Don't Fall Asleep

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

It's interesting when you can see a night and day difference between two versions of a story. Generally it's the remake or re-imagining that's worse, failing to understand what made the original work so well as the creators simply going with the idea that "new is better" when, often, it isn't. But then, occasionally, you end up with a reboot that actually does a better job than the original, that taps into something more meaningful, more visceral, and it becomes the de facto version of that story. The Fly is one, where the 1986 version is so much better, more meaty and scary, than the 1958 film. The Thing is another, with John Carpenter's 1982 film absolutely destroying the 1951's The Thing from Another World.

We've already touched on the 1958 Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It's a film that tapped into a very specific feeling of it's ear, the fear of Communism, to create horror that, well, doesn't really translate outside it's given time and place. But it's only when I watched the 1978 version that I realized what was missing from that 1950s film: a feeling of true reality. That film is very stagey, very controlled, like it was made and films on TV sets. It's like an after-school special PSA about the Red Scare, not really a movie so much as a TV warning. Where that film feels small and simple, yelling at the audience about the dangers of the commies, the 1978 film goes for real horror, a real sense of what the world would be like if an alien menace came from outer space. It feels real, even despite it's 1970s trappings and dated visuals. It transcends where the 1956 version recedes. It's the better film.

The movie stars Donald Sutherland as Matthew Bennell, a health inspector for the city of San Francisco. After pink, gauzy pollen falls from the sky, and weird little flowers start showing up around the city, Driscoll and his friend, Health Dept. laboratory worker Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams), start to notice strange things going on with the people around town. Elizabeth notices first with her boyfriend, Geoffrey (Art Hindle), starts to act strangely. He looks the same, but there's no love, no emotion to him anymore. Others begin reporting this as well with their loved ones, so Matthew and Elizabeth go to their psychiatrist friend, Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), but he just brushes them off. It's a delusion, he convinces them, sending them home.

Later that night, another friend of Matthew's, Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum), and Jack's wife, Nancy (Veronica Cartwright), discover a body in their bathhouse. Weird, veiny, but seemingly perfect, the body bears an uncanny resemblance to Jack. Matthew comes to investigate, and then suddenly realizes just what be going on. He runs to Elizabeth's and scoops her up before her own clone can be made, and the four go on the run, desperate to escape the city and find someone that will listen to them. It's a chase across the city to try and save humanity from these emotionless clones.

At this point the film is 55 years old (as of this writing), so I don't feel bad discussing spoilers. With that said, be warned they will come heavy in this review so if you don't want the ending of the film to be spoiled, go watch it now. Frankly, the ending is so good that you need to see it fresh or it doesn't work nearly as well. It's been parodied and copied so many times, you really should see it just so you're in on the joke with everyone else out there.

In construction, the film doesn't deviate far from the 1956 movie (which, presumably, didn't deviate far from the original novel). Hero and his best gal (whether dating not) start to realize that people around the are changing. Their friend finds a body, they investigate, everyone goes on the run, friend gets captured, they all nearly get captured, they escape, but then the girl falls victim and it's up to our hero to get out and get help to prevent the invasion. If you've seen the original then you can kind of lay the template of that film against this one. It's not in the main story, but in the differences, where the film gets its power.

For one, this film is much better at selling the concept of the creeping dread of the invasion. That feeling that you can't trust anyone around you because any of them could be a pod person. The original film didn't really have the taken act any different from their originals. Sure, people would say, "he's not acting normal," but that's a tell, not a show. We actually get to see people act different, emotionless, scary, and we can understand what happens during the invasion. That helps a lot in driving up the fear.

Of course, it also helps that this film actually shows us what happens to the original body when the new, alien version awakes. They get drained, sucked, dry, destroyed, until there's nothing left but the new host. That alone is terrifying because it shows there's no hope. If someone you know is taken over then there's no chance to get them back. They're gone and all that's left is this new, emotionless version that looks and talks like you remember but isn't them anymore.

In general the film is more mature, and more graphic, in all the ways that you couldn't do in the 1950s. People talk and act more like real adults, and they're able to really let the fear and dread of the situation evolve naturally. Of course, the creature effects are better, and there's more scares to go along with. In all the ways that a horror movie needs to be scary, this film is able to do it, and do it better than the hobbled 1956 film could manage.

But, much of the credit is really due to the leads. Sutherland and Adams are great together. Not only does the film treat them like equals (unlike with the 1856 version's heroes), but there's actual palpable chemistry between the leads as well. When Elizabeth is taken over this time, you really feel the sadness, and the dread, that comes over Matthew, the realization of what he has to do and what it means for his life going forward. They're aided in selling the dread by Goldblum and Cartwright, and these four really are so great in this film. Hell, this is another sci-fi horror remake for Goldblum's resume, showing he has something of a niche there for a little while, and it really worked.

Of course, then there's the famous ending. It seems like Matthew has escaped, that he'll live to fight another day. But then Nancy finds him the next day, and when the two see each other, he reveals himself to be another alien clone. It's a gut-wrenching moment, taking the hero and turning him into just another villainous drone. Where the 1956 version cut in a "super happy ending", this remake has no bones about going bleak, about letting the reality of the story really play out. There is no hope, no chance, just fear and dread. It's great.

Of the four versions (so far) committed to film for Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I feel this is the strongest. It's a rich, detailed exploration of the concept of this alien invasion, with great actors and great effects. Yes, it does feel like a film from the 1970s (the cars, the costumes, the landline phones) but that really doesn't hold it back. It's still as effective, and evocative, now as it was 55 years ago.