Body Snatchers

Don Siegel filmed novelist Jack Finney’s rural science fiction yarn The Body Snatchers in 1956, crafting a creepy, anti-conformist alien-invasion parable – christened Invasion of the Body Snatchers for sensation’s sake – that became a genre classic. Philip Kaufman updated it in 1978, tweaking northern California sensibilities and adding elaborate special effects work and unforgettable sound design.

While it’s no surprise to see a third version, it’s interesting that grungy New York director Abel Ferrara took the helm. Ferrara, whose credits include downtown classics like Ms. 45 and King of New York, has always exhibited a fierce independence, and it’s disorienting to see him in cahoots with Warner Brothers on a studio feature. The studio apparently agreed – the film was shelved for years pending a perfunctory 1994 theatrical release en route to video.

Traditional narrative has never been Ferrara’s strong suit – Body Snatchers will make the most sense if you’re already familiar with the story. In a nutshell: alien invaders are plant-like creatures, or pods, that grow into an exact copy of a sleeping person – sucking the life out of the victim in the process. Because the transformed aliens look just like humans, it’s impossible to tell whom to trust. In all three versions, the ‘pod people’ philosophize weirdly about how great it will be when everyone on the planet thinks and feels exactly the same way. (Shiver.)

Ferrara sets the story on a military base (talk about conformity!) where an EPA investigator (Terry Kinney) has moved in to investigate the storage of toxic materials. Daughter Marti (Gabrielle Anwar) is the most alienated character, and young son Andy (Reilly Murphy) the most vulnerable. Mom (Meg Tilly) is the first to succumb, and thus gets the creepiest scenes. Throughout, we see in Murphy’s baleful stare the face of a little boy who realizes he’s in deep trouble.

Five writers are credited with story and screenplay, including It’s Alive impresario Larry Cohen, the Re-Animator team of Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli, and regular Ferrara collaborator Nicholas St. John. Unfortunately, what they came up with is stock characters, a feeble teen-angst melodrama, and a token romantic subplot. The story’s disquieting power stems from the original concept, not any modern retooling.

Body Snatchers is marred by some unconvincing scenes and performances, and was probably inadequately budgeted. Like all of Ferrara’s features, it’s paced very deliberately. But when he’s firing on all cylinders, boy, is it something to see. The film’s midsection melds gooey effects, careful direction, and top-notch film editing to satisfying, genuinely scary effect. Elsewhere, some isolated sequences effectively raise the gooseflesh. Bojan Bazelli’s widescreen cinematography is stunning throughout, referencing the Dutch tilts and virtuoso photography that characterized the original and relentlessly backlighting the base personnel to sinister effect.

Body Snatchers is a moody genre piece with a strong sense of menace, crafted in fiercely unconventional fashion. Like much of Ferrara’s work, it’s deeply flawed but utterly gripping, shot through with urgency and conviction that makes the threat of dehumanization feel real.

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