INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978)

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by Leo Racicot

We love to be scared at the movies!  Scary monsters lurk in the world all around us instilling fear. Nowadays, environmental meltdown, rampant terrorist attacks, mindless crime, mindless jurors (That’s right!  I mean you, Florida!), moral bankruptcy — all these offer cause to be afraid. Scary movies take the fear out of the world and put it up on the silver screen, high above us. Bad things aren’t happening to us; they’re happening to THEM, the characters in the story. Fear, then, becomes safe..

Every era has scary monsters. In the 1950s, America was paralyzed by fear of The Cold War; that any second now, Soviet Russian troops were “coming soon to a city or town near you!” Private citizens were encouraged to build bomb shelters in their basements. I remember as if it was yesterday the daily drills that interrupted our studies. We were instructed to get under our desks, down on our hands and knees and stay there until the “All Clear” had sounded. (If you ever want to see something funny, picture a Catholic nun in full habit crouched under the Arts and Crafts table, silently watching and waiting…)

Amid this national panic, director Don Siegel (inspired by Jack Finney’s bestselling book) made the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS with Kevin McCarthy and pretty Dana Wynter running for their lives as space aliens invade the very souls of their friends, neighbors and relatives in an attempt to restructure and alter forever the general order of Life as they knew it. Could there be a clearer, more perfect metaphor for what was happening in the United States and around the world, as Soviet leaders made it vehemently clear that their goal was the complete and ultimate domination of the planet?  INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS was also a fist shaken at the blandness that blanketed America in the post-war Eisenhower years, years of desperate conformity and sameness. Siegel also used the film to protest against McCarthyism and those who remained silent about it when all around them innocent men and women’s lives and careers were being destroyed by false accusations, betrayal, treachery. Fight, and fight long and hard against the rising tide of Communism sweeping the planet, Siegel’s movie seemed to be saying, or lose your homes, your identity, your very soul to soulless seekers of conformity, mindlessness. Speak up!  Speak out!  Or — if you can’t do that — at least run like hell!!  Siegel’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS was not too warmly received by critics upon its release but in retrospect, it has won critical praise, now considered one of the best motion pictures of 1956, and has been selected for preservation by the U.S. National Film Registry. Well worth a look-see if you get a chance…

In the 1970s, fear became less localized, more widespread. Big city paranoia was epidemic — crime rates sored — murder, rape, stalking — became more prevalent — people were told they needed to watch their backs. Watergate taught us that our government could be deceitful. It was during these same years we discovered our own government agencies had conspired to murder John F. Kennedy. The C.I.A. and the F.B.I. were not protecting us—they were the scary monsters we needed protection from.

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Out of all this the “Me Generation” emerged causing people to close off from each other, to self-insulate—“I need to find out who I am.” The country became self-absorbed, narcissistic, watchful.  Pop Psychology became a road to coping. A feel-good therapy atmosphere appeared everywhere — the huggy, Warm Fuzzies took over. Esalen, Gestalt and Human Potential Movements helped us cling to the belief that we could still stay safe, that the world could still be a comfortable place — all the while fighting against the mistrust, paranoia, fear and deceit around us.

Director Philip Kaufman, a product of these years, saw in his re-telling of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS the chance to make a statement, seeing once again in Don Siegel’s film and Jack Finney’s novel, a metaphorical meditation on how a country reacts when it is invaded by forces beyond its control, forces that seek to destroy its individuality, infect its people’s uniqueness with zombie-istic conformity.  Strictly speaking, Kaufman’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is not a re-make of the original; rather, it’s a new coat of paint on an old vehicle, a theme that had, once again, in the ’70s, become more topical than ever. In a decade filled with great movies, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS still stands as one of the greatest.

The indispensable Donald Sutherland helms the show as health inspector, Matthew Bennell. Watch as Sutherland ably transforms his amiable, happy-go-lucky character into a full-on vigilante as the creeping feeling that something is not quite right in his city falls darkly over him and his friends. His final scene is movie horror history at its best.

