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,

Jarv

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

33 responses to “The Underrated: Body Snatchers”

  1. Jarv says :

    Good film this. Quite staggering amount of nudity as well, which never hurts.

    I can spoil the end, if anyone wants.

  2. Spud McSpud says :

    Every single version of this freaked me out to differing degrees, but this particular version I really loved. It is tense, paranoid, effectively chilling, and Meg Tilly’s monologue that you mentioned is my favourite part of the movie. Her absolute stillness and the inarguable logic of her argument are a high point, and the way she just calmly says “No, listen – go where? Wher are you gonna run?” etc is brilliantly effective.

    I’m a sucker for the mounting hysteria of the original, I like the 70s bleakness of the Sutherland / Nimoy version, and even The Faculty has something going for it (there are some nice performances in among the usual high school cliches, and the test sequence is hilarious), but for me, this is probably my favourite, and is ALWAYS the movie I steer people towards who are unaware of who Gabrielle Anwar is, and what her best movie is.

    I ignore SCENT OF A WOMAN, because it’s attention-seeking Oscar baiting and, most unforgivably, is boring as fuck.

    For those still wondering what this fetching young lady is up to – she’s currently the female lead in my favourite show of the mo, BURN NOTICE. And it is EXCELLENT.

    Great review, Jarv. Glad to see I’m not the only one who rates this underrated gem!!

    • Jarv says :

      I’m with you Spud on almost all of that- not seen Burn notice yet.

      This film got absolutely raped on distribution and just dropped out of sight. Which is weird, because it’s hugely polished.

      Only correction I’d make is that The Faculty (which I do quite like) isn’t Body Snatchers- it’s Puppet Masters. Williamson got it completely wrong in the script (the tit).

  3. Xiphos0311 says :

    I remember this movie being quite effective with a mounting sense of dread that grew as you watched although I don’t think I’ve seen since it came out, so I could be wrong. Confining the scope of the movie to the base I thought pumped up the tension since you really couldn’t escape anywhere. Military bases are in and of themselves a self contained world separated from the larger world around them usually by distance and culture. So introducing a new stronger organism into a closed world the story also plays out like a biology lesson, what happens when a parasite is introduced to a previously clean environment.

    I enjoy the hell out of the Faculty fun, slick movie and everybody seemed like they had a good time making it. Very enjoyable whenever I come across it on TV I’ll always watch it.

    Jarv Burn Notice is quite a fun show very light and goofy fun. Although this past season was lacking in my opinion. The first three season are very good.

    • Jarv says :

      Yeah I agree with all of that. Also I think the base hierarchy works well to that effect- if the General has been cloned, who do you turn to?

      And Anwar gets her jugs out twice.

      I’m coming to Burn Notice soon.

  4. Droid says :

    I’m certain I’ve seen this but I remember nought about it. I’ll have to give it another look. I like the context (not necessarily this movie, but the context I place on the story overall) that the pod people are trying to convince the individuals to conform. “Be like us and you’ll be accepted.” Like they’re unruly teenagers and the pod people are the adults.

    I also like The Faculty. It’s a dumb throwaway movie, but it’s fun.

    I’ve got the first season of Burn Notice. Will have to get around to watching it some time.

  5. koutchboom says :

    I just love the end when R. Lee is just telling dudes to fucking drive all the way across America non fucking stop.

  6. Spud McSpud says :

    I could’ve seen THE INVASION tonight, but was out watching Great British Hairdresser in a bar with one of those who are on the show (Helen Holt, if anyone else is watching it). Usually I couldn’t give less of a fuck about this prog, but my mate’s wife is in it, so Casa De Spud cheers on the Helen. And she did a fucking awesome Blade Runner-ish 40s do for her Lily Allen 1940s style, which got her through to next week.

    Fucking strange watching someone who’s simultaneously on TV and a few feet away from you. Lotsa fun though.

    So yeah, THAT’S why I missed THE INVASION, which I wil eventually get round to. Even if it’s shit, I’d like to see EVERY iteration of THE BODYSNATCHERS.

    THE PUPPET MASTERS I really need to get round to reading. Is the movie version any good??

    • Jarv says :

      There are multiple versions of it as well Spud. Depends which one.

      I have the same completist drive but honestly don’t bother with The Invasion.

    • DocPazuzu says :

      The Puppet Masters movie is awful. Invaders From Mars (’86) is of a similar bent, schlockier but a hell of a lot more fun.

  7. DocPazuzu says :

    And yes, Ferrara’s Body Snatchers is great.

    • Jarv says :

      Cheers Doc.

      This film is totally underrated. It’s a familiar story- shafted by the distributors, buried, briefly emerged on DVD only to be forgotten about. Why does this keep happening to quality films? Still, the fact that it happened back in 1993 shows that it isn’t new.

      • DocPazuzu says :

        I remember seeing a trailer for it back in the day, thinking “hell yes!” and then — silence. Didn’t see anything related to it until it showed up in an ex-rental VHS bin a year or so later. A damn shame, and completely inexplicable.

      • Jarv says :

        I can’t see how or why it happened. It had a proper cast, a proper director and was well written and filmed. It was totally weird. Up there with the Outlander/ Kane/ Centurion shaftings.

  8. just pillow talk says :

    I remember seeing this back in the day, but hell if I can remember anything about it.

    I’ll have to revisit it, must check if it’s on instant viewing, which is probably too much to ask.

  9. ThereWolf says :

    Love Body Snatchers, top film. As already mentioned, the Meg Tilly bit is fucking chilling.

    I do like all the ‘Invasion’ versions. With The Invasion, I figured they accepted everyone knew the story by now and – right or wrong – decided not to press the ‘who is a clone’ angle. It’s a mediocre movie but I got into it…

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