All of your friends and loved ones are gradually being replaced by emotionless, zombie-like replicas of themselves. And they want you to become just like them. When novelist Jack Finney cooked up this creepy theme in the mid-’50s, he may have thought he was creating a timely Cold War parable of takeover from within. But he hit upon even deeper mass-marketing-age fears and laid the groundwork for what has become something of a sci-fi film dynasty.
Finney’s idea was, of course, the basis for 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, an extremely tight, beautifully made film that has (so far) spawned two remakes — the Philip Kaufman-directed Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1978 and now fireball auteur Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers. And the three range from very good to magnificent.
Briskly directed by Don Siegel (Dirty Harry and the amazing The Beguiled), the first Invasion stars Kevin McCarthy as a physician who returns home to find the townsfolk acting kind of funny. Actually, not funny is more the point. Cold, humorless, too efficient. They’ve fallen victim to aliens that sap the life out of humans while they sleep, creating perfect reproductions in giant seed pods. The invaders aim to remake society as a place of perfect order through conformity.
Although given a perfunctory sci-fi explanation, this scenario is the pure stuff of nightmares, and watching McCarthy turn from a rational man of science into a raving lunatic while those around him become husks of their former selves is a scary, over-the-top treat. The power of the film is primal.
Kaufman’s remake is more specifically satiric, placing the pods in groovy San Francisco and implying that Me Generation self-absorption has created a race of zombies without any alien intervention. Longer, and with a more leisurely pace than the original, it features wry characterizations (most notably one by Leonard Nimoy). But Kaufman doesn’t forget the thrills, and of the three, this version is the most slitheringly creepy.
Ferrara’s offering is more a variation on the theme. He plays up the existential anxiety of the concept by adopting the perspective of an alienated teenage girl (Gabrielle Anwar), and makes a droll joke on regimentation by using a military base as the setting. Replete with shocks (some of them nasty) and embroidered with the art-film touches Ferrara puts into even his cheesiest efforts, Body Snatchers is an eccentric ride, but a trenchant one (a killer scene near the end paradoxically illuminates the allure of conformity). The wrap-up is a bit of a botch, but by then, you’ve been bashed around so much you’re almost grateful for the relief. Body Snatchers: B+