Body Snatchers: They Get You When You Sleep

When Jack Finney published his 1955 novel, The Body Snatchers, it touched a nerve. At the height of the McCarthy-era Communist witch-hunt, Finney’s story of emotionless aliens posing as family, friends, and neighbours was a powerful political allegory. Since its publication The Body Snatchers has inspired several film adaptations. Most critics consider Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, along with Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake, to be classics. And Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty is a hip, albeit loose, update on the concept. The less said about 2007’s The Invasion, the better. But horror and sci-fi fans often forget about Abel Ferrara’s 1993 remake. Despite its limited theatrical release, Body Snatchers does Finney’s premise justice.

Synopsis

Marti Malone could have imagined a better way to spend her summer. Instead of parties and friends, Marti is stuck with her father, stepmother, and a half-brother at a military base. Her father, Steven, an agent with the Environmental Protection Agency, is inspecting the base’s impact on the surrounding environment. But the Malone’s find something much worse than chemical waste. First, a panicked soldier warns Marti that “they get you when they sleep”. Marti then notices that people are acting strangely. And her stepbrother believes his mother is someone else. Soon an alien threat plunges the base chaos and paranoia.

Body Snatchers Finds New Paranoia, Scares, and Tension From Familiar Concept

As a filmmaker, Ferrara deserves a lot of credit for his work here on Body Snatchers. Watch Ms 45 or The Driller Killer and you’ll appreciate Ferrara’s range. As compared to those exploitation flicks, Ferrara exhibits a lot of restraint in Body Snatchers. At just under 90 minutes, the sci-fi thriller is leaner than its 1978 counterpart. Ferrara wastes little time kicking the story into motion. Though the 1993 remake sacrifices some atmosphere and tension, Body Snatchers still captures a sense of urgency. This version can’t avoid comparisons to the prior adaptations, but Ferrara finds new ways to create paranoia and tension from the familiar material. Along the way, decent effects, some nice nice references to past versions, and a few good scares elevate things from straight-to-video fare.

But Meg Tilly makes the biggest impression …. [she] delivers the movie’s most bleak and chilling dialogue.

To some extent, Body Snatchers wastes a good cast. First, Ferrara casts R Lee Ermey as – you guessed it – the military base general. A talented character actor noted for the intensity he brought to his roles, Ermey (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) has little to do in the movie. And there’s something criminally wrong with putting Ermey in a role where he’s tasked with not showing emotion. Likewise, Body Snatchers under-utilizes Forest Whitaker who jumps into full paranoia, largely off-screen. One gets the impression that Ferrara left some scenes on the cutting room floor. Both Terry Kinney and Gabrielle Anwar are perfectly fine as father and daughter. But Meg Tilly makes the biggest impression. In addition to her Donald Sutherland homage, Tilly delivers the movie’s most bleak and chilling dialogue.

Ferrara Crafts a Smart, Albeit, Underdeveloped Social Commentary for its Era

Prior to Body Snatchers, some audiences knew Ferrara from his neo-noir crime thrillers (King of New York). Others may have seen his earlier controversial exploitation fare (The Driller Killer). Body Snatchers was the filmmaker’s first foray into science fiction. And Ferrara adapts well to the switch in genres. Of course, Finney released his source novel right in the middle of McCarthyism and the ‘Red Scare’. In that setting, The Body Snatchers was a politically-loaded story. Over 20 years later, Kaufman adapted the story for the political paranoia of 1970’s America.

The military-industrial complex was alive and well in the 1980’s. As such, Ferrara’s decision to set his update on a military base makes sense.

Similarly, Ferrara attempted to channel Finney’s premise into a socially relevant story for the 1990’s. At the time of its release, Body Snatchers was only several years removed from the Reagan presidency. Among other things, Reagan increased military spending and sped up the American buildup in the arms race. The military-industrial complex was alive and well in the 1980’s. As such, Ferrara’s decision to set his update on a military base makes sense. Specifically, Ferrara’s Body Snatchers draws comparisons between its ‘pods people’ and the rigid conformity of military culture. It’s a clever, if not perfectly, executed concept. With its lean runtime and added family drama, Body Snatchers can’t fully flesh things out.

Body Snatchers a Hidden Gem of 90’s Horror

For whatever reason, Warner Brothers barely let Body Snatchers see the light of day in theaters. As a result, Ferrara’s sci-fi remake languished in straight-to-video hell, falling under many horror fans’ radars. Though it falls short of the classic 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Body Snatchers is a surprisingly strong, economic thriller. The movie runs lean, squeezes out quite a bit of tension from familiar scenarios, and honours the concept’s subtext. Moreover, Ferrara’s nods to both prior film versions aren’t distracting. And Meg Tilly’s creepy turn gives some new life to an iconic image. Like Tom Savini’s 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake, Ferrara’s Body Snatchers was an unfairly ignored 90’s horror movie worth re-visiting.

FINAL VERDICT: WORTH RE-VISITING

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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