Of the vast array of sci fi horror movies, I feel that Invasion of the Body Snatchers doesn’t get the adoration it so deserves. Both the 1956 original and the 1978 remake are phenomenal in their own right, as well as have their own distinct identity. The Thing and The Fly are given the appropriate credit for reinventing their source material to new heights, and the ‘78 version belongs in that category as well.
This story centers around a small town (San Francisco in the remake) where citizens are starting to act unusual in increasing numbers. All while a new plant is present everywhere, with many of these strange people offering it as a gift. If someone is to fall asleep near one of these odd flora, an exact replica of the individual grows in its place. As all friends and family begin to act like every other out of character member of society, the remaining humans are starting to realize something is afoot. The remaining residents race to prevent the ensuing takeover of mankind against seemingly impossible odds.
Don Siegel’s classic manages to generate a superb amount of tension, which many of the horror films of the period had difficulty achieving. Rather than go for the over dramatic reveals, he lets the tension seep in slowly throughout the course of the picture. Rounded characters and a strong script supersede spectacle generating a sense of panic that feels more in tune with the real world over the typical creature features of the time. This tame approach to horror is one of the reasons for the longevity of this over 60 year old movie.
While the original takes the approach of making the change of the community a mystery, in Philip Kaufman’s remake he takes the “it’s totally aliens” approach in the opening credits. The invaders were staking their claim well before anyone could’ve realized. Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy and Jeff Goldblum round out this phenomenal cast of everyday people attempting to handle something far beyond their depth. The notion that these invaders have spread in all aspects of society even outside of San Francisco presents the idea of an already lost battle. This Sisyphean story presents that the only solution may just be having to give up. How can we overcome when we don’t know how entrenched they are in our lives or how to stop what’s already done?
The parallels to McCarthyism are undeniable, and an aspect that has been agreed upon by critics and scholars since the original film. While the filmmakers of the ‘56 film deny this to be a purposeful subtext and author Jack Finney had never provided an answer, it is understandable why the public has grasped this concept. The idea that another entity has snuck it’s way into society without anyone realizing in Cold War Era America would certainly lead to viewers conjuring ideas of the Red Scare.
The term “pod people” seems to have superseded the actual movie itself in terms of cultural impact. Not everyone is familiar with the book or movie, but the term is more household than an Alexa. “Pod people” being drone like men and women just going through the daily routine with no semblance of emotion. This is adapted from the book, but this was further popularized and more in line with the ‘78 feature. It’s fascinating how the terminology has surpassed its own franchise in pure name recognition alone, which demonstrates how effective (and useful) the slang term became.
An interesting distinction between the original and the remake is how the “pod people” act. In the remake, they are devoid of personality so that everyone can easily tell who is acting unusually. While in the original, they seem exactly the same, while multiple townsfolk allege that their loved ones acting as they always do but there is some unexplainable element that leaves them sceptical. The notion of an indescribable difference was always scarier to me, the idea that absolutely anybody could be turned but you could only potentially tell once it’s too late. Which leads more into the aspect of McCarthyism that these movies are known for, as they act just and talk like us and it could even be your neighbour. Anyone could be a victim of being body snatched.
What’s so brilliant about the ‘78 version is that when the story is starting, the invasion is already well under way. You see people in the background acting strange or being chased while hearing the signature pod people screech, and the character’s rarely address it at first. The story has already proceeded without the protagonist’s involvement, which demonstrates how insignificant and how ineffectual the characters are to their plan. Throughout the entirety of the movie, we see a wide array of background characters throwing away strange husks with no explanation which further depicts how entrenched these creatures are into every facet of San Francisco.
While the original follows the novel more closely by ending on an optimistic note, the remake wants you to feel like this is truly inescapable. The monster isn’t one unstoppable killing machine, it’s everyone you’ve ever known or loved. The sense of dread created is some of cinemas finest, a building tension that lets the viewer know that the technology and the preparation of today, nor tomorrow, will save the day.
If you’re keen to watch 2 phenomenally crafted horror films without a single jump scare between them, these are just what you need. While I do believe the remake is a more finely crafted piece of cinema, the original is most definitely a real spine tingler. The ‘78 film offers much on a rewatch, and you’ll pick up on a phenomenal homage if you watch the ‘56 version first. For those itching to watch something tense and eerie this Halloween season, look no further than Invasion of the Body Snatchers.