Knowing what we know now about Philip Kaufman, it was never likely that his remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers was going to simply be a straight remake. In 1978, however, it came as something of a surprise to see Don Siegel’s masterpiece of SF-horror set in the big city and packed with dry humour, quirky characters and some sly comments about the Me Generation. Thirty-five years on, the merits of the film have become apparent to the point that it stands proudly alongside Siegel’s original as one of the best fantastic films ever made.
Jack Finney’s 1955 novel was first filmed by Siegel in 1956 and has more recently been the subject of adaptations by Abel Ferrara and Oliver Hirschbiegel. Although Ferrara’s film has much to commend it, Kaufman’s is the only one which matches the novel and the first movie for its slow, creeping sense of terror as a community is taken over by “pod people” – alien invaders who replicate then kill human beings, ruthlessly stamping out individuality and free-will. Kaufman’s film sets the story in San Francisco during the 1970s. In some ways it could be seen as more logical continuation than remake since in a neat cameo we see that the original hero, Kevin McCarthy, is still delivering the same warnings he was shouting at the climax of the original film.
The film sparkles right from the start when Donald Sutherland interrupts dinner service at a fancy restaurant and taunts a snooty waiter . When Elizabeth’s husband begins to behave oddly, he surmises that “It could be a social disease. It could be that he’s beoome a Republican”. Every single line uttered by Jeff Goldblum – “I’m trying to change the world to fit people! Where’s Kazantzakis? Where’s Jack London?” – is a corker. This isn’t simply window dressing by a talented writer – and as he’s shown on numerous occasions, W. D. Richter is a very talented writer – but vital to drawing us into the world of the film and making us care about and sympathise with the characters. “People are changing. They’re becoming less human, it’s happening all around us” says Leonard Nimoy’s psychiatrist – and, of course, he’s quite right. This is 1970s California at its most morbidly self-obsessed and it’s the perfect environment in which to place a pod movie. Four years after Watergate, paranoia is still omnipresent and in a neat twist, the paranoiacs are quite right but unable to do much about it. There is at least one scene which stands as a paranoid movie classic when Sutherland makes a phone call only to find that the person on the other end of the phone already knows who he is.
As the paranoia increases, the atmosphere of the film changes to become increasingly claustrophobic and oppressive. What was light-hearted speculation becomes anxious reality and this is where the casting comes into its own. Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams are strong, naturalistic actors and they successfully represent normality up against the irrational –if these two very grounded people believe it then it’s all the more credible. Equally good are Goldblum and the superb Veronica Cartwright, while Leonard Nimoy does the best work he’s ever done outside Star Trek as the smooth psychiatrist who is a lot more sinister than he seems.
Clever filming turns San Francisco into a creepily under-populated vista of sky and space while the frequent night shooting, creating a multitude of threatening shadows, gives the film a sense of menace – Kaufman and his DP Michael Chapman wanted an effect similar to that created in black and white Film Noir. Much of the threat is implicit and there is only a small amount of explicit horror, partly one suspects due to the low budget, but also because the atmosphere is more important than the occasional gory climaxes. Indeed, the scariest moment, and the shot that everyone remembers from the end of the film, is created simply with memorable acting and an unforgettable sound effect. Indeed, the sound throughout the film is highly memorable, capped by a very odd but effective score by Denny Zeitlin.
Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is very much a 1970s film in the best sense of the term. It’s character driven, carefully paced, wittily written and subtly unnerving. Hardly any films made now bother to take so much time to establish the people under threat or to immerse us in the atmosphere of the settings. The social points about conformity and oppression are made without fanfare and the ending is a genuine shocker. It even manages to be oddly affecting at the most unlikely time, as the yearning strains of Amazing Grace fill the soundtrack. It certainly sets the tone for Kaufman’s subsequent career and in its uncompromising intelligence, masterful technique, sophisticated humour and close observation of character it is a clear forerunner to his later masterpieces The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Arrow’s Blu-Ray of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a fine package which combines a splendid transfer with some fascinating and sometimes inspired extra features.
The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The HD transfer appears to be the same one used for the 2010 MGM Blu-Ray and it’s an exceptionally good one. The film looks wonderfully natural in its colours and textures and the fine grain is beautifully represented. Detail is very strong throughout and if there is any use of DNR then it is very subtle. There are a lot of dark scenes in the film during which the definition is excellent.
We get two audio options – the original Dolby Stereo track and a 5.1 remix. I really liked the Stereo mix which does a great job of reproducing the way the film sounded in theatres and does especially well by Denny Zeitlin’s extraordinary music score and all the deliciously weird sound effects. The 5.1 mix is absolutely fine as well. The producers have, incidentally, corrected a mistake which was made on the original MGM HD master where it appeared that the cab driver played by Don Siegel was talking to himself when, in the original recording, he should have been conversing with a two-way radio.
Where Arrow’s Blu-Ray really scores against the MGM release is in the area of extra features. As we have come to expect from this label, the bonus materials are well chosen and sometimes unusual.
Four of the featurettes and an audio commentary are carried over from the MGM release. The commentary track by Philip Kaufman is, to be honest, a bit of a slog but I have affection for it because it was the very first commentary track I ever listened to, back in April 1999 when it featured on the original DVD.Re-Visitors From Outer Space is a fifteen minute making-of piece featuring Philip Kaufman, Donald Sutherland, and W. D. Richter. Interesting, if a bit too short, and valuable for the interviewees. Once again, Kaufman insists that the film is less a remake than a “variation on a theme.” The Imvasion Will Be Televised is a brief but engaging interview with DP Michael Chapman who discusses, along with other members of the crew, the dark nature of the cinematography and the unusual way in which he moves the camera. The Man Behind the Scream deals with the sound effects used in the film as designed by Ben Burtt – probably best known for his contribution to the Star Wars films. It’s technically fascinating for the detail in which it describes the process of creating and editing sound. Practical Magic: The Special Effects Pod is a very short look at the low-budget special effects revealing how simply the visuals were created using techniques such as forced perspective and slime bought from a supermarket. We also get the original trailer.
New to the Arrow release are three featurettes which are more interesting than those carried over from the MGM release because they are somehow more quirky. The best of the lot is a fantastic fifty minute discussion about the film featuring Kim Newman, Ben Wheatley and the legendary Norman J. Warren. All three men are fans and they have a lot of astute observations to make both from a critical and technical point of view. Kim Newman naturally leads the way in terms of the scholarship but the two directors make good points as well and the overall impression is one of three enthusiasts having fun discussing a favourite movie. They all agree that more pod people movies are needed, preferably instead of more low-budget zombie films. The other two featurettes are shorter but still valuable. Dissecting the Pod is an analysis of the film by academic and Kaufman expert Annette Insdorf which isn’t especially startling but makes some useful points. Writing the Pod looks at Jack Finney’s original novel in the company of his biographer Jack Seabrook.
The film is accompanied by optional English subtitles and comes with the usual excellent booklet and a reversible cover.
Arrow’s excellent collection of releases for 2013 is enhanced by this excellent Blu-Ray of a notable film. It has the same audio and visual merits as the US release and is accompanied by some intriguing new extra features. Very highly recommended indeed.