Originally appearing in Collier’s magazine in serialized format, Janck Finney’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers has been spreading its special brand of terror for over 40 years.
Now with all three film renderings of Finney’s novel available in the widescreen format on Blu-ray viewers can rediscover how each decade interpreted and imprinted its own mark on the story. All three versions share a common theme: the externalizing of society’s internal fears.
THE 50’s CLASSIC -
THE FIRST WAVE - THE INVASION BEGINS
The 1956 version of “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers” is still considered the best, and with good reason. For one thing, it closely represents the novel. This rarely happens in the Hollywood system and it is refreshing when it occurs.
Directed by Don Siegel using a no-nonsense approach, the film moves swiftly, dependent on its characters rather than on special effects to convey the horror of the situation. For those who don’t already know, the story concerns Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), who returns to his hometown after a medical convention, only to find that the small town has become a breeding ground for alien spores.
Many have read symbolic meanings into the film, the most popular - references to the political situation of the 1950’s. The idea of a group of people being taken over by an alien force and changed into a cold, single minded - at the time the dangers of communism.
Filmed in b&w the 56’ version was released in “Superscope”, a pseudo Cinemascope in which no special lens on the camera was used to widen the image - the image was simply cropped to fit a standard wide screen.
Two interesting notes: Director Sam Peckinpah appears in a cameo as a meter man, and the distinctive music was written by Carmen Dragon, father of Daryal Dragon, the “Captain” of “The Captain and Tennille.”
THE 70’s REMAKE - THE SECOND WAVE
In his 1978 update, director Philip Kaufman transported the story from small town to big city. Cast members included Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy, Veronica Cartwright, and Jeff Goldblum. Director Kaufman appears in a cameo with the original film’s director, Don Siegel.
In a decade dominated by the “me generation”, various new meanings could be gleaned from the basic plot line - replacing human beings with alien pods. The emphasis shifts from the issues of social and political conformity to the broader problem of dehumanization in the 1070’s. In this period, communism’s threat pales beside the menacing complexities of urban existence.
Beside fairly minor changes in the way the story unfolds, the one major addition to the story line is that the 78’ version has the dramatic portrayal of the alien spores leaving their home world, traveling through space, and finally arriving on an unprepared planet Earth.
The current Blu-ray release is matted in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio which can be most appreciated during the main titles and scenes framed with more than two characters. The transfer quality (color, contrast , and sharpness) are fine, but what really shines here is the soundtrack. This is an early Dolby Stereo release, and is obvious that the producers intended to take full advantage of Surround Sound. Strange musical tones, breathing, and police sirens foreshadow the strange events to come. All culminating in an unsettling atmosphere.
THE 90’s VERSION - THE THIRD WAVE
In 1993 Robert H. Solo, who produced the 78’ remake, produced “Body Snatchers: THE INVASION CONTINUES”. This sequel to the 70’s version takes on new territory, locating the story on a military base.
Gabrielle Anwar, Meg Tilly, Forrest Whitaker, Terry Kinney, and Billy Wirth confront an alien threat in a military setting where conformity is central to life. Co-scripted by Larry Cohen (It’s Alive), this 90’s style excursion calls on two of our decade’s most anxiety-producing issues - environmental dangers and the disintegration of the family - to produce paranoia on the screen.
Opening titles set the mood as crimson letters are “replaced” by more ominous “duplicates” while music which resounds like a death knell for humanity grows in intensity and fervor. Somber bass tones work in contrast to the sharp, struggling strings.
As in the 78’ version, there is always something interesting going on in the sound track - the moment of jeeps and helicopters as well as weird, atonal sounds complement the visuals images. The sound track acts as the harbinger of a growing alien presence.
Looking at the three “Body Snatchers” films as a trilogy, we can see the outlines of an invasion lasting nearly 40 years. The 1956 original is the FIRST WAVE of the invasion. Here, the alien activities are perhaps only a sample of occurrences in other small towns. The film ends with the warning, “You're next!” and a hope that we can survive.
Twenty-two years later, the second film of the trilogy opens with another wave of aliens departing their world for Earth, this time aiming for the big cities. Finally, the third and final wave of invaders in the 93’ version manages to take control of the military, leaving humanity defenseless and setting themselves up as rulers.
Whether we watch one or all three of the “Body Snatcher” series, we can sense the power of the themes presented. The fear of losing self awareness and our true identity is strongly set forth in these films, as viewers are transported into a world wrapped in a chrysalis of doom.
Currently the three films are available on Blu-ray.