Donald Sutherland. Jeff Goldblum. Leonard Nimoy. Has a greater triumvirate of actors ever been assembled? Did I mention this movie has dog with a human head? How about a cameo by Robert Duvall as priest on a children’s swing set? There’s been a lot of incarnations of Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers (four by my count) but none of them have been quite as imaginatively terrifying as the 1978 version from director Phillip Kaufman (The Outlaw Josey Whales, The Right Stuff) and screenwriter W.D. Richter (Buckaroo Banzai, Big Trouble in Little China). Time to point our fingers and scream.
The film bares little resemblance to the ’50s version aside from the basic premise of pods turning everyday people into everyday robots. The film opens of all places on a dying world in outer space. Here we see hordes of semi-translucent blob lifeforms caught up in a solar wind and heading towards Earth. The blobs enter the Earth’s atmosphere and come down through a heavy rainfall, forming small pods with bright flowers in San Francisco. I never even considered the idea that the aliens in these films were never humanoid to begin with. The idea that a life form would come down and imitate those around them but be unable grasp humanity because it was never human to begin with makes the idea that much scarier and even oddly believable.
Gone is the proud ’50’s cold-war hero figure and in comes counterculture youth hero Donald Sutherland as our leading man, Matthew Bennell. It would have been easy to make Bennell a doctor like Kevin McCarthy in the original film or even a psychiatrist to incite action, but this version takes a far more clever approach. Matthew Bennell is a health inspector. What makes this so perfect is that Matthew’s duty to investigate so many different places around the city gives him a unique insight into the community around him on all social levels. Not only that but it’s something I can honestly say I’ve never seen before in a movie. Apart from his job, Bennell is asked by his friend Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) what to do about her now zombie-like husband. Instead of comforting Elizabeth, Bennell tells her she needs to see a psychiatrist because she’s trying to find a way out of her relationship. The tone has been set.
Other key characters include Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright) and her husband Jack (Jeff Goldblum) who together own a spa. You can already imagine the kind of skin-crawling sequence this setting has to offer. And finally we have Leonard Nimoy as self-help guru Dr. David Kibner, a character that is a true product of the 1970s “Me-generation”. Mankind unravels and it’s up to only a few to stop the invasion. If that’s even possible.
Every Body Snatchers movie reflects the era that it was made in. I already pointed out the, “Me Generation” idea, in which I mean the ’70s were a time where everyone was looking to feel good trends and practices to better themselves emotionally. You also get a feel for the decadence within the community. In a way this makes the argument that, “You know, maybe these people are better off as pod people.” But you can read into that any way you want, this film has layers.
Themes and characters aside, the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is most memorable for how scary it was. The claustrophobic idea that you can’t trust anyone and can only run for so long is a very real fear. I love the addition of the frantic man running into the street early in the film played by of all people, Kevin McCarthy. Does that mean this is a sequel? Has Kevin McCarthy been running from this invasion for twenty-two years> The thought of that only makes the film that much more psychologically damaging. Finally, the scream. The sound that pod people make when they spot a human. It makes me cringe thinking about it. You can thank Star Wars sound veteran Ben Burtt for that one. All I know is if I ever heard that sound in real life I would immediately loosen my bowls and head for the hills.