It’s always interesting to see, over time, how certain movies which were once popular fade away in interest while others become better liked or even achieve a certain cult status. Big hits of yesterday sometimes receive far more critical second consideration while some which were at best modest successes receive second and third -and much more positive- looks.
So it is with the Phillip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) directed 1978 film The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This film, the first remake of the Don Siegel classic cold war paranoia film of the same name released in 1956 (there is at least one more, perhaps two other remakes which have followed, I do believe).
The plot is essentially the same as the original film: Space spores come to earth and, while people sleep, the spores create pods which replicate the sleeping individual while sucking their life-force from them. When all is done, what is left behind is a ”pod person” (I suppose that’s where the expression comes from, no?) who looks just like the original person, but who shows odd emotional displays and interacts with other ”pod people” to further the goal of replicating the people around them.
In the original film, the action was limited to a rather smallish American city, if memory serves (its been a very long time since I’ve seen that film, which means it may be time to give it another look!) while in this remake the story takes place in San Francisco, hardly a ”small” city even then!
Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) plays a lab tech who works for the city and who discovers a strange bud/flower she can’t quite identify in and around the parks she frequents. That night, while sleeping, her boyfriend has the bud in a glass of water on the nightstand beside the bed.
When Elizabeth wakes up, she finds her boyfriend already dressed and cleaning up broken glass and water from the rug… the bud she found has tumbled from the nightstand and her boyfriend is acting very oddly.
In work, Elizabeth tells Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) her co-worker and a health department head, the strangeness of her boyfriend’s actions. He suggests they go see Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), a psychiatrist who is having a book release party that night and that he may help her with whatever is troubling her.
At the party they meet up with Jack Bellichec (a very early role for Jeff Goldblum) who is a frustrated poet who can’t seem to have the same success with his books as Kibner does and is agitated by this.
Dr. Kibner, Elizabeth finds, is dealing with a woman who claims her husband isn’t her husband but an impostor. Elizabeth clearly feels the same about her boyfriend and, afterwards, when talking to Dr. Kibner, he tells her there seems to be some kind of psychological virus going on and there are many people he’s seen who are talking about impostors around them.
I won’t get into too many more details about the plot and quickly offer a high recommendation to anyone interested in seeing this film. It has aged beautifully and is quite suspenseful and even shocking at times. The pace, I found, was also good and the acting by everyone strong.
Getting Leonard Nimoy, who at that time was probably so very typecast as Mr. Spock, to play the role of a psychiatrist was a stroke of genius. He came in with so many expectations and… well, I won’t get into SPOILERS as I said before.
What I liked the most about the film was the way it subverted certain expectations. Again, I don’t want to get into SPOILERS but I love the fate of Brooke Adams’ Elizabeth. It’s a shocker in the end. I love the way we never get a solid grasp on Donald Sutherland’s Matthew.
Is he, to put it bluntly, one of those bureaucratic pricks that seems to live to give others headaches? Our first brush with him it appears he’s just that, checking out a French restaurant and giving them a hard time because of a condiment he finds in their soup, which he claims is a rat turd and they say is a kaper.
Later on, when he returns to his office, Matthew gleefully says he will shut the restaurant down and, intriguingly, the movie never really tells us if Matthew was right or if he was just being a jerk.
The relationship between Matthew and Elizabeth is also presented in a naturalistic way and we’re never spoon fed all the full details. They are clearly very close friends and there does seem to be a spark between them but, for most of the film anyway, Matthew seems to be nothing more than a concerned friend and doesn’t force his way between Elizabeth and her boyfriend. Further, when things start to go sideways, this potentially irritating, possibly angry/petulant bureaucrat becomes a heroic figure and tries his best to not only save his friends, but also solve the mystery of the impostors and save humanity itself.
Yes, I wound up really loving the film even though when I first saw it many, many years ago I felt it was good but not necessarily terrific.
I’ve certainly changed my mind since then!
A very easy recommendation here. The 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers very much deserves its current re-evaluation and is a top tier suspense/horror film.
A couple of fascinating notes: Early in the film there’s a scene where a priest is on a swing. He glares at Elizabeth and looks really creepy. That priest is played by none other than Robert Duvall in a quite literally seconds long cameo without any dialogue! Later in the film, when Elizabeth and Matthew are being taken by taxi, the taxi driver is played by Don Siegel, the man who famously directed the original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (and, more recently at that point, Dirty Harry!). Finally, there’s a brief sequence early in the film where a man pounds on Matthew’s car and yells almost incoherently about the threat the invaders pose. That man is played by Kevin McCarthy, who was Dr. Miles Bennell (as opposed to Matthew Bennell in this film), the protagonist of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.