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“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978): Not a Soulless Imposter – but a Remake That Improves on the Original

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Imagine this nightmare: You go visit a loved one of whom you have fond memories, but something is wrong; they just do not seem like themselves. Instead, they feel like empty, emotionless husks. They are soulless strangers in your loved one’s skin. Yes, I am talking about remakes. It is common to bemoan the waves of horror movie remakes that periodically overtakes Hollywood, but, the process of remaking a film is not inherently a bad thing. If care is given, the end result can honor the original and even improve upon it. One of the prime examples of a remake that rises above its predecessor is director Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). A small group of friends in San Francisco notice a pattern of strange behavior in people around town; they are no longer acting quite normal, instead appearing as emotionless shadows of their former selves. The group discovers the reason – people are being replaced by duplicates that grow from strange plant pods. Can they escape befalling a similar fate? Beautiful cinematography and eerie soundscapes help build the atmosphere of creeping dread. Paranoia is the watchword, with subtle background action adding to the general feeling of unease. The horror and the special effects both start out subtle, but crescendo into full blown terror and gore. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a prime example of how a well-done sequel can surpass the original.

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San Francisco Deputy Assistant Health Inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) does not like counterfeit or adulterated ingredients when he inspects a restaurant. Assisting him in ferreting out ersatz items is lab technician (and close friend) Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams). A recent storm has left strange webbing and odd flowers on the vegetation around town. The day after bringing home one of these unusual flowers, Elizabeth notices odd behavior in her boyfriend Geoffrey Howell (Art Hindle). Geoffrey is not acting like himself. He is oddly detached and unemotional, and after Elizabeth tails him, she finds he is meeting with all sorts of strangers around town. When she discovers that a scar he previously had is missing, she comes to the conclusion that he is NOT Geoffrey, but an imposter. After confiding in Matthew, he takes her to a book party to meet his friend, noted psychiatrist and author Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy). Dr. Kibner says that lately lots of people are coming to him feeling as if their partners are imposters, and he feels it represents society’s fear of attachment. It becomes clear to Matthew and Elizabeth that something far more sinister is afoot when Matthew’s friends Jack (Jeff Goldblum) and Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright) discover what looks to be a fetal-like full-sized copy of Jack on a table in their mud spa business.They realize that people around town are being replaced by copies growing in the unusual pods, and that they may be next. Who is really a friend, and who is a foe? Can they escape the city and warn the authorities about the growing threat, or has the conspiracy of imposters already spread too far?

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The cinematography and sound design of Invasion of the Body Snatchers contribute greatly to the feelings of paranoia and unease that permeate the film. Director of Photography Michael Chapman makes excellent use of light and shadows, giving the film almost a noir feel at times. He selectively uses Dutch angles to both suggest some characters’ sense of disquiet as well as indicating that there is “something not quite right” with other characters. One shot early in the film particularly stands out where he tilts his camera the same angle as San Francisco’s famous steep streets; the street is fully horizontal on the screen, leaving the houses canted and askew, much like what is about to happen to the characters’ world. Mirrors and mirrored surfaces, often distorted, also hint at the corrupted doppelgangers that are slowly replacing the cast. The unsettling atmosphere created by Chapman’s cinematography is aided by the abstract score by noted Jazz pianist Denny Zeitlin and an eerie soundscape by noted sound designer Ben Burtt. Zeitlin’s score is used sparingly, often starting out non-existent and crescendoing into an electronic/industrial thrum as the danger increases. Burtt plays with the films soundscape, gradually replacing natural sounds with mechanical industrial background noise. About the only “organic” sound at the end is iconic scream of the pod people. The final credits are completely silent, driving home the desolation and despair of finale.

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The atmosphere of Invasion of the Body Snatchers can be summed up in one word – Paranoia. As the film progresses, the main characters become increasingly paranoid in regards to who is still human and who has been replaced, and with good reason. Director Kaufman and writer  W.D. Richter subtly build the distrust and unsettling atmosphere. Often, there are things occurring in the background that users may miss on first viewing. In an early scene, as the audience is concentrating on Donald Sutherland’s character walking down the street, while in the background another scene plays out. A man at first appears to be simply running across the street, but as the camera follows the main character, a handful of other extras can be seen taking off running after the man. At other times, as the main characters are the focus, in the background, some of the extras can be seen paying undue attention to them, as if they are stalking them. Sometimes, it is just a slight sound in the background or an extra lingering a bit too long in the doorway. Rarely is this done overtly; instead they are background details that add to the overall feeling that the characters are being watched. All of this culminates in an iconic ending that still is just a powerful today as it was when the film was released.

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As the characters’ paranoia grows, it transforms into terror, and such is the case with the horror in the film. Initially, the horror is slow and implied, with just a handful of little effects thrown in. Much comes from ominous sounds and creepy stares from those that are presumably “pod people.” There are disturbing shots of the space spores landing on plants, extending their tendrils, and growing into pods. The tension mounts as what is happening becomes more apparent to both the characters and the audience alike. These subtler scares eventually give way to full-blown, but very realistic and believable, gore.  The full size pod person “fetus” that Jack and Nancy find in their spa is suitably disgusting and disturbing, with its raw and wet looking skin covered in root-like veins (or is it vein-like roots). When the characters finally encounter the pods hatching in all their glory,  it is quite gruesome. It is like “the miracle of birth” with all the beauty of that event stripped away. When the protagonists smash pods, grue oozes out, which makes sense considering they are like external wombs. Though almost 40 years old, the effects work holds up today. This even includes the bizarre human-faced dog doppleganger that shows up late in the film. Sure, it is a dog with a mask, but it is still really effective and quite disturbing (and just a tad humorous, in a dark sort of way).

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The 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers deserves its status as one of the scariest and creepiest films of its time. It shows that remakes need not be poor imitations of the original; when handled properly, they can surpass their predecessors. Beautifully and eerily shot and with a creepy and effective soundtrack, the film builds a sense of unease that does not let up. Filled with small supporting details, the filmmakers generate a pervasive feeling of paranoia that grows into full on terror. Subtle scares give way to intense thrills and gruesome gore set pieces. While the 1956 original is rightfully a classic, the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the scariest films of the decade and is a prime example of what a remake can be.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 4.8 out of 5 stars (4.8 / 5)

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Paul Cardullo
Paul Cardullo is a North Carolina indy filmmaker and horror fan. His tastes range from art-house horror to low-budget schlock to indie gems to Slovenia killer hillbilly flicks. When not watching films, he helps make them. From actor to boom operator to doughnut wrangler, he makes himself useful wherever he can. Paul believes it is sometimes necessary to suffer for one’s art. He has endured being covered in [censored], having [censored] thrown at him, and spending over a year with muttonchops and a 70’s-style mustache. When not being abused for the sake of his craft, Paul works on computers and watches as many obscure (and not so obscure) movies as he can fit in.
Paul Cardullo
Paul Cardullo is a North Carolina indy filmmaker and horror fan. His tastes range from art-house horror to low-budget schlock to indie gems to Slovenia killer hillbilly flicks. When not watching films, he helps make them. From actor to boom operator to doughnut wrangler, he makes himself useful wherever he can. Paul believes it is sometimes necessary to suffer for one’s art. He has endured being covered in [censored], having [censored] thrown at him, and spending over a year with muttonchops and a 70’s-style mustache. When not being abused for the sake of his craft, Paul works on computers and watches as many obscure (and not so obscure) movies as he can fit in.