In 1978, Philip Kaufman’s remake to the 1954 classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers – a film that had previously used it’s premise to play on the fear of the Red Menace during the Cold War – was released in cinemas. Unlike the original, however, Kaufman’s interpretation of the source material did not play on political fears to garner extra horror, but instead doubled down on the absurd premise in a way that minimised the silliness and exemplified the existential.
When Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) becomes suspicious of her husbands changing behaviour, she is ignored by most when she attempts to reach for help. After it becomes apparent it isn’t just one man’s behaviour that is changing, but the behaviour of many, her closest friend Mathew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) begins to unravel a conspiracy spreading throughout San Francisco. With the help of Jack and Nancy Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright), they soon discover this conspiracy may have other worldly origins.
What makes Invasion of the Body Snatchers so compelling is it’s very slice-of-life feel, that isn’t so dissimilar from John Carpenters classic horror film, Halloween. In Halloween the protagonist is a regular baby-sitter, whose ordinary life is well established before anything out of the ordinary is permitted to happen, and the same is true for Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Elizabeth is a healthcare assistant whose often bored and is irritated by her home life. Much of the opening of the film is dedicated to the day-to-day chores that her and Mathew get up to. The film also has a cheap feel to it, but not the type of cheap that will leave you rolling your eyes because of how bad it looks; rather the sort of cheap that feels raw and intimate, complimented by dialogue that is written and performed so naturally and seamlessly that you might be fooled into thinking you’re watching a drama until the ugly head of science fiction horror shows its face. The entire film is structured like a trap for the audience, allowing us to become so comfortable in it’s safe environment that we feel as though we can trust it to be consistent. But by the time we’ve invested ourselves into it, the entire world is flipped on its head. But this is not done instantly; rather gradually and with such subtlety that we, like the main characters, don’t get a chance to see the threat coming until it is too late.
Throughout the first act of the film, extras can be seen staring at the protagonists through blurred windows and entire rooms of people can be observed silently watching the interactions of the main characters, but always in the corner of the frame for only the most observant of viewers to notice. It’s a nice touch that rewards the audience for studying the film on a closer level than what is immediately presented to us, by giving an early glimpse of the horror that is soon to come.
And when the horror does arrive, it is nothing short of excellent. In the modern day we have become accustomed to horror comprising of jump-scares, screaming teenagers and knife-wielding maniacs. But the horror presented in Invasion of the Body Snatchers is of Mathew Bennell demanding to know how the police operator knows his name, despite him never giving it to her when he dialled 911… It is the horror of a man divulging to Mathew that his wife has changed almost entirely, and the next day having not even the slightest complaint about her, the horror of a person maddeningly foretelling the end of the world in the streets while spectators observe without so much as blinking, and of the police refusing to accept witness reports after a hit and run accident in broad daylight. It is the fear that depicts YOU against the world.
Of the three interpretations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it is Philip Kaufman’s 1978 film that is the most disturbing, frightening and thought provoking because of how existential the horror is… At the end of the day, this film is about a group of people who saw all the warning signs of a great societal conspiracy, and who all doubted that any of what they were witnessing could be true, until it had already consumed too many for any change to be made.