Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) dir. Philip Kaufman
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartright, Art Hingle, Leonard Nimoy
By Alan Bacchus
Though I hadn’t seen it in years, this film stuck in my head as an under-appreciated sequel, perhaps even better than the original 1956 Don Siegel-directed classic. Philip Kaufman is a fine director, someone who got better with age though, and like his pre-Right Stuff work, the film is marred by tonal and visual inconsistencies, and not enough to render it better than the original.
The original film famously used the robotic, soulless, doppelganger doubles as a metaphor for the uniformity and and general fear of authority in the Communist-scare McCarthy era of the 1950’s. In the 70’s, cinema attitudes were much the same, while political thrillers such All the President’s Men, Klute and Three Days of the Condor reflected the prevailing distrust of government due to Watergate, in horror the same influence could be felt.
The mix of b-movie sensabilities with covert political metaphors and much higher production values than back in day resulted in films like Soylent Green, Rollerball, Demon Seed, Capricorn One, all those Planet of the Apes movies, as well as Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
To give Kaufman some credit off the top, it’s a great opening. Fantastic special effects show the arrival of the alien plant spores travelling the galaxy, arriving on earth, and inbedding themselves into the plantlife of Earth. We're then joined up with Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) who notices her husband has been acting weird and aloof of late. Not only him but others around her skulk around like zombies, devoid of emotion, but with a clear purpose or mysterious agenda. She tries to convince her colleague, restaurant health inspector Matthew Bennell, played by Donald Sutherland that something's afoot, but doesn't believe her and prescribes some treatment with her psychologist colleague played by Leonard Nimoy.
The group connect up with a pair of their friends Jack and Nancy (Veronica Cartright and Jeff Goldblum) who own a massage/mud bath parlor and together they discover the alien plot to replace everyone’s sleeping bodies with doubles created from giant eggplant-like pods.
Hero roles switch between Donald Sutherland, sporting an ugly perm and brown chevron moustache and Brooke Adams (Days of Heaven) who is delightful and better than Donald. Leonard Nimoy is decent as a celebrity psycholist not unlike Dr. Phil. Veronica Cartright is also fantastic in one of her many scene stealing character roles of her career. Jeff Goldblum appears to be acting in a totally different movie however, and on a different wavelength, even more askew than his usual twitchy performances. Kevin McCarthy even makes a fun cameo replaying his final frantic moments of the original film.
The creature effects of the bodies emerging from the pods is delightfully gory. As the film clips along, the more we learn about the extent of this silent alien invasion, the more gruesome and disturbing it becomes. At one point in the final act we see a homeless man’s head on a dog resulting from a transmutated duplication double.
Though there’s some wonderful on location work with much of the action in the picturesque San Francisco nightlife, Philip Kaufman’s camera work is marred with atrocious inconsistent camerawork. It’s that experimental style from the late 60’s, mixing traditional locked off classical compositions with silly handheld camerawork. The confrontation with the police in Brooke’s house for instance has the camera spinning around and crashing into the characters almost hitting their faces, an ugly distraction to an important and tense scene.
It’s a frantic and exciting final 10mins, which almost make up for the previous atrocious inconsistencies. We sense there is no light at the end of this tunnel. The final scene is truly a knock out, the meeting of Nancy and Matthew, both of whom are unsure if the other has been taken over or not, produces the film’s signature image, that of Mr. Sutherland...well. .. I can’t ruin the moment here... but it's terrifying.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is available on Blu-Ray from MGM/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment