The Underrated: Body Snatchers
I’ve been dealing with relatively high caliber films in this series recently, and I’m getting a bit sick of pretending I know what I’m talking about when it comes to high art. Not to mention that there’s only a limited amount of time before I’m revealed as a fraud. So instead I thought I’d take a quick look at a version of one of the most remade films in history- I give you Abel Ferrara’s truly overlooked 1993 Body Snatchers.
There are, and counting, so far 4 official versions of The Body Snatchers- which was originally a 1955 novel by Jack Finney, and despite what that tit Kevin Williamson thinks (I am referencing The Faculty here), not one version of the films is based on Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. Seriously, how can he be so wrong so often? The original was a 1956 B-movie (a pretty good one, actually) and the most recent was the utterly insipid Kidman vehicle The Invasion. Between those two (and I’ll ignore the various versions of The Puppet Masters for this) came arguably the two definitive films. Firstly in 1978, Invasion of the Body Snatchers appeared and starred the likes of Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright and Leonard Nimoy, but in 1993 Enfant Terrible Abel Ferrara took his look at the seminal story. The original version took place in a small Californian town, and the film versions, as a rule, have been much larger in scope.
Not this one. This one is centered entirely around a military base. For anyone that may have absolutely no knowledge of cinema, or pop culture in general, The Body Snatchers tells the story of some plants from space that absorb your body when asleep and replace you with a clone that operates on the orders of a queen type monster. It is, unsurprisingly, a Cold War parable. This is not usual material for the man that made films such as Driller Killer, Bad Lieutenant and King of New York. As a change of pace, I like it, but he was a strange director to take it on.
Gabrielle Anwar (you know, the stunning woman from Scent of a Woman) plays Marti. Her father (Terry Kinney) is relocating to the base and has taken his whole family with him. The upper brass on the base are played by Forrest Whittaker and R. Lee. Emery (I do seem to be watching a lot of films with him in recently) in generally solid performances. Unfortunately, no sooner can you say “weird alied space pod thingummy” than the people are being supplemented by the aliens and it’s up to Marti, her brother Andy and Tim Young (Billy Wirth) to escape and blow the lid off the whole thing. I won’t go in to any more detail.
The important aspect of any Body Snatchers story, and what absolutely needs to be properly translated to the screen is a sense of paranoia. These are almost perfect clones of the people they take over, there has to be a subtle wrongness to them, and they have to be nearly indistinguishable from the original (until revealed). The tension in these stories comes from not knowing who has been cloned and who is an original (which is one of the many reasons that The Invasion is such a gigantic failure), there has to be a creeping tension to proceedings as the characters come to realise that they might just be the only “real” people out there. Ferrara nails this. Body Snatchers has a mounting sense of dread that he accentuates through some clever lighting and pitch-perfect performances (notably from Whittaker, Anwar and Emery) and this is a knife-edge film.
The writing here is also, really, really good. The characters are bemused and suffering, they can’t work out what the hell is going on, just that something is out of place. Nobody believes the teenagers until it’s far too late, obviously, but the standout piece of writing in the film is towards the climax when Emery and Whittaker are arguing. Whittaker is strung out on speed, and Emery is talking him into succumbing, becoming one of the pod people. I love the writing and performances in this scene- it’s really tense stuff and when Whittaker argues that “the individual is always important” you can tell someone’s wallpaper is about to be stained with brain. The other great piece of writing, and it’s a pretty standard piece for a Body Snatchers movie is when Carol is revealed to be a pod person and she asks our heroes “Where you gonna go, where you gonna run, where you gonna hide? Nowhere… ’cause there’s no one like you left.” This is an essential line in any Body Snatchers film- and it’s delivered brilliantly here. Who can you trust, who hasn’t been taken over? This is the idea at the root of the paranoia, and it makes me shiver just thinking about it.
I’m not going to go on too long about this film, because it’s worth seeing unspoiled, but watch out for the two attempts at taking Anwar. The first plays out in concert with with others being absorbed when she falls asleep in the bath, and the second is in a nightmarish cloning facility, where people are sucked in to the pods placed next to them. Both are incredibly tense moments, I was just screaming “Wake up” inside, and both are devastatingly effective. It helps, though, that Anwar is fetching and not afraid of nudity.
Overall, this is a really good film, and in all the versions of the novel out there, including Heinlein’s, this is the one I would seek out for a rewatch. It’s tense, paranoid as hell, and unusually for a Body Snatchers movie has an ending that you can’t see coming. Ferrara is a hit and miss director as far as I’m concerned, with a lot more in the way of misses than hits, but in this instance, on very unusual material for him, he nailed a bullseye.
Until next time,