Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"That's Not My Wife"

"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.

8 comments:

Jan said...

It's been a long time since I have seen this film. I respect your opinion and appreciate the depth of your review. However, do you really believe this is Kaufman's best work. Why do you think overall this is a better film than The Unbearable Lightness of Being?

Neil Sarver said...

Certainly not to voice anyone's opinion but my own, but I would rank Body Snatchers above Unbearable Lightness without hesitation. In fact, I'd personally call Henry & June superior as well... although frankly it's been a while since I've seen those latter two.

Jeremy Richey said...

Jan,
Thanks for the comment. I've voiced my major love for "Unbearable Lightness Of Being" here before...I think I hold "Body Snatchers" in a just ever so slightly higher regard due to the fact that it works as a horror film, a science fiction film and a social satire all at the same time. That is a really remarkable achievement...that said, I do think "Lightness" is perhaps a more emotionally satisfying experience. I hold them both in very high regard...

Thanks for commenting Neil...I remember liking "Henry and June" a lot too but I need to watch it again as it has been a good 15 years since I saw it...I do remember that lovely shot of Uma Thurman walking down the hall with that puppet...

I appreciate both the comments....

cinebeats said...

First I have to say that I'm surprised to see myself agreeing with some of Kael's thoughts since she often leaves me a bit cold. Now with that out of the way...

Terrific review of a truly frightening and very smart film Jeremy!

I happen to like a lot of Kaufman's movies myself, including Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Wanderers, The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry & June (Quills didn't really work for me). I would probably rate Henry & June as my own favorite Kaufman film only because Henry Miller is my favorite writer so it holds a special charm for me. I also adore Anais Nin and I thought Maria de Medeiros was magnificent as Nin in the film.

With that said, I still think Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers is fantastic and easily one of the best American horror films made during the '70s. It's also one of the best remakes ever produced and the cast is really terrific.

I think one of Kaufman's great strengths as a director is his ability to get amazing performances from his actors. I also think he has an extraordinary understanding of the sexual and emotional dynamics at work in female/male relationships.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers proves that he also knows how to make a damn creepy film and I wish he would make more horror movies.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Kimberly,
I'm glad to hear that you admire this film as well.
I feel the same way about Kael...I often find myself infuriated with some of her views but occasionally I find some of her stuff insightful (such as this review)...I am absolutely going to have to go back and re-watch Henry and June now as you and Neil have spoken so highly of it...thanks again for the great comments..

Rogue Spy 007 said...

This is one of my favorite science fiction/horror films of all time. It's actually my favorite of all the Body Snatchers editions. It's amazing. I first saw this as a kid when it came out. It spooked me. Whenever a human would be noticed, that freaking sound that was made. Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy were both fantastic here. I loved, and still love, this movie. One of the best. I've seen most of Kaufman's films. This is the best he did in my opinion.

colinr said...

Kaufman is one of those director's that I'd wish would get to make more films - He has such an eclectic choice of subjects yet I've never seen a disappointing film made by him.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Keith,
I agree with everything you said...aren't Sutherland and Nimoy fantastic here...

Thanks Colin...glad to here that you are a fan of Kaufman's as well...