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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

by Steve Habrat

One of the best science-fiction thrillers from the 1950’s is without question 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a paranoid creep out of a movie that follows a small town whose residents are being turned into emotionless drones by pods from outer space. It is a gloomy affair, boasting one hell of a bleak climax that features our hero screaming; “They’re here!” on a clogged highway filled with trucks transporting the cloning pods to other communities. It was a film that did not need a remake, let alone two remakes but that is Hollywood for you. While one of those remakes is really bad (2007’s The Invasion), one happens to be really, really well done. Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an unforgiving film, one with paranoia that surpasses the ’56 original in ways you can’t fathom. He accomplishes this through simple close-ups that repel the viewer, turning every shot of a leaf, flower, or human face into psychological torture that will practically have you tearing your hair out in dread. I can guarantee that you will never look at a plant the same way again.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers picks up on an unidentified planet that appears to be dying. The alien beings, which appear to be gel-like suds, begin drifting through the galaxy where they finally end up on earth. These gel-like suds are washed to earth in a rainstorm and end up in San Francisco. The suds grow into ugly pod-like flowers that catch the eye of Elizabeth Driscoll (Played by Brooke Adams), an employee at the San Francisco health department, who takes one of the flowers home to identify it. She shows the flower to her boyfriend, Geoffrey (Played by Art Hindle), who is equally perplexed by the flower. The couple leaves the flower on their nightstand in a glass of water and the next morning, Elizabeth awakens to Geoffrey cleaning up a broken glass and acting extremely distant. Concerned, Elizabeth confides in her friend and fellow health department employee Matthew Bennell (Played by Donald Sutherland), who attempts to calm Elizabeth and suggests that she speak to his friend and psychologist David Kibner (Played by Leonard Nimoy). The next day, Matthew hears a strange story from the owner of Chinese Laundromat that he frequents. The man tells Matthew that his wife isn’t acting like his wife anymore. As more and more stories emerge about people not being themselves, Matthew and Elizabeth begin trying to uncover what all the hysteria is about, only to make a horrifying discovery that there may be extraterrestrial beings walking among us, looking to clone us, and erase all human emotion.

While the ’56 version slowly crept up on you from the shadows, the ’78 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers doesn’t slowly mount the tension. There is something off about this film in the opening scenes of the alien suds washing down to earth. It helps that the soundtrack, which is filled with spacey chimes, fries your nerves down and makes you feel like you are plopped on a seat of pins and needles. From the first time we realize that there is something wrong with Geoffrey, our paranoia sets in and things get more unbearable from there. We are skeptical of every single person that walks onto the screen, right down to the individuals in the distant background. Director Kaufman knows that this film, with its surging no-one-believes-me jitters, can really mess with us psychologically. He knows we will be afraid of every single face we see and we will be second guessing everyone our protagonists come in contact with. When the pod-people finally reveal themselves, they make a horrible shrieking noise and they turn into sprinting zombies who will stop at nothing to get a hold of their victim. If you think they were creepy when they were lifeless drones, wait until you see them when they explode into this form.

Director Kaufman allows us to easily identify with the brainy heroes that are front and center in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We can feel for their desperation in trying to get someone to believe them that something terrible is going on and we do not even realize it. The increasingly frantic pleas from Sutherland’s Matthew are especially scary, his fear increasingly more erratic as each second passes. The scenes when he stumbles around downtown San Francisco as people push past from all angles is appropriately claustrophobic (a nod to the tightly focused original film), like chilling conformity is crashing in from all sides. His fate is especially devastating, mostly because he puts up one hell of a fight to stay alive. Brooke Adams also grabs the viewer early on due to her pleas for someone to hear her out. Everybody just dismisses her suspicion, instead advising that she see a doctor, psychologist, or to just get some sleep. We root for her to keep her hope alive, even when her optimism is slowly fading away.

