Monday, April 12, 2010

Film Review: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978, Philip Kaufman)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 115 minutes.
Tag-line: "Get some sleep."
Notable Cast or Crew: Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum, Brooke Adams (THE DEAD ZONE, DAYS OF HEAVEN), Art Hindle (PORKY'S, THE BROOD), Veronica Cartwright (ALIEN, THE RIGHT STUFF). Cameos by Don Siegel, Robert Duvall, and Kevin McCarthy. Written by W.D. Richter.
Best one-liner: "Here I am, you pod bastards! Hey, pods! Come and get me you scum!"

Now this is how you do a remake- measured, requisite homage to the source, a balanced degree of artistic reinterpretation, and a top-notch ensemble cast. As far as I'm concerned, this film ushered in a decade of well-made horror remakes (THE THING, THE FLY, THE BLOB, CAT PEOPLE)- a phenomenon that sadly, did not outlast the 80's. Philip Kaufman's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS brings a tremendous amount of artistry to the table: using a taut screenplay by W.D. Richter (BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS), Kaufman masters the slow build, the character development, and paranoiac atmosphere necessary to pull this off. There are perfectly alienating moments that feel like they're culled from a film by Teshigahara: the cobwebby aliens fleeing their home planet, wafting through space- abstract forms set to atonal music:

a cameo by Robert Duvall as a sinister priest pendulating back and forth on a squeaky swingset:

a world in panic, viewed through the distorted, cracked windshield of a car...

These impressions build, ever so slowly, to a crescendo of sorts- one of encroaching madness. We see a world in transformation: a puzzle assembled before our very eyes- only by the time its true face is revealed, we've passed the point of no return. Our heroes (who strain to seek the truth before it's too late) include Donald Sutherland as a likable, rational health inspector:

Jeff Goldblum as a high-strung, rambling writer:

Brooke Adams as a winsome, persistent botanist:

Veronica Cartwright as a resolute hippie; and Leonard Nimoy as a self-help guru who preaches reason in a time where what's called for is volatility.

The special effects are entirely disturbing, and not on a level of sheer gore- it's an unsettling depiction of wholly alien, biological, bodily processes, and it really begins to get under your skin.

This is a disorienting movie, full of convex mirrors, handheld cameras, and wide-angle lens shots-

I would go as far to say that it surpasses the original in sheer effectiveness- and it culminates with an (atonally?) pitch-perfect finale. Five stars.

-Sean Gill

And as a side note- watch for ingenious Don Siegel and Kevin McCarthy cameos-

You're next!


J.D. said...

"As far as I'm concerned, this film ushered in a decade of well-made horror remakes (THE THING, THE FLY, THE BLOB, CAT PEOPLE)- a phenomenon that sadly, did not outlast the 80's."

Ain't that the truth? What happened? Oh well... But yeah, this incarnation of BODY SNATCHERS is amazing. Funny, when I first saw this as a kid I hated the film but over the years I've grown to really love it and appreciate the '70s paranoid thriller vibe. Great cast, solid direction and fantastic script.

And yeah, that shot of Robert Duvall on the swing is a creepy WTF moment. Quite unsettling.

Sean Gill said...

I wish I knew what happened. I feel like it's easy and satisfying (for me at least) to say that "CGI happened." Despite the fact that the gloopy, over-the-top, mind-blowing SFX of the 80's have a great deal to do with my love for these films, I feel as if it's a little more complex than that. I sort of see it having to do with Hollywood as a whole changing its priorities on genre cinema- where they would have once hired a Paul Schrader, a Philip Kaufman, a W.D. Richter, a David Cronenberg, or a John Carpenter, we've now got a McG or a Marcus Nispel or a Samuel Bayer or worse. This new breed of filmmaker lacks the old Hollywood attention to detail and character development, and I feel like a lot of that laziness comes from the relatively new adage "oh, we'll add it in post." The newest slate of remakes (ELM STREET, et al, not to mention non-horror stuff like THE A-TEAM?!) looks to be more of the same, and though my fingers are crossed for THE THING's prequel and PREDATORS breaking the mold, the truth is that my expectations are still fairly low. Ah, well.

