Indy Datta takes a look at the top-notch new Blu-ray of Philip Kaufman’s remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, released by Arrow Video on Monday.
When Don Siegel first adapted Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, he wanted to change the novel’s ending, in which the sentient alien seed pods that have invaded a small California town and gradually taken it over by replacing its inhabitants with facsimile pod people just give up and leave because taking over the Earth and destroying humanity turned out to be, just, y’know, more difficult than they originally anticipated. In modern mainstream Hollywood, that ending would have to be changed so that the defeat of the pods was the direct doing of the hero, but Siegel and his star Kevin McCarthy didn’t want humanity to win at all, they wanted their ending to be bleak and despairing. The ending they shot is still in the film – McCarthy’s wild-eyed end-of-days highway-rant – but the studio, Allied Artists, insisted on a framing device for the film’s narrative, suggesting that the days of the pod people were numbered now that the proper authorities had been alerted.
Can both Finney and the studio have been so oblivious to the dark power of their story, or were they so discomfited by it that they felt the need to try and neuter it? It didn’t work: the collective consciousness of the audience rejected their endings, as did both Kaufman and, later, Abel Ferrara in his Body Snatchers. This story only has one plausible ending, because the mere existence of the pods cancels out the logical possibility of resistance, the very concept of saviour institutions. It is sometimes said to be a peculiarity of Siegel’s film that it can be interpreted equally easily as a warning against the perils of communism or a warning against the scourge of McCarthyism, but this is a feature, not a bug. The paradox goes to the core of the story’s existential horror – that and the fact that it’s sleeping, dreaming, that makes one vulnerable to the pods.
Pod people aren’t ultimately a signifier for any specific ideology, or even for ideology (or conformity) in general – what alienates them from humanity is ultimately no different from that which alienates every living person from every other: that every person, individually and in the aggregate, is unknowable. Someone might act as if they love you today and not care that you exist tomorrow. Institutions that protect you today might persecute you unto death tomorrow. No pods required. You’ll never understand why any of this happens (did they dream of someone else, or a better world?): your mind is not a window, it’s a mirror. In Ferrara’s film, pod-person Meg Tilly coldly demands of the protagonists, “Where are you going to go? Where are you going to run? Where are you going to hide? Nowhere: because there’s no-one like you left.” The moment is chilling not just because of the particularities of the plot but also because the pod-people myth strikes a deep chord within us. There’s a fearful part of all of us that knows that human civilisation is a collection of consensual mass hallucinations: and we know how fragile the illusion is because we know history, we know we don’t know the minds of others, and finally, and most frighteningly of all, because we know ourselves. There’s a fearful part of all us that knows that the human condition is this: there is nowhere to run, hide or go, because this is who you are, and you are alone.
Kaufman and his writer W.D. Richter were fans of Siegel’s film and their film honors the darkness at its heart (while reinstating the off-kilter humour that the studio cut from Siegel’s film, and which MGM wanted to cut from this one). They draw a direct line from Siegel’s ending to their film by reprising McCarthy’s freakout, almost as if he had been screaming the truth unheard for 20 years until he found himself – older, greyer – screaming it at Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams in the later film’s setting, late 70s San Francisco, a counterculture-revolutionary world away from 50s Santa Mira. Although Kaufman’s film ostensibly starts with a pod invasion, the text therefore incorporates (helped along by the script’s allergy to exposition) the paradoxical notion that the counterculture, the psychological conceits that underpinned the self-actualisation ideology of the Me Generation (incarnated here in the person of Leonard Nimoy’s pop shrink, whose pod form is indistinguishable from his human form), the birth of Silicon Valley, and so on, could all be the works of pod-people.
Literal darkness is also one of the film’s most striking aesthetic features – much of the narrative takes place at night, and cinematographer Michael Chapman often gives up most of the frame to a depthless black, alive only with heavy film grain. Elsewhere, his urban nightscapes glow with pink neon, recalling his work on Taxi Driver, and he works with Kaufman to give the film an unsettlingly unpredictable visual register, switching from verité-ish handheld to pantomimic expressionism and back in the space of single scenes (check out the completely unmotivated and comically sinister uplighting on Sutherland’s face – he’s the good guy! – when he’s hiding in the closet from Adams’s boring boyfriend, who just became more boring when he became a pod-person). The film’s visual strategy is constantly on the verge of collapse: the closest Kaufman comes to a settled classicism is in the unsettlingly serene coda before that notorious final scene. Then that scream (a slowed down pig’s squeal multitracked with sound effects man Ben Burtt’s own breath sounds) one of the many distinctively organic sound effects that arguably pull the viewer’s experience of the film together; the sound design throughout being as baroque and dense as the film’s visual scheme is playful and off-kilter.
Style and substance, scares and laughs, Brooke Adams doing that thing with her eyes, a dog with the face of a banjo-playing bum. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a masterpiece.
The good news is that Arrow’s Blu-ray presentation does as well by the film as anyone could ask. The disc uses the same transfer as the highly-rated Region A disc, but with a slightly lower bit rate. On my screen, I couldn’t pick out any significant flaws in the picture, which is detailed enough for me to have picked out the silhouetted fine grille of a fire guard backlit by a log fire in one scene, but without showing any signs of unwanted edge enhancement. There is no unnecessary noise reduction: Chapman’s ultra-grainy night shots are presented in all their black sandstorm glory. There is an uncompressed stereo sound mix and a nicely-done DTS HD-MA 5.1 mix that enhances the eeriness of the film’s sound design and makes some of the overlapping dialogue easier to pick out.
I’m guessing that that lowered video bit rate on the main feature allows Arrow to pack in more special features than the Region A disc. In addition to the all the featurettes from previous home video releases (EPK interviews, features about the sound design, the special effects, the cinematography) there is an informative Kaufman commentary that was relegated to the DVD in the Region A dual-play package, and a couple of features exclusive to this disc. One is a short interview with film critic Annette Insdorf, who provides an analysis of the film’s image system and ties it in to a consideration of Kaufman’s consistent thematic concerns. The other is a nearly hour-long conversation between critic Kim Newman and film-makers Ben Wheatley and Norman J. Inseminoid Warren, in which they discuss their personal theories about the film, in the context of their extensive knowledge of genre films.
There is also a beautiful 50-page booklet with a selection of written resources, including a couple of pieces reprinted from a 1979 issue of Film Comment (one of which is an interview with Kaufman by Stephen Farber, who owlishly insists that all this nonsense with bodies coming out of pods is rather beneath Kaufman but, sigh, sometimes a film maker has to do something commercial first to get ahead in Hollywood). The booklet also has a witty new critical assessment of the film by friend of MostlyFilm David “Shadowplay” Cairns, which is mercifully free of such unimaginative snobbishness.