The supporting cast is just as awesome as the two leads, especially Hindle as Geoffrey, who will cut right through you with his icy stare. He is especially disturbing in the extreme close-ups that Kaufman chooses to show him in. Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright as Jack and Nancy Bellicec are equally pathetic as Matthew and Elizabeth. They form an alliance with Matthew and Elizabeth in trying to stay human after they have a memorable run-in with a slimy pod person that will have chills shooting up and down your spine. You will find yourself getting attached to this small band of survivors, making things even more piercing when one of them falls victim to the pod-people. Leonard Nimoy steals the show as David Kibner, who at first feels like there is some sort of reasonable explanation for all the hysteria but slowly comes around (Or does he?!).

Invasion of the Body Snatchers ’78 is a lot more disgusting than the ’56 original, especially a scene where the group goes to sleep and while they are out, strategically placed pods begin birthing clones of the group. Between the gasping and gagging sound effects and the graphically evocative visuals, it is not only the most terrifying scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers but also the one that will stick with you the longest of any scene in the film. The extended chase at the end, with the group of fugitives on the run from a conformist holocaust are wonderful, each route that offers hope ending in a dead end of roaring and silhouetted monsters. There is also a brief glimpse of a mutant dog, another highlight that will equally make you giggle and give you the willies. Yet it ends up being the frantic hopelessness that is what will make you a nervous wreck while watching this ageless remake. For fans of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, keep an eye out for cameos from the original’s director Don Siegel as a taxi driver and star Kevin McCarthy as a man screaming his famous lines from the original’s climax. Overall, I still prefer the original Cold War/post-World War II suburban conformity that gripped the original to this strictly conformist-terror reimagining. The feeling that our backs were against the wall was greater in the original to this much larger vision of identity loss. Still, there is a lot to admire in Invasion of the Body Snatchers ’78, and lots to scare the living daylights out of you too.

Grade: A-

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Brood (1979)

by Steve Habrat

Leave it to Canadian horror director David Cronenberg, the man called the “King of Venereal Horror”, to make a film about freakish asexual dwarfs who attack and kill people. Cronenberg, who is most known for the Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis mutation gross-out The Fly, is basically an auteur of highbrow exploitation and body horror that eventually made transition into simply highbrow territory. The Brood is one of those highbrow body horror exploitation forays. The Brood is critical and certainly unkind to psychology and experimental science in the vilest ways possible. Cronenberg could be considered the ringleader of body horror, as he is a big fan of placing awful deformities on his actors, usually sexually suggestive in some way, shape, or form, an addition that usually sets his work apart from the rest of the horror pack. For those who are familiar with Cronenberg, The Brood is a bloody doom and gloom flick with a dark ending and a dead serious gaze that never breaks into a smile to laugh at itself.

Dr. Hal Raglan (Played by Oliver Reed) is an experimental psychotherapist who has created a technique called “psychoplasmics” which manifests traumatic memories on a patient’s body in the form of physiological changes. The changes depend on how severe the memories are. Raglan’s star patient is Nola Carveth (Played by Samantha Eggar), who is currently going through a messy separation from her husband Frank Carveth (Played by Art Hindle). Frank and Nola are also tangled up in a messy custody battle over their young daughter Candice (Played by Cindy Hinds). As Raglan treats Nola, he begins to discover how severely disturbed she is and as treatment goes on, her inner anger and rage manifests in small, dwarfish creatures that attack and kill those close to her. As Frank launches his own investigation into the mysterious deaths surrounding him, he learns how the creatures are being created and he discovers that Candice’s life is in danger if the experimental treatment is not stopped.

