Contrary to popular opinion, Hollywood has been remaking movies for decades. Even Charlton Heston’s 1959 classic, Ben-Hur was a remake of a 1925 movie. Another case in point – 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. To date, Hollywood has adapted Jack Finney’s novel, The Body Snatchers, four times. In fact, director Don Siegel first adapted Finney’s source material with the still classic 1956, Invasion of Body Snatchers. Though we typically sneer at them, Phillip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is that rare case of a remake creatively investing a familiar concept with fresh ideas. Today, critics still herald the 1978 version as a classic of the genre.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers Is Smart, Suspenseful Sci-Fi
Director Philip Kaufman’s updating of Invasion of the Body Snatchers relies on its initial slow build-up. Kaufman roots all of his movie’s suspense in paranoia and suspicion. Yes, he aptly handles the more traditional horror chase scenes in Invasion’s third act. But those scenes don’t work (and arguably aren’t as scary) without the foundation Kaufman lays in the first hour or so. A husband claiming ‘that’s not his wife’ or pedestrians emotionlessly staring at a traffic accident are subtly unsettling. A scene where characters drift into sleep as the pods replicate their likeness is masterfully staged. With little sound or editing, Kaufman creates a sense of desperation.
With little sound or editing, Kaufman creates a sense of desperation.
In addition to Kaufman’s capable direction, WD Richter’s screenplay delivers a smart adaptation of Finney’s novel. First, Richter doesn’t waste time with lazy expository dialogue. Instead, Invasion’s storytelling puts you in the place of the characters, knowing or inferring only what they know. As a result, the story heightens the suspense and tension. Moreover, Wright invests the characters with idiosyncratic quirks and emotions, making them feel real rather than just props to propel the story forward. Invasion gets a basic rule of suspenseful horror – it’s hard to experience tension if you don’t care for the characters onscreen
Body Snatchers Plants Seeds of Cultural Anxiety
Arguably, Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers was perfectly situated for its time. Indeed Finney’s tale of alien pods replacing people was a sci-fi nightmare for an America embroiled in Cold War McCarthyism. By the late 1970’s, the American socio-political landscape was very different. However, Finney’s concept is malleable, allowing the story to reflect the cultural fears of its era. For an America exhausted by war, cultural upheaval, and political scandals, Invasion of the Body Snatchers offers a window into national psyche that didn’t recognize itself. That’s a potential subtext that’s arguably more resonant today. Or audiences could read its story of alien spores replacing humanity as eco-horror. Like the best science fiction, Invasion of the Body Snatchers remains culturally relevant.
Stellar Cast Grounds Fantastical Concept
In spite of its fantastical sci-fi premise, Invasion of the Body Snatchers unnerves because it feels real. As a viewer, you increasingly feel the characters’ paranoia. Much of this audience identification can be attributed to the movie’s performances. Invasion of the Body Snatchers builds its concept around a stellar cast. Canadian legend Donald Sutherland’s food inspector, Matthew Bennell, is the audience’s conduit for the movie. He’s the rational pragmatic, initially skeptical, who slowly realizes what’s happening around him. When Sutherland yells into the phone, ‘How did you know my name?’, he conveys the fear of a man who knows it may be too late.
…Invasion of the Body Snatchers unnerves because it feels real.
Brooke Adams’ (The Dead Zone) does much of the movie’s emotional heavy-lifting. It’s her character’s early fears that draw you into the movie. And Jeff Goldblum is, well, Jeff Goldblum. He bursts with nervous energy in a supporting role. Despite studios already typecasting him as ‘Spock’, Leonard Nimoy shows impressive range as self-help guru, Dr David Kibner. Though it’s a restrained performance, Nimoy keeps you guessing about ‘if’ and ‘when’ he was replaced. Even Kevin McCarthy, star of the original version, makes a memorable cameo appearance.
And How About That Ending?
Remakes rarely recapture the magic of their original source material. But 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers successfully re-imagines Finney’s novel for a very different political landscape. The result is a classic sci-fi horror movie and a hallmark of what’s arguably the genre’s best decade. To date, Siege’s bleak ending also remains one of the creepiest finales in horror history.