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Invasion of the Bodysnatchers

Donald Sutherland as Matthew in Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Bodysnatchers

I was reminded this morning (during a Twitter exchange about the iPad) of Philip Kaufman’s fantastic 1978 version of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, a film which must rank as one of my all-time faves.

Kaufman’s wasn’t the first film based on Jack Finney’s 1955 novel, The Body Snatchers, nor was it the last. In fact there have now been four big-screen versions, beginning with Don Siegel’s classic 1956 version and ending with the lugubrious 2007 Nicole Kidman/Daniel Craig vehicle, The Invasion (if you’re interested in watching the set there’s also Abel Ferrara’s charmless 1993 version, a film whose chief distinction is that it’s mercifully short). But I think there’s little doubt it’s the best (with the original 1956 version running a close second).

While Kaufman would quickly go on to make his name as a director with films such as The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, at the time of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers’ release he was mostly known for his low budget 1972 Jesse James film, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. Yet he nonetheless attracted a remarkable cast, headed up by Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams as Matthew Bennell and Elizabeth Driscoll, Leonard Nimoy as self-help guru Dr David Kibner, and a then relatively unknown Jeff Goldblum as Jack Bellicec.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it’s devastatingly simple. Alien pods drift to earth, bringing plants which grow into copies of human beings, latching onto people as they sleep and absorbing their memories and appearance but none of their humanity. Gradually, but inexorably, they begin to infiltrate the population, replacing them, until the last vestiges of human individuality are wiped away.

A lot of the film’s pleasure lies in its understatedness. Set in a wintry San Francisco, amidst the already alien-looking buds of cropped plane trees and shot in a muted palette of browns and greys, it takes the anonymity of urban life and uses it to unsettling effect. As the characters go about their lives people push past them in the streets, their relentless movement and anonymity becoming increasingly disturbing; occasionally the steady, and increasingly deliberate movement of the passers-by is disturbed by a figure breaking and running, but for a long time the city might be any city, anywhere.

Pulling against this ordinariness Kaufman injects one horrible detail, which is the scream the replicants use to identify ordinary, unaffected humans, and which makes the film’s final, terrible denouement so chilling. I had hoped to provide a video of one of the characters screaming, but sadly the only one I could find is cut from close to the film’s end, and so I was reluctant to use it for fear of spoiling what is, surely, one of the great cinematic moments.

But there are other, wonderful details as well, not least the omnipresent garbage trucks, little emblems of ordinariness which take on a quite different meaning as the film progresses, and it becomes clear they are being used to dispose of the bodies of the replicated, or the bizarre use of bagpipes playing ‘Amazing Grace’.

Like John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, which I’ve written about on this site before, part of what makes Invasion of the Bodysnatchers so chilling is the inexorability of it all. There is no plan, no strategy, there is just arrival and assimilation. Like the Borg in Star Trek, the pods seem to have no purpose but to absorb humanity, to make us like them.

But I suspect the real horror of the story in all its incarnations lies in the way it plays upon deepseated anxieties about absorption and loss of individuality. It’s not just that there’s something horrible and uncanny (in the full, Freudian sense of the word) about these emotionless copies, it’s that our anxieties about the erasure of individuality are so deep that any vehicle which triggers them can be redeployed over and over again in different contexts, bouncing off whatever fears are circulating in the culture. In the 1950s it was Communism (or its dark passenger, McCarthyism), the 1970s blank-faced hippies and Moonies, in the 2000s it was the notion of surveillance, of revealing oneself (a theme taken up to similar, but much more powerful effect in Richard Powers’ brilliant 2007 novel about brain damage and individuality in post-9/11 America, The Echo Maker): as a man advises the increasingly terrified and desperate Nicole Kidman on a train in The Invasion, “Don’t show any emotion, just look ahead. They can’t tell who you are if you don’t show any emotion”.

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. You can safely run the line that a lot of these apocalyptic novels from the 1950s (The Day of the Triffids, The Body Snatchers, I Am Legend, The Puppet Masters), in which the individual is destroyed or replaced, are really Communist scare novels. Mostly American it would seem. These novels work from the individual level and leave the whole world (ie America or the UK) relatively unscathed.

    Hard to run that same line with, say, Ballard’s sequence of “Earth destruction” novels (The Drought, The Flood, The Wind from Nowhere and The Crystal Planet). These destroyed the world and human individuals just got caught up in the whole mess. American writers of apocalyptic bent in the 1960s tended to blow the world up in an atomic war rather than have nature go beserk. By that stage the Communist threat was more war-like than steady infiltration.

    Its interesting that these old sf novels, which were mainly dismissed as pure pulp back in their day, are now being re-evaluated.

    I’ll have to go back and have another look at the Kaufman film. I had just dismissed it as another inept horror movie when I saw it 30 years ago.

    January 28, 2010
  2. Check it out – it’s great. And very creepy.

    January 28, 2010
  3. There’s something about 1970s horror cinema that I really like- perhaps because as I was growing up in the 70s and 80s I had a child’s impressionable mind, but it was the chilling bleakness of Bodysnatchers type of films that always freaked me out the most, more than the monsters and bogeymen.

    And perhaps it’s that contrast with books/films that have a serial killer say, or an alien invasion foiled by ingenuity- the blankness of mindless invaders like the Triffids are more firghtening to me because there’s precisely no real logic to their infiltration, they just want to ABSORB you.

    They’re not like a good moral tale, where the bad guys get punished at the end, and I think that’s why thrillers and violent crime novels are so popular, we torment ourselves with a criminal’s monstrous acts, and find reassurance at the end when they get what’s coming to them. But Bodysnatcher type stuff… there’s just nothing at the end. The main character in The Triffids was quite depressed, if I remember, when he realized there was no POINT to their marauding….just a low level plant-brain need to consume and destroy.

    January 28, 2010

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