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December 12, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #154 - Body Snatchers

Y'all probably know by know that a remake can be a dangerous thing. The minute you start making one is the minute someone starts getting mad about it.  You can prove them wrong once in a while - more often than most people think, I'd argue - but there's always gonna be people mad about it.  You have to be a little insane to remake something that's widely called a classic - but you have to be even more insane to remake a classic that's already been remade and remade well.
That insanity can work in your favor sometimes.  Case in point: Body Snatchers, the 1993 update of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  This version started with a story co-written by Larry Cohen (The Stuff, It's Alive), moved on to a script co-written by Re-Animator power duo Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli and was directed by Abel Ferrera, who's most known for gritty crime flicks like King of New York and Bad Lieutenant.  It seems like a random assortment of talent to the casual observer, which is part of what makes this Body Snatchers tale unique.
Don Siegel's 1955 original film - adapted from Jack Finney's novel, which is credited as the source material here - used the idea of identity-stealing pod-people as a commentary on the communist scare of that time period.  The first remake, by Philip Kaufman in 1978, is updated for that time period (with struggling artists and empowered women!) and maintains the main premise and California setting.  Ferrera and company, however, decided to take the film in a different direction - moving the action to a military base in the southern United States.
While previous versions of the story focused on strong male leads trying to make sense of the invasion, Ferrara's film puts most of the drama on the shoulders of a teenage girl, played by the talented Gabrielle Anwar.  Through her turn as the daughter of an environmentalist who is stationed on the base, the film spends less time trying to figure out who the invaders are and how they work than those that came before it.  The teenager is dealing with her own issues - she's very emotional, if not fully "emo" - well before she stumbles into an aliens-who-take-over-our-identities-and-show-no-emotions fiesta.  This means that a) she's not one of them overly scientific people that try to solve the what and the why of the situation, and b) she does the natural thing we'd expect a teenager to do in this situation - runs away.
Anwar's Marti, along with her little brother Andy, can't be blamed for their fear as they deal with the escalating "hive mind" situation that they are a part of.  One of the film's most haunting scenes has young Andy realizing he's not like the other children in the day care center on base, thanks to some repetitive and tentacle-y finger paintings.  Subtlety is one thing this film definitely lacks - a lot of scenes like this are telegraphed and almost too easy for folks who know the story to predict - but the film still manages to be patient and artistic as it quietly shows us the snatchers' hold on the community.  This sequence works perfectly because it's framed delicately and given a chance to really sink into the viewer's mind. To put the film's approach in simple terms, it's as if Ferrara shows us that there's a monster running at us and then makes us patiently watch as the monster gets closer and our vision of it becomes clearer. We aren't surprised by what we see, but the increasing clarity about the attack makes the tension grow within us.
The most perfect example of this film's blatant, yet slow-moving brand of horror is the performance given by Meg Tilly as the seemingly evil stepmother turned actually evil stepmother.  The monologue that allows an emotionless pod-Tilly to explain the scale of the attack to her scared family is one of the greatest crazy/calm scenes on film, and the silky voiced actress - who would later loan her talents to the Child's Play series - is the key to the film maintaining its power as a quieter version of the Body Snatchers tale.  As if her reminder that humanity is kind of screwed isn't enough, she gets to do what I call "the big scream" - a throwback to the '78 adaptation - which send chills all the way up my spine for what feels like infinity.
There's something pretty fantastic about the way Ferrara and company get these actors to sell the difference between themselves and their pod-selves, especially as he manages to still surprise us with a few turns in the final act. The first two Body Snatcher films feel like their primarily interested in stopping "them", while this take on the story is more about protecting "us" and our identities. The military setting is obviously not an accidental choice, and the film's commentary on the military's interest in squashing emotion and creating controllable soldiers is a nice parallel to the pod person problem.  But this military aspect is less interesting to me than how the film abandons the scientific focus of the other films and switches its focus entirely to the fight to maintain our individuality.
It's a neat switch, even if some of the supporting actors aren't as talented as Anwar, Tilly, and Forest Whitaker (whose performance as the on-base doctor allows for a bit of the paranoia that ran rampant in the other films) when the film needs them to help sell the.  I've spent much of this space commenting on how the film compares to those other films, but there are plenty of reasons to laud this surreal and haunting spin on Finney's novel as its own beast.  It works a lot better than most remakes do, and it holds up today as one of the most effective horror films of the 1990s.


Chris Hewson said...

And of course, someone had to remake Invasion of the Body Snatchers AGAIN, in 2007! And it was by all acounts awful! Ugh, I guess third time's the charm then!

knobgobbler said...

I do love that Meg Tilly 'where you gonna run?' scene.
Wasn't it Jennifer Tilly in the Chucky movies?

Anonymous said...

Good review, although I've only seen the 1956 version. I'll view the two remakes and skip the 2007 version. Sounds like a plan. Also this is the address for my new blog.

The Mike said...

I meant to reply to this way back when, and forgot. Yes, Jennifer Tilly was in the Chucky movies and this is Meg. I'm dumb sometimes.

I feel better for finally admitting it.

: said...

While I'm no *huge* fan of this version -- I do like it -- I'd have to say that Meg Tilly's performance ranks among the best in horror cinema of the last quarter-century. She's damned scary in this one.