Remembering Philip Kaufman’s superior 1978 remake of a science fiction classic

In 1978, I was 4 years old. I had plenty of comic books and one particular, well-worn and generally mistreated issue of BATMAN, issue #309 to be specific, in which Bats battled a brute named Blockbuster at Christmas time, had, on its back page, a reproduction of the theatrical poster for a new movie called INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.

Here’s the cover and the poster in question:

As you can see, that original poster is black, sepia-brown and white with gentle red traces on the title font and depicts four running silhouettes trying to outdistance their own shadows and though I did not understand the image per se, it was abstract enough to disturb and obsess me for many, many months to follow.

And, save for the cover, I remember nothing of the comic itself.

Flash forward to 1979.

A local television channel, Toronto’s CITY-TV, began running ads for their network premier of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, to be aired that very Friday night, the same Friday night my parents were going out to see APOCALYPSE NOW at the theatre. They were aware of my jittery desire to see BODY SNATCHERS and gave my babysitting aunt explicit instructions not to let me do so, to ensure that I was in bed and as far away from a television set as possible when the picture unspooled.

Well, she did a fair job of seeing that mission through but, much to my delight, she managed to also fall asleep by 9pm. Total pass out on the sofa. Lights out. It was at this point I sneaked into the living room, flipped on the television and channel advanced just in time to see what would be an instantly life altering sequence. In it, a wet, writhing man lay on the ground, covered in gossamer webs, his exact double hovering above with a hoe in his grip. The upright, curly-headed and considerably more sentient version of the man then raised his arms above his head and brought that otherwise innocuous garden tool squarely down upon his twitching twin, caving in its head and spilling out thick, bloody discharge while other humanoids convulsed and heaved in the peripheral parts of the frame.

Too much. Total shock. And to think that this heaving stretch of nightmare fuel was embedded in a motion picture that the MPAA saw fit to saddle with a deceivingly safe PG rating !

The visceral horror of what I was watching gripped me in places I did not know existed. The impact was accentuated by the fact that what I was seeing was forbidden and that I knew that if I was caught, my fate may or may not have equaled that of the blonde afro-man on the TV.

I quickly switched off the set, ran to my room and climbed into bed. But I didn’t sleep. In fact, my sleep was sabotaged for some time. I was disturbed, but that trauma narrowed my focus, shining a light onto what would become my life’s work. I became a horror movie junkie. I began chasing the dragon; consuming every bit of trashy nonsense I could get my eyes locked-on, willingly giving myself nightmares and pushing my limits.

Now these many (and I mean many) years later, I am fortunate enough to be making a lovely little living spilling my guts about all of those wicked flicks that I love. And I’m pleased that the original film that curled my toes and iced my blood is, in my opinion, one of the greatest science fiction horror films of all time. If you’ve taken the time to see it, you’ll most likely agree with me.

Phillip Kaufman’s masterful 1978 remake of Don Siegel’s 1956 McCarthy-era shocker (itself an adaptation of Jack Finney’s serialized book) is arguably a better film, transplanting all that cold war dread onto a post-Vietnam, pre-1980’s increasingly corporate America. In it, the great Donald Sutherland stars as Matthew Bennell, a San Francisco health inspector who, along with the woman he loves (Brooke Adams, who’s great) and his closest friends (a young but still awesomely neurotic Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright) finds himself in the middle of an insidious, identity thieving alien invasion. It seems aggressive pods are implanting themselves in the earth’s foliage and, while their victims sleep, are duplicating human beings, creating exact replicates that look and talk just like the original subjects. Except they are fully, completely devoid of emotion; dead-eyed organic androids bent on crushing both love and hate.

What makes Kaufman’s film so great is that both the characters (great time and care is taken to develop the eccentricities of our protagonists, making us weep for the loss of their humanity), ace direction, brilliant performances (Sutherland is at the peak of his powers here and a post-Spock Leonard Nimoy is chilling as a new age psychiatrist who denies the escalating horror around him) and, perhaps most viscerally, a remarkable score by jazz composer Denny Zeitlin. Said score is an avant-garde amalgam of electronic pulses, minimalist orchestral movements and what sounds like a sampling of an in-utero infants heartbeat.

Chilling, evocative and completely original stuff. Listen…

DRILLER KILLER director Abel Ferrara took a stab at the same material in 1993 with BODY SNATCHERS but it was a relatively soulless and flaccid affair (though it does have the odd effective moment and boasts a great turn by Meg Tilly), removing the dread, paranoia and ambiguity of both Siegel and Kaufman’s pictures by setting the action on an army base, where everyone acts like automatons anyway. Then the Wachowski Brothers (now sisters) sputtered out a riff on the material in 2007 with the woefully post-production problem plagued THE INVASION, a weak, unfocused effort that wastes a fine turn by Nicole Kidman and renders the pod people evolution as a mucous spewing and easily curable disease. There was also that Robert Rodriguez shoulder shrugger THE FACULTY, which many kids of that generation swear by. None of them are a spidery thread of fetal hair on the arse of Kaufman’s towering shocker.

And I haven’t even mentioned that ending that final frame, where Veronica Cartwright comes running up to Donald Sutherland and he turns around and…

Fade to black. Silence. Perfection.


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