Blending horror and science fiction, Cronenberg makes a slow building and icky creep-out that is not for the squeamish. Cronenberg has an eye for truly repugnant deformities, a talent I would have never thought I would be praising but Cronenberg does it better than anyone else. Even though The Brood is basically an exploitation film, it understands that there should be a brain in this grotesque creation. Though Cronenberg never outright suggests it, I’ve always found the architecture in his films, usually scientific institutions contrasting in a cold, natural settings to be a subtle commentary. The wooded setting usually engulfs these institutions, a subtle suggestion that perhaps a natural treatment is the answer to scientific gambles. I have noticed this in Scanners and Rabid but it seemed incredibly heavy-handed in The Brood. This choice also adds a surreal apocalyptic touch, always suggesting isolation and no true safe place to hide from the evil that has been unleashed. It’s this visual cue that separates The Brood from the rest of the exploitation horror pack. Cronenberg encourages us to work through our inner turmoil on our own without the help of an outside third party.

The Brood is not ashamed to feature expert acting from its leads. Everyone is convincing, a rarity in films of this sort and another reason why The Brood is much better than most films of this kind. The final showdown between Frank and Nola is hypnotic, a battle of words and pleas with just enough gore to satisfy those watching The Brood simply for that reason. You won’t be able to pull yourself away from the exchange and you’ll be frustrated when Cronenberg’s camera cuts to other scenes of action. The film also contains a restrained performance from Oliver Reed who never goes full baddie and adds a few layers of regret both in his scientific work and himself for what he has unleashed in Nola. Reed’s performance parallels the direction from Cronenberg himself who is never in a hurry to show us everything. I admire the way he makes the audience wait for the pay-off and, I admit, I never mind waiting for the freak show to emerge when I’m watching a Cronenberg film. He usually crams his frames full of gratifying acting from his leads and fascinating story lines.

The Brood features a wallop of a final shot that will majorly freak you out and that, my dear readers, is a promise from this horror buff. This is an otherworldly horror flick that won’t scare you right off the bat but rather have you thinking back to it long after you have seen it (I just love films like that if you can’t tell). I rank The Brood as one of Cronenberg’s finest cinematic efforts, sitting comfortably next to Rabid, Scanners, The Fly, and Eastern Promises. The film lacks a huge price tag, which I think adds to Cronenberg’s own temperance and actually aids the film in its rise to a crescendo of terror in the final frames. With a premise and monsters that could have been laughed off the screen in the first attack sequence, The Brood miraculously keeps its cool and shrouds itself in grotesque horror and perplexing mystery, revealing plot points at just the right time and meticulously planning its next move. To those on the prowl for a good horror film you have never seen, you can do much worse than The Brood.

Grade: B+

Black Christmas (1974)

by Steve Habrat

If you feel like taking a break from all the holiday cheer of the Christmas season, pop in director Bob Clark’s subtle and ominous Black Christmas. You won’t regret it. Well, maybe you will if you are watching it alone at night with nothing but a Christmas tree lit and no one else at home to keep you company. One of the more muted horror films of the 1970’s, Black Christmas is all about sounds, creaky halls, dimly lit bedrooms, faint holiday tunes emitting from radios, soft cinematography, heavy breathing, and some of the most abhorrent and creepy phone calls ever made. You will also find it hard to believe that the guy who made this also went on to make that other holiday classic A Christmas Story and the teen sex romp Porky’s. Miraculously never conforming to a typical slasher flick, mostly from the addition of the hard-boiled detective striving to solve the baffling disappearances, phone calls, and deaths taking place around a mostly deserted sorority. It’s a left of center choice to watch around the holidays because, lets face it, who really wants to get lost in a horror film during the most wonderful time of the year? Isn’t that what Halloween is for?

During a boozy Christmas party one evening, a strange man wanders around a sorority home, ascends a trellis, and climbs into the attic. Soon, a strange phone call interrupts the party and Barb (Played by Margot Kidder) grabs the phone to provoke the vulgar call. Turns out, this is not the first time this sorority has received an enigmatic call like this. The call is all heavy breaths, strange moans, and graphic threats aimed at the girls. This must all explain why the caller has earned himself the nickname “the moaner” amongst the girls. At first, we are lead to believe that this is one of the girl’s boyfriends pranking the skittish chicks but Clark plays this straight and it’s a little too effective when we learn that it’s for real. Soon, one of the girls, Clare (Played by Lynne Griffin), meets a truly grisly demise while she packs her bags to leave for a trip home. The next day, Clare’s uptight father Mr. Harrison (Played by James Edmond Jr.) arrives to take her home but her absence begins to frighten him. He goes to the sorority housemother Mrs. MacHenry (Played by Marian Waldman), Clare’s boyfriend Chris (Played by Art Hindle), and the pregnant and conflicted Jess (Played by Olivia Hussey) to help him locate his daughter. As they team up with the police and a dead body is discovered in a park near the sorority house, the eerie phone calls grow more disturbing and the body count begins to rise.

