This often adapted story is based upon a three-part serialized story by Jack Finney which appeared originally in Colliers Magazine in 1954. It was expanded into a novel called “The Body Snatchers” in 1955.The first film version came out in 1956, and is considered one of the truly great sci-fi films. It has been remade three time, in 1978, 1993 and 2007. This article looks at the 1956 and 1978 movies because they are clearly the best of the four. Body Snatchers (1993) is just mediocre and the Invasion (2007) is just a mess. The other two are classics.
The 1956 version was written during the Cold War ‘Red Scare’, when the public was constantly reminded by our government to keep vigilant of Communist infiltration. This was the era of McCarthyism mass hysteria and HUAAC. The idea of evil alien Pod People who look exactly like us but are secretly infiltrating and dehumanizing our society is a rather obvious allegory for the fears people had at the time. The film is directed by Don Siegel, who later went on to make the Clint Eastwood hits Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz. This film has an impressive 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Plot of the original: Psychiatrist Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is arrested by police because he was seen running across the highway, screaming in a paranoid manner, “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next!” Visited by a police psychologist Dr. Hill, Benell describes the recent events that turned his world upside down. He explains that he recently returned to his home town, after a medical conference. He finds that most of his patients have canceled their appointments. The few patients who do show up, all have the same story. They say someone close to them is acting strangely, as if they had been replaced. Consulting with colleagues Dr. Kauffman (Larry Gates), Bennell learns these types of reports have rampant for days. They conclude it must be some form of mass hysteria.
When his friends Jack and Theodora Belicec (King Donovan and Carolyn Jones) show him a partly-formed body they have uncovered in their home, Bennell starts to believe that these crazy stories are true. When Bennell calls Kauffman to the scene, the bodies have mysteriously disappeared. Kauffman says Bennell is affected by the same hysteria. The next night, Bennell and his girlfriend Becky (Dana Wynter), along with Jack and Theodora find duplicates of themselves emerging from giant seed pods in Bennell’s greenhouse. They realize that the population is being replaced by emotionless alien “Pod Creatures”. Bennell tries making a call to the authorities but when the telephone operator keeps claiming that all long-distance lines are busy, Bennell realizes that the aliens have infiltrated the infrastructure of the town. Jack and his wife drive off to get help.
The next day, Bennell and Becky see truckloads of the giant pods being shipped to other towns to be used to replace their populations. Kauffman and Jack, both of whom have become “Pod People”, arrive at Bennell’s office and reveal that an extraterrestrial life form is responsible for the invasion. Bennell and Becky escape, they manage to hide in an abandoned mine outside town. Bennell comes upon a large greenhouse farm, where giant seed pods are being grown by the hundreds. When he returns to Becky, he realizes to his horror that she has been ‘podded’. She alerts the other Pod People. He is chased out of town. Reaching the highway, he screams to passing motorists “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next!” Dr. Hill, the psychologist, dismisses this as insanity until a truck driver is wheeled into the ER after being injured in an accident. He was found in his wrecked truck, buried under a load of giant seed pods. Realizing that Bennell’s story is true, Dr. Hill calls the FBI.
This film is excellently done on the small budget of $42,000. There are no big SFX moments, no action sequences, no monsters—just suspense. The entire film is built around the permeating sense of dread. We begin to feel the character’s mounting paranoia and the tension grows scene-by-scene. It’s a triumph of minimalist filmmaking.
Next, we come to the 1978 version. The remake has a similar plot, but makes a different allegory. Instead of Communism, this film is about the fear of the loss of self through cultural pressure and influence. It perfectly captures the growing fears of dehumanization through government intrusiveness and technology, as well as our loss of individuality and emotional psyches through social conformity and group-think. It addresses issues of personal identity and freedom that were previously illustrated by shows like The Prisoner. It was directed by Phillip Kaufman (The Right Stuff) and has a powerful 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Plot of the Remake: Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) brings home a rare plant she found (Grown from alien seeds that came here on the “solar winds”) and quickly regrets it when she comes to realize that her husband has been replaced by an identical but emotionless duplicate. She tells her colleague, health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), but he doesn’t believe it. He convinces her to go to see noted psychiatrist Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), who write self-help books. Kibner tries to make her believe that her paranoia comes from her dissatisfaction in her relationship. She later tells Matthew that she followed her husband and witnessed the exchange of strange pod-like cocoons from which replica-humans emerged.
