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.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction/horror classic Alien is a film that truly understands how showing very little can scare us beyond belief. Taking place aboard the claustrophobic spaceship Nostromo, Scott terrorizes his audience by leaving basically no place for the crew to run, no place to barricade themselves in to wait out the sudden attacks by this slimy creature, and no weapon that can banish the beast to the fiery depths of Hell. While on the outside Scott has made a claustrophobic nightmare of narrow hallways and futuristic gunmetal wires, it is what Scott is doing on the inside that really gets under the viewers skin. Scott has made a film in which he reverses the sexual roles within the film. We don’t have some macho male hero to root for in Alien, one who resembles a bodybuilder with a buzz cut. Instead we have Sigourney Weaver’s feminist hero Ripley, a tough and stone-faced chick who finds herself being the last one standing against a goopy phallic creature that burst forth from a man’s chest.
Alien follows the crew aboard the commercial towing spaceship Nostromo, who are currently hauling twenty million tons of mineral ore back to good old Earth. The crew soon discovers what they believe to be a distress call from a nearby planetoid, causing them to take a detour to check out what exactly is the signal is. When they land on the craggy, windy, and gloomy planetoid, Captain Dallas (Played by Tom Skerritt), Executive Officer Kane (Played by John Hurt), and Navigator Lambert (Played by Veronica Cartwright) discover a strange ship that contains several bizarre eggs. One egg breaks open and the organism inside attaches to the face of Kane. On board the Nostromo, Warrant Officer Ripley (Played by Sigourney Weaver), Science Officer Ash (Played by Ian Holm), and Engineers Brett (Played by Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Played by Yaphet Kotto) fear allowing Kane back on the ship, but Ash is excited about the discover of this new alien life form. As they begin attempting to dissect the organism, they realize they are dealing with something extremely dangerous. Without warning, a new life form bursts from Kane’s chest, fleeing into the ship and rapidly growing to a gigantic size. As the crew is bumped off one by one by the hungry creature, they have to quickly figure out how to get this bloodthirsty alien off their ship and make it home alive.
Perhaps my favorite trait that Alien possesses is the way Scott blends the alien in with the Nostromo itself. I always found it so eerie the way the alien would suddenly pop out, having been in plain sight but we the viewer oblivious to the fact that it was right in front of us. It gives Alien the feel that this twisting labyrinth of a ship is coming alive and claiming victims one by one. My two favorite sequences have to be when Captain Dallas faces the alien in a tight space, the alien’s arms shooting out of the darkness but appearing almost like a tangle of wires and hardware until we see its gaping jaw as it goes in for a penetrating kill. My other favorite scene is when Ripley is in the escape pod in the final minutes of the film, the alien crouched in the fetal position inside a darkened crevice. The creature’s phallic head resembling part of the ship until it suddenly moves and roars at Ripley. Talk about a neat effect!
The alien itself, conceived by artist H.R. Giger, ranks as one of the most iconic movie monsters in the long history of the genre. Show a picture of it to anyone and they can instantly identify what the creature is. The beast, which is kept mostly in the shadows throughout Alien, is a true marvel, one that is a skin crawling vision while also having a faint phallic look to it. The creature grows more horrifying with each small reveal that Scott places strategically throughout the runtime of Alien, revealing the entire beast at the climax but blasting it with strobe lights, a blue glow, and blurred camera angles to keep some layer of mystery to it. Scott doesn’t simply use the alien to scare us, but applies it as a thought provoking monster that is used to make comments on the male fear of childbirth (as a baby, it is flesh colored and vaguely erect, burst forth in a shower of gore fro Kane’s chest) and used to make a comment on the battle between the sexes. At the end, the empowered Ripley strips down to just her underwear and an ill fitting t-shirt as the phallic alien, with a stinger that resembles an erect penis shooting from its mouth, bears down on her. It’s a classic sequence that is both memorable for its events and the underlying subject matter, suggesting attempted rape and penetration.
Any discussion of Alien would not be complete without praising the work of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, the empowered, no nonsense heroine who finds herself being the last woman standing in the battle between the crew and the alien. She is unrepressed and liberated, finding herself in charge of the ship in the wake of the deaths of the two men who ranked above her. Yet even from the first time she is introduced to us, she overshadows the men, all who seem slightly weak and unable to protect themselves from this monster bearing down on them. One male victim just stares in horror and disbelief as it shoots its erect stinger out of its mouth at the wide-eyed pile of flesh. Yet Ripley never falls apart, instead owning every scene she is in, even when she is placed next to Cartwright’s Lambert, who is reduced to shrieks and tears when the alien closes in. She is one tough broad and she is proud of it. Looking at the time in which Alien was made, released in 1979, right in the midst of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Ripley stands for tough and uncompromising feminism, looking this phallic monstrosity in the face and refusing to back down from it. She was a far throw from the female cliché that ran rampant in mainstream horror films at the time, the ones who ran away from the monster, the caricatures that Lambert appears to represent.
Alien is an incredibly powerful and thought provoking exercise in horror. It is an industrial mash-up of futuristic science fiction and dramatic slasher horror. Much has been made about the sexual undertones, many critics pointing out male fear of rape and penetration, the most recognizable being the fear of childbirth with the show stopping chest burst sequence, a scene that is glaringly obvious. Each and every scene has an epic gusto that tears right through it, yet each scene works in synch with the next, culminating in a strobe-like burst of seething feminism. The cut-off feeling, soggy claustrophobia, and lack of a thorough explanation of the alien all make Alien a classic among the science-fiction horror genre. Alien ultimately turns out to be B-movie material approached with an A-list touch and an extreme confidence in itself. This is an intelligent must-see horror masterpiece from the heyday of the genre.
Alien is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.