It’s really quite a shame that Bob Clark didn’t stay in the horror genre because this man is really on top of what makes a film scary. While Black Christmas has plenty of gore to spare (Not the type you’d find in Saw, mind you), mostly everything is oblique. A hook goes through one person’s head but it’s heard before we get a shadowy glimpse of it; another is stabbed do death with a phallic-looking crystal unicorn head. It’s a symbolic rape sequence that I’m sure impressed Hitchcock. Even the killer, Billy, is rarely shown, only once do we get to briefly see his face, but it is concealed with crafty shadows and one beam of light revealing a lone wild eye. We are consistently put in the killers POV, which is actually even more chilling than just seeing him lurk around the sorority house. I found myself filling in his thoughts, what he looked like, and constructing my own monster in my head. I also painted in the gore with my own imagination, with very little help from Clark. He doesn’t underestimate his audience and kudos for that!

Clark also makes glorious use of sound in this film, having the killer call the girls and make gargled sexual threats, perverted groans, and lisping whispers, efficiently making your skin crawl. The effective is enhanced by the juxtaposition of faint Christmas tunes calling in the background. The first time we actually see the girls get a call, the camera never cuts away from the girls. Instead, Clark slowly pans through the group of girls as they huddle around the phone and listen, repulsed by the sounds, their eyes conveying the hope that this is truly just a group of boys playing a prank. In all frankness, I hoped the first call was a prank too, just due the vulgarities uttered to the girls. The big reveal about the phone calls is carefully handled, a demented reveal that would give anyone home alone the willies.

Black Christmas offers up an abundance of rather complex characters for a slasher film.  The heroine here, Jess, is pregnant and has decided on an abortion. She seems like a driven gal, one who refuses to be controlled by any dominating and controlling male force, especially her seemingly sophisticated but volatile boyfriend. She is with out a doubt a product of the Feminist Movement. She rejects pleas of marriage and shows more interest in furthering her education and career than dropping out and raising a child. The housemother Mrs. MacHenry is a sneaky alcoholic who apparently never married and the lush Barb seems to be following in her footsteps. She would rather have an independent love affair with a bottle than a man. Barb is also extremely off putting and direct, two traits that make her hard to root for. She has a shocking disinterest for figuring out what happened to her sorority sister and would rather crack open a can of beer than be bothered to really help anyone. The inclusion of Mr. Harrison as the old-fashioned conservative father was also a nice touch to all these empowered women. He is portrayed as a nerdy, timid, and stern man who needs these stronger women to lead him along.

Black Christmas was remade in 2006, but it made the inevitable mistake that all recent horror films do and tried to give everything a longwinded explanation, sucking all the fear out of the premise. In 1974, there is no explanation for why this is all occurring. Perhaps this is the film that inspired John Carpenter to unleash Michael Myers on the horror genre. It applies the same stationary camera shots of empty hallways, darkened bedrooms, and quite snowny neighborhoods where ordinary people live out their lives. Evil can be anywhere and strike at any moment. Even the police can meet grisly ends without a seconds notice. It has the same faceless killer who could very well be the boogieman. I also found myself drawn to the patient storytelling and the way Clark lets the terror unfold almost naturally. Maybe more prominent that we are willing to admit and an overlooked gift to horror, don’t be afraid to unwrap the gift of Black Christmas come the holiday season. It’s a gift that will keep on giving. Fear, that is.

Grade: A-