Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Don Siegel’s rightfully beloved 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers has always been embraced as a successful reimagining of the classic existential terror of identity theft made sci-fi–yet has it ever gotten its full due? Aside from a memorably hyperbolic review by Pauline Kael upon its release, Kaufman’s film has always seemed to receive a general pat on the back for its efficiency as a scare machine (undeniable) and the cleverness of its conceit, updating the metaphor of aliens propagating mass conformity from the American suburbs to the post-free love urban anxiety of San Francisco (tenuous). Yet what Kaufman most gets right is something more direct: an almost perfect intermingling of the physical and the psychological, a horror film that functions as an emotional, humane allegory on the difficulty of maintaining the self as well as a confrontation with the sickening realities of the flesh.
In a sense, Kaufman, who never made another horror film, gets at the pallor and grit of body horror better than even Cronenberg ever has (with perhaps the exception of The Fly, another remake). Much of the fun of Kaufman’s Invasion comes from the decimation of the new-agey psychobabble uttered by Leonard Nimoy’s celebrity quack doctor, and Jeff Goldblum’s incredulous reactions to it (a precursor to his Jurassic Park skeptic); but most of the unpleasantness (a must in horror) comes from Kaufman’s refusal to shy away from the actual physical transformation–implosions, disintegrations–that must occur for the alien seeds to fully take over our planet. No longer simply a tidy way of getting at the anxieties of the modern age (all the Invasion adaptations, including this year’s woebegone, machine-tooled update, take a stab at social relevancy), this revision makes the interior exterior, the horror coming from within and without. Cronenberg foregrounds his theses too much, especially in this period of filmmaking, basing his films seemingly solely on his own studied theories on the body politic, and the narrative strain always shows. Kaufman’s film, from a superlative script by W.D. Richter (who also wrote, oddly, Jodie Foster’s wonderful Home for the Holidays), is developed with character, plot, motivation…the narrative directess that so often eludes Cronenberg.
Body Snatchers ’78 works in the same register as John Carpenter’s terrifically scary 1982 The Thing, creating an agonizing, “who can you trust?” situation and then letting the fears explode from within. Carpenter’s film is slightly less fearful of being tagged as a “B-movie,” which makes it even more trustworthy than Kaufman’s film, which aspires to something more self-consciously artful. Yet Kaufman’s technique feels appropriately off in the way it mixes the methodical paranoia thriller of the 70s (Sutherland’s phone-booth montage, in which everyone seems to know his name at every government hotline he calls, feels right out of Pakula) with the yucky creature feature. Two unforgettable moments are only achievable through prosthetics: Matthew surmising a gradually forming double of himself that’s slid out of a pod, before hacking its face to bits with one thwack of a garden hoe (in sickening close-up); and a remarkable shock cut to a pod-person that’s inadvertently been transformed into a dog with a human face, a mutation that’s all the creepier for the casual way in which the other pod people regard it.
Kaufman’s most famous addition to the Body Snatchers legacy was the memorably horrific sound the pod people make when they open their mouths; with Edvard Munch-like gaping maws, they screech an unholy otherworldly sound, meant to identify those who haven’t been transformed yet. This leads to a final scene that’s not only the scariest in the entire series but also perhaps the greatest ending in the history of horror films: the final five minutes of Kaufman’s film are so expertly directed, acted, and calibrated to audience expectations, so smartly adhering to the manner in which we watch movies and the way we allow editing and composition to relate stories to us, that his final trick is like a slap in the face. The effect is devastating, even more so than that hand from the grave in Carrie. And all that’s left is silence; Kaufman zooms into a mouth’s black hole, traps us inside the body, and as the credits roll, doesn’t even give us the comfort of music.