"It may be the best movie of its kind ever made. For undiluted pleasure and excitement, it is, I think, the American movie of the year."
-Pauline Kael, 1978-
The time was right in 1978 for Philip Kaufman's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. The country was still recovering from Vietnam and Watergate, and a rash of damaging self help ideas were sweeping through the country. Even more crucial was the realization that many of the most potent ideals of the sixties were being traded in for an easy comfort, and an unsettling undercurrent of greed was swiftly making its way to the surface of American life. This was, after all, less than two years away from the eighties.
It was also the right time in cinema history for Kaufman's remake. His film would, along with Brian De Palma's BLOW-OUT a few years later, mark the end of an era of cynical paranoid thrillers that had loomed so large in American cinema throughout the seventies. Kaufman's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS has more in common with films like THE PARALLAX VIEW than it does with most of the American horror films of the period, which is one reason I think it seems to divide genre fans.
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS has just been re-released on DVD in a two disc set that should remind people of what a truly striking and great film it remains after thirty years. Comparing it to the more recent INVASION, one is struck by how deeply resonant and haunting Kaufman's work really is.
The Chicago born Kaufman has had a strange career. His best films like this one, THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING and THE WANDERERS show a director of seemingly limitless possibilities but unfortunately he has had a spotty career otherwise. His THE RIGHT STUFF garnered him an Oscar nomination and HENRY AND JUNE and QUILLS are interesting films but such dreck as RISING SUN and TWISTED have hurt what could have been one of the most notable careers of the past three decades.
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is Kaufman's greatest work in my eyes. His film, from a pitch perfect script by W.D. Richter, is a perfectly cast, fully realized work that is among the great movies of the seventies.
There are several things that makes INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS such a special film. Key is its intelligence. At times horrifying but also witty, the film works as much as a satire on many of the seventies most 'me' oriented ideas as it does a typical horror film. Leonard Nimoy's Dr. David Kibner is a sinister and invasive presence throughout the first half of the film and Nimoy portrays this pretentiously cold man to perfection. Kaufman's film seems to suggest at nearly every turn that the total self obsession that would come to encompass the eighties could be as spiritually damaging as any war or failed presidency.
The leads in the film are all extraordinary. Donald Sutherland again proves himself as one of the most capable and diverse actors of all time and Matthew Bennell is one of his great characterizations. Equally impressive are Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright (who was one of the few bright spots of the recent INVASION).
Shot by Michael Chapman right in between his remarkably chilly work on FINGERS and HARDCORE and edited by Oscar winner Douglas Stewart, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is a beautiful looking and fast moving production. I recently read someone criticising the special effects in the film but I find them incredibly effective and so much more organic and natural feeling than anything CGI can come up with. The shot of the human headed dog is still one of the most chilling and off the wall things I have ever seen. There had been a similar but less effective shot in THE MEPHISTO WALTZ a few years before and of course it was finally perfected in John Carpenter's THE THING just a few years later. The effects throughout are mostly low key, subtle and to my eyes they still hold up today.
Kaufman should have directed more genre films. He has a great eye for horror and some of the films most menacing moments are quick shots of people in the background that lets you know that something is really going wrong. One shot in particular that has always stuck with me is near the beginning. It is just a blink it and miss shot of a man standing behind a door staring but, much like the more celebrated Robert Duvall cameo, it manages to add a small if undeniably chilling touch to the film.
The film has several nods to the 1956 version including cameos by director Don Siegel and star Kevin McCarthy. I always thought Kaufman's film worked as a splendid companion piece to the original film more than a straight remake. Like Abel Ferrara's early nineties version, these were films about a particular menacing undercurrent in American life and culture. All three stand as brilliantly realized warnings for their respective generations and they all have very individual merits. Kaufman's version is my favorite not only because I find it the most successful cinematically but also because I find its idea of a country being smothered by its own coldness to be the most resonate and timeless.
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS was a solid hit when it opened up in the Christmas season of 1978. The film was greeted with mostly positive critical reactions and it was nominated for several genre related awards that year. I personally think Sutherland and the film should have been included in the year's Oscar nominations but as genre films are typically ignored, the omissions weren't a surprise.
The new DVD of Kaufman's greatest work is somewhat of a disappointment. The featurettes's on Disc Two are solid if too brief and the fine commentary by Kaufman is carried over on Disc one. My biggest problem is the transfer which looks too soft to my eyes, especially in the first half of the film. It is an improvement to the original DVD that came out nearly ten years ago, one of the first I ever bought, but the transfer here is merely functional and not as spectacular as it should be. That shouldn't throw off potential buyers though. This is an important film and the new set, which can be found around $15.00 is one of the most essential purchases of the year.
I have seen Kaufman's film many times and it is always a pleasure revisiting it. It is a film that I grew up with, and I find where as I responded strictly to the fantastical elements of it in my youth, it is a work with enough ideas and intelligence to keep capturing me as an adult. I still agree with Pauline Kael's original assessment of it.