Sutherland enjoyed a huge vogue in the 1970s and ’80s. A leading man in such mega-hits as M.A.S.H., EVE OF THE NEEDLE, THE EAGLE HAS LANDED, DON’T LOOK NOW, many more, he also proved himself to be a serious actor who would do anything for his craft. In Federico Fellini’s CASANOVA (1976), he insisted his nose be broken and re-structured so he would look exactly like portraits of that eighteenth century dandy. Talk about dedication!   He and co-star, Brooke Adams, establish a strong, tangible chemistry early on in the film, carrying us along with them on their less than idyllic “romance.” The supporting cast consists of Art Hindle, with Veronica Cartwright and goofy Jeff Goldblum as Nancy and Jack Bellicec (known on the movie set as “The Dancing Bellicecs” because, to ease the tension and stress of the scary story, they developed the habit of dancing a “pod-a-deux” in and out of every scene so as to amuse their co-stars.)

Let’s face it, folks. Leonard Nimoy will always and forever be “Mr. Spock.” His turn on Star Trek (the original TV show and some subsequent movie sequels) is so good, so cemented in our collective consciousness, he cannot escape it even if he wanted to, which, for many years, he did try to do. I even remember seeing him live at The Wilbur Theater in the 1980s performing in a one-man show playing Vincent van Gogh’s brother. He did a fine job but honestly all I could think was, “Mr. Spock is playing Theo van Gogh.”   Oh, well.  In a movie where human beings are substituted with alien duplicates, Spock fits in perfectly, lending an unsettling gestalt to an already unsettling story. At first, Nimoy plays against type, portraying a helpful man, a caregiving professional—bringing an “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” touchy-feeliness to his role as pop psychologist, Dr. David Kibner.  I won’t drop a spoiler on you but Nimoy’s character and its evolution in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is a wonder to behold…

Directors of thrillers, the best of them anyway, know that juxtaposing scares with laughs makes a movie all that much scarier. Alfred Hitchcock knew this, and Kaufman here excels at this trick. The device seats us in the first car of a wild roller coaster ride — up, down, laugh, scream, jump, cry, sigh with relief. Nothing eases a frightened mind like humor and so we are comfortably lulled into a safety net until the next jolt of fear hits. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS makes us bite our nails but it also tickles our funny bone. It knows when to parry and when to thrust. Be sure to watch for Kevin McCarthy and Don Siegel (of the original) appear in cameo roles. Really fun!

Though not meant to be a sociological study, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS offers us a marvelous peek back at ’70s San Francisco, at its hedonistic, most self-indulgent, kooky best. Never before and never since has that City by the Bay been so delightfully nutty. Kaufman utilizes the city beautifully as the ideal place for space aliens to fit in among its regular citizens inconspicuously. An inspired choice!

My neighbors’ 12 year-old son saw the movie and said, “They got the retro look just right!” It took time (and some convincing) to explain to him that the movie was made in 1978, but was NOT a recreation of 1978. Movies are mirrors of the societies and time periods they were made in and in that sense are cultural and historical treasures for future generations of moviegoers.

Oh, what a movie can do!  I was mesmerized when I first saw INVASION…  After it was over, I raced home and, in a fever, made pods of any piece of furniture I could find: couch, beach and easy chairs, bean bags. I then covered our poodle, Gigi, in molasses and toilet paper (so as to give her that “replicated” look) and started dunking her up-and-down and in-and-out of “the pods,” all the while SCREECHING at the top of my lungs.   “WHAT are you DOING?!!!” my mother, clearly frightened, hollered when she saw all this.  ” Oh, don’t worry, Ma,” I said. “It’s ONLY a movie…”

 

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is part of our Alternate Reality Cornetto Trilogy. It screens on Saturday, July 27th at 1:30 and 9:00 pm. 

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