Regular readers will know that I’m usually one of the first to moan about the film industry’s habit of remaking old movies. I stand by most of my previous comments, in that remakes are often a lame excuse to capitalise on the goodwill an older version of a movie has garnered (case in point, pretty much every remake of 1970’s and 1980’s horror – Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, The Hills Have Eyes, Texas Chainsaw, and so on). Occasionally the original film-makers will be involved, and a remake will make sense (such as the 2013 Evil Dead… you could also argue that Evil Dead II was a remake of sorts of the 1981 original). There remains another category of remakes, and it just so happens that three of these updated versions of classic films rank in my top ten horror movies of all time. This is where new film-makers put a present day spin on horror tales which, quite often, were well made but were limited in some way – perhaps by the technology of the day, or maybe the social landscape has changed to give a story increased relevance. Two of three films I’m referring to here are David Cronenberg’s stunning The Fly, and John Carpenter’s ground-breaking The Thing.
Today’s movie recommendation, however, is a 1979 remake of a 1956 original which, although perhaps not quite scaling the heights of the Cronenberg and Carpenter movies I’ve just mentioned, is still an excellent example of a remake done right. I’m talking about Philip Kaufman’s 1978 INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.
Despite the schlocky B-movie title, IotBS is an intelligent and chilling remake of an equally chilling and intelligent original. Based on Jack Finney’s 1955 novel, The Body Snatchers, this is a bleak and atmospheric film which, although dated in some respects, still retains the ability to unnerve.
The premise is simple: in an otherwise ordinary city, people start to suspect that their friends, family and others are being replaced with emotionless clones. The Body Snatchers has actually been adapted for film four times (in 1956 and 1978, then as Body Snatchers in 1993 and the less well-received The Invasion in 2007). In this version we’re left in no doubt as to the origin of the phenomenon, as spores drift to Earth from outer space before settling and blossoming as unusual flowers which then become pods from which the clones are born. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Thing is, it works, and it works really well. Because although we’re watching an invasion of alien plants, we’re witnessing it from the perspective of a group of well drawn, very well acted, completely paranoid and terrified characters. Donald Sutherland is health inspector Matthew Bennell, Brooke Adams his colleague Elizabeth Driscoll. Leonard Nimoy appears as Bennell’s superstar psychologist friend Dr Kibner, and genre favourites Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright round out the central cast. Aside from the occasional clunky portion of dialogue (‘We come from space, we come from a dying planet… etc. etc.), the movie is played straight and in a non-sensationalist way which adds to the genuine unease.
I’ve tried to think about why IotBS in its various incarnations has such an appeal. For me, certainly, it’s because the central conceit is similar to the kind of post-apocalyptic tale I love so much. It’s a story about ‘normal’ people forced to fight for their survival against ‘the other’, and in that respect it’s not too far removed from a zombie story. Or from Planet of the Apes. Or from HATER…
Enough rambling. If you’ve not seen IotBS before, please do check it out. I need to revisit the other versions, but to my mind this is the strongest of the four. Certainly it seems to complement the original, not least because the star of the first version, Kevin McCarthy, briefly reprises his role in this one. So that means this remake isn’t a remake after all, it’s a quasi-sequel… I like the ambiguity. In any event, there’s plenty in this film to enjoy… from the gruesome birth of the clones from their pods, to the busker and his dog (if you’ve seen it you’ll know what I’m talking about), to the chase at the docks to the haunting strains of Amazing Grace… this is a horror classic which is highly recommended.
And then there’s that final scene…