Snatchers becomes the greatest remake ever made, so great that it could be a sequel from that moment. McCarthy isn’t just a reference to the original film – he’s screaming because people still won’t believe him. He sees that the world is now lost, that he couldn’t warn anyone, that his screams have become futile. It's the single greatest use of a cameo in the history of film because it doesn't just kill off an oldie from the franchise's past. It destroys him, by proving him right.

A remake has a right to fear the loss of its individuality. It comes into the world as the film equivalent of a pod person, a newly produced version of an existing person. It can stay docile and appealing and copy the features exactly, wandering the streets with someone’s secondhand memories. But if a remake becomes a real human, it has to rebel. It has to defy likeness and beauty and find an instinct for irony. It has to kill its predecessor rather than imitate it. This kind of remake can set its whole universe on edge, using its original in a shifting context, making its audience suspicious of even the most harmless image. Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers happens to be a remake that not only does this but is thematically prepared to turn it to horror for the characters too. It’s the ugly alter ego of feeling good about humanity. It’s a film that makes you wonder if feeling good is the way the human experiment will finally end, and it has the chilly gall to make it all funny. FDR was wrong. The only thing we have to fear is forgetting what it’s like to be afraid.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Solofilm/United Artists

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