Matthew starts to become convinced when his friends, Jack and Nancy Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright) have an experience that leads them to the same realization. Matthew tries warning the authorities but all the stalling and unhelpfulness of the police leads Matthew to believe that the alien duplicates have infiltrated the local government. Meanwhile, the “Pod People” begin assimilating more and more of the populace. Panic and paranoia increase quickly as the foursome realize they can’t trust anyone because the Pod People seem to be everywhere. The Bellicec’s run off, but Jack is caught and podded. Matthew and Elizabeth hide but are caught by Kibner and Jack, both of whom are now Pod People. Kibner explains who the aliens are and why they are there.
Matthew and Elizabeth escape and try to go unnoticed in the streets by acting unemotional. However, Elizabeth is soon caught and podded as well. Matthew attempts to destroy the place where the pods are stored but fails and flees, pursued by Pod People. He seems to escape. The next morning, Bennell is in his office, coldly observing the Pod People. We (the viewer) are meant to believe he is faking assimilation. Outside, Nancy sees him and tries to talk to him. Suddenly, he makes the high-pierced shriek that the Pod People make when spotting a non-podded human. Mathew has become a Pod Person. Nancy screams in despair, realizing she is alone.
This remake touches on a lot of 1970s pop-culture phenomenon, such as the corny self-help psycho-jargon espoused by Dr. Kibner, played by Leonard Nimoy. The film’s underlying theme of not knowing who to trust was indicative of public sentiment after Watergate, when American faith in government started to erode. This idea of ‘no-one-can-be-trusted’ was also utilized in John Carpenter’s The Thing. This version also has a nice, fun cameo by Kevin McCarthy of the original, as the ‘running man’, still frantically trying to warn people decades later.
So which is better? They’re both so good, it’s hard to say which is superior to the other. Still, if pressed to choose one or the other, the better effort is…The remake! As great as the original is, there are a few aspects that make the 1978 version just a tad better.
Firstly, the cast of the second is better. The actors in the 1956 film are good. None of them are big names but they do a fine job with the material. The 1978 version has a terrific cast, led by the inimitable Donald Sutherland (The Dirty Dozen, M.A.S.H., Kelly’s Heroes, JFK, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Salem’s Lot, Commander-in-Chief) who has had a long and varied career, but who is best known to young fans today as President Snow in The Hunger Games. He is also the father of Kiefer Sutherland. His laid-back style is particularly effective in a movie about an insidious menace. Also excellent in this is Leonard Nimoy, who proves that he can do a lot more than just Mr. Spock. He could have had a career playing cool, conceited villians (as he demonstrated in his excellent bad-guy performance on a Colombo episode.) Brook Adams (Who looks a bit like Margot Kidder) continually Friend-Zones poor Matthew until fate briefly brings them together, only to see them both podded. A very young Jeff Goldblum does a pre-Fly horror appearance here. What’s nice about these characters is that their personalities are so clear and defined, it’s effectively jarring when they become emotionless Pod People.
The 1978 film was excellently photographed by cinematographer Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, The Front, Raging Bull) who makes excellent use of shadows. He also uses a clever ‘guerilla style’ of shooting scenes, such as when Mathew is moving through the streets of San Francisco, looking suspiciously at all the people around him, wondering which of them is an alien. Chapman manages to give the movie an increasingly claustrophobic feel, making it seem like everything is closing in on our main characters.
Another plus for the 1978 version is the ending. The people who made the 1956 version were instructed by the studio to add an upbeat ending to the movie, so as not to alienate (pun intended) audiences. Hence, Dr. Hill calling in the FBI. The 1978 movie was a wonderfully surprising ending. I doubt anyone expected the hero to be podded at the end. That final image is made even more surprising because his capture and ‘poddding’ happen off-screen, so we’re just as shocked as Nancy. In some cases, having the main character die off-screen would be a bad choice, but Kaufman makes it work here. It’s a memorably downbeat ending.
Both of these movies are top-notch sci-fi entertainment. Either one is worth a viewing, at least once. They are superb mixtures of suspense, horror and sci-fi; a combo which is not done very often, and rarely ever done well. Fortunately, these are welcome exceptions. (The first Alien is another fine exception.) Both are far better than the two remakes that followed them.
So that’s it for this week’s look at a cinematic remake. We’ll be back next week to dissect another reboot. Until then, feel free to look up our previous articles Examining Hollywood Remakes.