“INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS” (1978; Arrow Blu-ray Review)
“Body Snatcher” movies might not have ever taken over like zombies or slashers, but it’s such a delightfully creepy concept that tends to pop up once a decade or so. Don Siegel, of course, got there first with his McCarthy-ism take in 1956; Abel Ferrara took a crack at it with his military-tinged 1993 effort BODY SNATCHERS; a crappy Hollywood blockbuster version hit screens in 2007; and just this year, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg did their own unofficial and particularly British version in THE WORLD’S END. Yet, as the years go on and the viewings pile up, it’s clear the best version iteration remains Philip Kaufman’s 1978 INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Something about Kaufman’s uniquely paranoid take on the story, rooted in 70s Me-culture and stringy practical FX, tends to slide deeper under the skin than any other. It’s one of the most underrated films of that era, one of those rare genre flicks that not only hasn’t dated, but actually seems to improve with age. In other words, it’s the perfect flick to get the Arrow Blu-ray treatment.
Kaufman’s biggest change was taking the story from the small town setting that defined Don Siegel’s classic film and Jack Finney’s original novel into urban San Francisco. That was a key location at the time, given that it was a once bohemian city transformed into yet another alienating urban environment. But picking up on that time-specific satire isn’t necessary to appreciating Kaufman’s film. Like zombies, body snatchers are a vehicle for metaphor and social commentary, and Kaufman’s central theme remains universal. His creepy, possessed creatures represent the way individuals can easily become alienated and distant from the masses of bodies swelling around them in major cities. There’s also the clever inclusion of Leonard Nimoy as a cult-courting pop psychologist self-help guru, the exact type of figure who deserves a little Body Snatcher satire. Of course, the subtext is there to be enjoyed by those who want it, but is in no way necessary. It is a terrifying sci-fi horror yarn in its own right.
A wonderful collection of eccentric 70s actors like Donald Southerland, Jeff Goldblum, Brooke Adams (THE DEAD ZONE) Veronica Cartwright (ALIEN), and Art Hindle (THE BROOD) play the individualistic characters in a sea of personality-stripped alien drones. The casting fits the theme and guarantees universally strong performances and characters that pull audiences into the story before the horror set pieces arrive. Kaufman wisely assumes anyone buying a ticket knows what a body snatcher is so, rather than slowly building mystery, he opens his film with an incredible FX sequence following the alien spores across space to earth. From there, he ratchets up the paranoia and suspense from frame one as his camera immediately creates a claustrophobic and overbearing sense of urban paranoia and dread, aided immeasurably by the work of cinematographer Michael Chapman (who pulled a similar trick for Scorsese in TAXI DRIVER just two years earlier). It’s that overwhelming atmosphere Kaufman cooks up that makes this easily the best and most affecting of all the Body Snatcher films. When the director does want to cut loose, he delivers some remarkably goopy FX that haven’t aged a day, and some iconic, otherworldly sounds from STAR WARS guru Ben Burtt. As a result, it’s a film that delivers spectacle, atmosphere and truly unnerves on all levels. It’s clearly the perfect synthesis of the right material, the right director, cast, crew, and timing.
The transfer seems to be ported over from the old MGM Blu-ray (not a bad thing) and the FX have never looked more detailed n’ disgusting, the kinetic cinematography never more impressive, and the sound mix never more unnerving. Granted, with it being a 70s movie, the film quality can vary from crystal clear to grainy depending on the scene. But that’s the style of the film and it certainly works (style is not a weakness of the flick, after all). All of the special features from that set have been ported over as well (including an excellent audio commentary track from Kaufman that mysteriously didn’t make it from the North American DVD to Blu-ray release for some reason). So there’s about 45-minutes worth of excellent talking-head documentary discussion from every major collaborator in the film, split up into four featurettes.
It would have been hard to top the making-of discussion done there with new features, so Arrow didn’t try. Instead they included some special features with experts. Authors Jack Seabrook and Annette Insdorf provide a context for the place INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS held in the careers of Jack Finney and Philip Kaufman, respectfully. Both clearly know their subject well and provide some nice insights (including Finney’s amusing frustration with how filmmakers all put their own political or social commentary onto body snatchers, which he never intended). The best new feature is a lengthy discussion between Brit horror guru Kim Newman, as well as directors Norman J. Warren (SPACED OUT) and Ben Wheatley (KILL LIST), all of whom are clearly massive fans of the film and have interesting observations about its production, meaning, and reception. Toss in a pretty package with specially commissioned artwork, as well as another booklet packed with essays and interviews, and you’ve got yourself yet another fantastic set from Arrow; the perfect stocking stuffer for that insufferably paranoid person in your life.