Sunday, October 19, 2008

Favorite Moments: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Invasion of the Body Snatchers directed by Philip Kaufman in 1978 was a remake of the original done by Don Siegel in 1956. Because it created such a different landscape than the original, re-invented its characters and themes on such a creative level and provided a shocker ending that throws "feel-good ending" into the abyss of Hollywood Happy Land in favor of bleak despair, it could hardly be called a remake. In today's parlance, it would be called a "re-imagining." Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers works not only as a thriller of creeping menace but as a wonderful satire on the seventies "Me Generation" as well, even managing to poke fun at New Age mumbo jumbo several years ahead of everyone else. For that, and many other reasons, it has long been a favorite of mine.

And it uses its San Francisco locale as well as Vertigo, and that's a compliment I don't dole out lightly. In the commentary by Kaufman on the DVD, one of the few commentaries I have actually found informative, he talks about how the TransAmerica building is used as a kind of Pod Central. They tried to work it into as many shots as possible so that when you watch the movie, as characters are having conversations or driving or walking about, there's the TransAmerica building in the background. It's never directly stated to be Pod Central, but Kaufman wanted to plant the seed (no pun intended) in the viewer's mind. And the scene of Donald Sutherland outside City Hall at the end stands as one of the creepiest images of the seventies. Even out of the context of the movie, there's just something about that shot that feels... off. Unsettling.

Another thing Kaufman discusses on the commentary track is the opening, which is what is featured here on my Favorite Moments post for October. Usually I put up a scene that takes place well within the movie's running time but this favorite moment comes right at the beginning as the credits start to roll. Kaufman wanted a short title card, following by this sequence with no opening credits but did not get his wish as the studio felt it was too long without characters or dialogue for the audience to stay with it. Ah yes, people generally do storm out of movies in a fury if no characters are introduced within three minutes. Why that must have happened at least, oh I don't know, I'm going to say never. Anyway, credits or not, I love this opening sequence.

First, there's the forbidding alien planet where the spores start their ascent to the dark reaches of space, while the soundtrack mixes music and screams, screams that will become familiar to the viewer later in the film. Then, as they make their way across the heavens the music takes on the spirit of the old horror and sci-fi classics of the fifties. As the spores approach Earth's atmosphere listen to the brass section sound out an ominous fanfare as the soundtrack introduces a clap of thunder right on cue. Only a couple of minutes into the opening sequence and Kaufman is already having the time of his life.

When the spores land, they take root on the leaves of other plants and the paranoia begins. A paranoia that Kaufman himself worked into the movie from the beginning. He talks on the commentary track of how he told the occasional bit player or extra to stare when they walked past someone. "Stare at them like you suspect them of something." And it works. You can see that from the start as Brooke Adams picks a spore and walks past a school teacher on a field trip. As she passes the teacher stares at her like she's done something wrong. That stare effect happens throughout the movie but Kaufman does two more things before this opening sequence ends.

First, he gives us one of the best, and creepiest, cameos in movie history, by having Robert Duvall in priestly garb, swinging with some children, staring at the teacher. As Kaufman explains on the commentary track , Duvall just happened to be in town during the production and visited the set. Kaufman asked him if he wouldn't mind doing a cameo and Duvall said he'd love to. Kaufman had the costume staff grab a get-up, any get-up, and it turned out to be the priest attire you see in the movie. Then Duvall asked what to do and Kaufman said, "I don't know. Sit on that swing and stare at that teacher." It adds to the already paranoid mood of the movie in disarming fashion, and the movie is only a few minutes into its running time.

Then, he gives us his first use of San Francisco's famed slants and curves, as Adams makes her way to her townhouse. Kaufman shoots the houses not straight on but from an angle that exaggerates the slant. As Adams makes her way in, the houses look as though they could topple like dominoes, from left to right across the screen. A sense of imminent disaster, or things not being quite in order, is established immediately. If an opening sequence has as its job to set the mood, tone and atmosphere for the story to follow, then this opening sequence surely qualifies as one of the best ever. It aces every test an opening sequence is given.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been praised from the moment of its release but there are times when, due to it's genre and subject matter, I don't think it gets enough praise. More often than not it's a case of faint praise, where the person doing the praising makes sure to mention the genre: "Sure, it's a fantastic sci-fi, horror movie. One of the best." It's never just a great movie, period. Well, it is. It's a re-imagining, a remake and a whole new movie all in one. It twists its satire around horror and its horror around suspense and works on every one of those levels. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how it starts. Enjoy.