GuyR said...

The problem with filmmakers today?
Lack of imagination, ideas...

Many new directors come from the music video/commercials world. Something I dislike with films today is the rhythm, the speed. A perfectly paced movie of the 70s seems atrociously slow to people today.
A friend of mine recently told me that he and a bunch of friends watched The Shining and were all unanimous in the fact that it was boring crap. I was shocked. I didn't vomit, but I wasn't feeling too good. Oh, and he also didn't find anything special about The Thing!
Those people, the ones who watch horror movie remakes (without even knowing they are remakes) and torture porn, would rapidly discard the Body Snatchers and call it dull.

I guess CGI and Hollywood's change of priorities for genre movies are to blame today, but this generation of music video and commercials directors are responsible for a lot of evil, too. Should we blame computers?

About the Body Snatchers : you're damn right about the pitch-perfect ending! Nobody would dare to do something like that today. Have you seen the last Body Snatchers remake? Depressing...

HK Fanatic said...

I think you guys all touch on a number of good points. Hollywood seems to be culling "talent" from the music video and advertisement world to direct these horror remakes and, well, music videos aren't what they used to be in the 90's. Combine that with the fact that special FX these days are farmed out to *several* different FX houses, and the lazy idea of "eh, well, even if this doesn't work on set we'll fix it in post or the editing suite," and you have a recipe for lazy rehashes. Unfortunately, Hollywood these days only cares about that opening box office weekend and not whether or not the movies are going to endure for decades like "The Thing" remake.

I can usually find something to like in even the worst horror movies, but Marcus Nispel's "Friday the 13th" remake was irredeemable trash, so far removed from its source material as to be completely unrecognizable as a 13th movie outside the use of a hockey mask.

J.D. said...

I remain cautiously optimistic for Rodriguez's PREDATORS film. I give him a break because he is truly a fan of the franchise and grew up during the '80s so I think he will remain true to the spirit of the first film. I saw an interview with him recently and for this film they are pretending that PREDATOR 2 never happened.

As for the lack of ideas and crappy remakes nowadays. I think that the big difference is that these remakes are being done for all the wrong reasons and with the wrong talent involved. Instead of hiring proven masters like Carpenter, Cronenberg, et al. they are getting these music video directors with little to no feature film experience and casting crappy actors and actresses from the WB stock company. Awful.

Sean Gill said...

I think you folks bring up some salient points. As GuyR says, the pacing is really key- genre film narratives are rarely carefully and lovingly unfolded these days- I usually feel like I'm being strong-armed and harassed as these music videographers force the weak stories down our throats. And even when an 80's horror flick was not especially well done, most of 'em had charm. Today we see films that are soulless corporate entities, and you need look no further than the advertising: where an 80's poster would have been morbid and imaginative, we have bad photoshop, airbrushing, and as JD says, WB actors (on their summer hiatus). But I feel like it's easy to defend Carpenter and Cronenberg classics versus present-day garbage– what about the mediocre 80's stuff? HK mentions the FRIDAY THE 13TH remake- compare that to something like JASON TAKES MANHATTAN. JTM is quite possibly the worst of the 80's FRIDAYS, yet it has a great deal of charm, a few scenes that elicit genuine chuckles, and many off-the-wall moments- from the pseudo-pretentious opening voiceover to a memorable boxing match with Jason. We can say with certainty that actual humans, regardless of talent, with all their eccentricities, were involved in the creative process. What did the new FRIDAY bring to the table? It could be a computer program's idea of what a FRIDAY THE 13TH movie should be like. What colorless, characterless tedium. They couldn't even get the title right (just call it FRIDAY THE 13TH PART XII for Chrissakes). Ugh. On the creative front, we do still have some artists who continue to fight the good fight (Greg Nicotero, for example), but the golden era of Tom Savinis, Rob Bottins, Stan Winstons, and Phil Tippetts seems to be gone forever. Alas.