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.



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24 comments:

bill r. said...

I love the use of "Amazing Grace" in the film. It's both hopeful and chilling. That's tough to pull off.

Man, what happened to Kaufman? Invasion of the Body Snatcher, The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being are all magnificent. Everything I've seen by him since then has been garbage.

The Man with the Arbogast Eyes said...

What's interesting about the use of "New Age mumbo-jumbo" is that the film is canny enough to not to condemn alternative philosophies as outright quackery but to show how even the most sensible self-governing practices become meaningless when they are reduced to mimeographs of the zeitgeist. To get a sense of what I mean, count Kabbalah ribbons at the next Hollywood awards ceremony and you'll see how the pod people won.

Flickhead said...

Going over San Francisco as the backdrop for this particular story, Carrie Rickey called the place "Pod City to begin with." I was living there at the time and, well, she had a point.

Dr. Scarabus Lapper said...

Bill, that use of Amazing Grace has always worked wonders for me. Is losing your identity achieving grace? Is it ironic on the part of the pod people? And played on the bagpipes gives it an other worldly feel.

And I agree. There was a time in the late eighties when I really thought Kaufman was going to be one of the all time greats and then he just kind of fell off the map.

Dr. Scarabus Lapper said...

Arbo, Nimoy's character is among the most interesting in the film and I love the resentment with which Goldblum approaches him. One gets the feeling that Goldblum's real beef is that he has not yet learned how to condense the zeitgeist into a bankable entity like Nimoy has. He complains and complains then goes back to the mud bath hut with his crystal reading woman. Ha! People just don't give this movie enough credit.

Dr. Scarabus Lapper said...

Flickhead, I remember, and you probably do too, reading Kael talk about the brilliant stroke of using San Francisco because Kaufman could play off the New Age attitudes there in line with the pod people.

Adam Ross said...

The scenes of the alien planet are the scariest for me. The conquerers of our world look like ... goop? It's terrifying to think that a far-out menace looks almost like nothing, and can float through space undetected.

Dr. Scarabus Lapper said...

Actually, Adam I've thought about the oddness of that planet. They come to Earth and take control of humans to set up their own society but their own planet is a barren wasteland and they're, what, barely above single celled organisms. So what the hell? Shouldn't they be at least somewhat sophisticated beings on their own planet to begin with?

I do love the model work on that planet. Too bad no one employs model makers anymore.

Nellhaus on Haunted Hill said...

Of course you realize that Transamerica owned United Artists at the time Kaufman made his version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers for them.

In regards to the banner, those toothy nurses look a little friendlier than these sick nurses.

Dr. Scarabus Lapper said...

Well Peter, I believe Kaufman was using it for dramatic effect, not because he was required to. Perhaps he was even making a statement that went over the parent company's head; TransAmerica being the center of all evil in the film and such.

As for the pictures in your post, they get progressively better as you go. That last one would make for one hell of a banner.

bill r. said...

What movie is that banner from, anyway? I feel like I should know it, but oh well. Also, the vibe I get off it is that the movie is kinda shitty, but that picture creeps me out nonetheless.

Marilyn said...

It's from Levres de Sang (Lips of Blood). My colleague Rod wrote a great review of the film back in 2006. the name, and you'll find it.

Hi guys. Just popping my head in. The festival continues apace. I'll have to catch up more thoroughly on Jonathan's great efforts this month. BTW, Kaufman is a fav of both me and Rod.

Rick Olson said...

Jonathan, I love this film, and the opening you posted. I always thought it suffered because it was a "remake" of a certified classic, and, yes, because of the genre thing. If you look at the original beside this one, the original suffers, I think.

As far as the "goop" thing, I like the idea that we're brought down by some mindless something, or more accurately, by somethings with a hive mind. Without the network, both within each colonized individual, and between them, there is no intelligence.

Jonathan Lappaccini said...

Well Marilyn got to it first. Thanks Marilyn. And Bill, it's available on Netflix, which is where I recently got it from.

Jonathan Lappaccini said...

Rick, although I believe the original is a great movie as well, I do believe this is one of those cases where the remake is better so I agree, it's the original that suffers in comparison.

And the hive mentality is a frightening thing, latched onto by Star Trek with the Borg. The idea that these pods really have no plans, simply instinct and they float across the galaxy until they can infect another species. It's like a virus: It has no specified objective but takes control of you nonetheless and spreads.

Jonathan Lappaccini said...

And work's got me busy today. As with the rest of the month, I will have a daily post and new banner, it will just be a little later, around noon probably when I can do some editing.

The Horrible Dr. Harbogast said...

The idea that these pods really have no plans, simply instinct and they float across the galaxy until they can infect another species.

Yeah, that's so inhuman! We'd never spread our beliefs/faith/religion/capitalism/industry/fast food/The Gap to another land!

Jonathan Lappaccini said...

That's so inhuman!

Actually it is. From Genghis Khan to Cortez to every imperial design of the twentieth and twenty first century we do have a plan: Improve our personal power and wealth. A virus simply infects for no reason whatsoever other than instinctual survival. But I take your general point.

Anyway, work's slowed down a bit now so I can finally do a post - ON THIS! Thanks Rick and Arbo! It'll be up soon.

Marilyn said...

Jonathan - I think the Borg were the scariest scifi "villians" ever - that is, until the debut of the Borg Queen. What a misstep! Suddenly, they brought intentionality into it! I was very upset.

Jonathan Lappaccini said...

Marilyn - Absolutely!!! I never understood the queen necessity. But even earlier a misstep was made when they "drafted" Picard as Loqutus. If they are simply an unrelenting hive with no concern or empathy for anything, why draft a human as the mediator? But those two anomolies aside, I think the creation of the Borg as a collective villain was a masterstroke on the part of the series.

The Horrible Dr. Harbogast said...

Suddenly, they brought intentionality into it!

I guess they had their reasons.

Jonathan Lappaccini said...

I think they were just following the crowd.

Marilyn said...

I think it doesn't matter. They UPSET me! It's all about ME!

Jonathan Lappaccini said...

I will rename my blog "Marilyn Styles" immediately to appease you.