Tuesday, October 26, 2010

2010 Geek Fright Fest: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Rated PG (for mildly disturbing images)

Directed by Phillip Kaufman

Donald Sutherland
Brooke Adams
Jeff Goldblum
Veronica Cartwright

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a remake of a 1956 film of the same name, which was based on Jack Finney's novel, The Body Snatchers. The film has been remade twice since the release of this version, once in 1993 as Body Snatchers starring Meg Tilly, and again in 2007 as The Invasion with Nicole Kidman. Kaufman's version is the most highly regarded and received several awards and nominations from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films.

1970s San Francisco is in the midst of the "Me Generation".  Pop psychology is at it's peak and the hippie sensibilities are waning as more and more adults get absorbed into the corporate world. Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), is a government worker with the Department of Health. He and his friend and colleague, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) begin noticing changes in people around them. Along with their friends, Jack and Nancy Bellicec, they discover that plant pods are creating alien duplicates of San Francsicans while they sleep, rendering them flat and emotionless, despite retaining the individual's memories and knowledge. The "pod people" are able to differentiate between other pods and those that are still human - shrieking in a shrill, inhuman way to alert other pods that they have found a human in their midst. Matthew, Elizabeth, Jack, and Nancy must run for their lives - and their humanity - to avoid being turned into pods themselves.

Modern alien flicks aren't usually my thing, but this one cuts to the core of one of my deepest fears: that the people you know and love best could look and sound exactly the same, but turn into a stranger over night. The beauty of this film is that beyond the opening scene, you don't think about it being an alien movie. It stands more as an allegory for how mainstream society tries absorb individuals and strip them of their unique qualities.

This movie starts out relatively normal. There's a few funny scenes (particularly Matthew's tour of the health code violating French restaurant), but as the pods take over, the film gets progressively darker, both in tone and color. There is less light and more shadowed areas. The pod people do little more than walk together in large groups, but Kaufman and cinematographer Michael Chapman manage to make them panic-inducing. The worst part of the film is that you can't tell who's a pod person . . . unless they emit that shrill scream, of course. Even from the beginning, you get hints along the way of something unusual going on. (One example: As Elizabeth heads to work after her boyfriend's, Geoffrey, behavior seems odd, several people run past her down the street.) It's great foreshadowing without being too obvious.

The music and sound effects are among the most terrifying aspects of the film. Danny Zeitlin's score makes even the opening shots of rain hitting various plants ominous and the ear-piercing screaming of the pod people is chilling, especially in the pivotal end scene. Zeitlin's score is all the more amazing when you consider that this is his only film score; he worked primarily as a psychologist and played jazz piano in his spare time.

Sutherland is particularly good in this film. As a government employee, his character tries to go through all the regular avenues of getting information and help; he is so straitlaced and so much of a rule follower that he has to be told that the police and the government might already be pods. The fact that he cannot rely on his own instincts is completely alien to Matthew, and Sutherland plays this very well. Adams's character works well because she seems like a level-headed, scientific-minded woman. When she becomes paranoid about her boyfriend's changed personality, the audience is able to accept that her fears are valid, even though she is convinced that Geoffrey is no longer Geoffrey. It is important to establish the two most grounded characters as the first who suspect the pods, rather than the more flighty, new-age Bellicecs. Cartwright is excellent as Nancy, the hippie space cadet. Goldblum is . . . well, he's Jeff Goldblum. He was 26 when this film was made, but his mannerisms and speaking style were still exactly the same. It works for this film, as his character is an eccentric failed poet.

Fright Rating: 3 gasps out of a possible 5

There is virtually no gore in this film. The fear generated by this film is almost completely psychological, save the few scenes with the extremely weird-looking pod duplicates. This is an awesome film, and I highly recommend it, even for those who are not usually sci-fi fans.

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