The Puppet Masters (1994)

*. Robert Heinlein’s novel The Puppet Masters has been described as the original SF story of aliens taking over human bodies, but the novel itself was a long time coming to the big screen. Instead we got movies with similar themes made in the 50s like Invaders from Mars and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A film version of The Puppet Masters was in the works at the end of the ’50s but the release of The Brain Eaters apparently jinxed it, so we had to wait another thirty-five years for this adaptation to arrive.
*. Was it worth the wait? Well, even though it’s largely forgotten today I think this is a darn good flick and a solid, indeed better than solid, adaptation of the novel, mostly faithful but updated in necessary ways that make it both more contemporary and cinematic.
*. Of course, when I say “contemporary” I mean by 1994 standards. There’s a wonderful scene here where one of the military guys holds up a 3 ½ inch floppy disk and tells the war room that “this disk contains every emergency contingency we’ve drawn up dealing with this kind of crisis since 1959.” Well, at least it’s nice to know they did have contingency plans for things like this.
*. I know I’ve said it before many times, but it’s so nice to go back to a time of in-camera creature effects. And I think they came up aces with the aliens here. They remind me a bit of the flying pancakes in one of the original Star Trek episodes (“Operation — Annihilate!”), in that they’re basically rays not slugs, with a whip-like tail they use for zipping around. This makes them a lot more threatening than the creeping terrors in the book or their cognates in The Brain Eaters, who can only crawl around on the floor after being transported in glass jars by their human hosts. They’re also given a bit of an Alien vibe as they come forth from their eggs ready to attach themselves to a host right away. Which made me think, again, of just how influential Alien was, in so many ways. Its fingerprints are everywhere.
*. I want to get back to the script. It’s credited to Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, and David Goyer. Elliott and Rossio went on to write films like Aladdin, Shrek, and I believe all or most of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, so they’re professional hands when it comes to entertainment. They were also fans of Heinlein’s novel and wanted to stick as close to it as possible. The studio was less in love with the novel and wanted something a little more generic. This led to a lot of rewrites, in a process that went on for years.
*. For example, it’s interesting that the head of the studio didn’t like the idea of the aliens arriving by spaceship and instead suggested “spores.” When told this was just ripping off Invasion of the Body Snatchers he then went with having them come back hitching a ride on the Space Shuttle. Which they didn’t go with (they had a spaceship), but which is the delivery vehicle used in The Invasion. No idea ever goes unused in Hollywood, no matter how weak. The “B version” of the script for this movie was actually set on a military base as well, but then Body Snatchers came out and that part had to be changed. You see, people do at least try to be different.
*. One curious divergence from the novel is in the eschewing of Heinlein’s heavy political preaching about the evils of communism. I say this is curious because ever since Don Siegel’s 1956 film the Body Snatchers movies have always invited discussion of their metaphorical meaning, with all kinds of different interpretations as to what the pod people represent in our own time. There’s none of that here. The aliens are just aliens. They don’t mean anything. If there’s a political message to this movie then I missed it completely.

*. Otherwise, the changes the writers made mostly struck me as improvements. Of course, there was no way the nudity of Operation Bare Back and Sun Tan was going to work on screen. However sensible, it just would have just looked ridiculous. It made sense that Sam’s love interest is a scientist and not another agent because the plot didn’t need another agent but it did need someone to explain stuff to us along the way. As for the ending, well, it was a mess in Heinlein too. What they have here isn’t good, but it isn’t any worse, and is at least more cinematic.
*. There are other nice additions too, like the way the host chimps can communicate with the humans by way of typing on a computer. The aliens in this movie have actual personalities, and they’re mean little bastards. They like to mess with people.
*. So the alien that was smart enough to lower its body temperature so as to avoid being discovered wasn’t smart enough to realize that its host walked with a cane and so couldn’t go striding around nimbly without one? Hm.
*. Not a huge budget, and I’m afraid it shows at times. I like the fight in the helicopter at the end, but there’s some shaky blue screen (or green screen) going on there. The mother ship in the basement of the Des Moines City Hall, however, registers as a real disappointment, as it was to Rossio when he visited the set and argued that it wasn’t a spaceship but only “a slime-covered parking garage.” There are some things that you need money to build, and clearly they didn’t have it.
*. Donald Sutherland anchors things as the Old Man. He was quite reliable in roles like this at the time, and I got a kick out of him telling his son “Oh Sam, give it up,” in their fight at the end. Yaphet Kotto is also here, though he just seems to stick his face in the door. Richard Belzer is a wonderful presence, without any dialogue that I can remember. There’s a tradition of roles like that in conspiracy thrillers.
*. The leads — Eric Thal as Sam and Julie Warner as Mary — aren’t household names but she’s attractive and smart and he has a magnificent mane of hair and can take his shirt, and indeed all the rest of his clothes off and not look ridiculous. I was going to praise him for that wide, gaping thing he does with his mouth when ridden by an alien but then I noticed that he does the same thing at other points in the movie when he isn’t possessed. So maybe it’s just something Thal does to show intensity.
*. Director Stuart Orme wasn’t well known at the time, mainly having directed a lot of Genesis/Phil Collins videos. But I think he does well enough, especially considering the genre he was working in and the aforementioned budget constraints. This is a movie that so wants to be an alien-invasion blockbuster but it’s set in Des Moines.
*. It flatlined at the box office, though I remember going to see it when it came out so it got my money. I’ve heard it’s gone on to be recognized as a “good bad movie” but I don’t think that’s right. I’d call it a good little movie that’s only undercut by its aspirations to be something bigger.

Body Snatchers (1993)

*. A word you’ll hear in most retrospective reviews of Body Snatchers is “underrated.” A lot of its muted initial reception had to do with its very limited release by Warner Brothers, giving it a domestic gross of under $500,000.
*. Not everyone underrated it though. Roger Ebert, most notably, awarded it four stars and thought it “by the far the best” of the Body Snatcher films, which was a ballsy call at the time and, despite its growing reputation, still is. But was he right?
*. It’s certainly a more interesting movie than I think you’d anticipate. You can get that much just from the credits. Abel Ferrara was a surprising choice to direct. A story from Larry Cohen and screenplay by Stuart Gordon? It’s indie-o-rama in here. Then Meg Tilly, Lee Ermey, and Forest Whittaker among the cast. One anticipates something different.
*. And for the most part you get something different, though it sticks to the staple elements that worked so well in the past. There’s the atmosphere of paranoia and “is s/he or isn’t s/he one of them?” There are the garbage trucks and dustpans. There’s the point-and-scream, which is here used to great effect in a couple of scenes but is a well they go to once too often.
*. There is also a similar structure to the story: a slow build-up followed by a lot of running around. Suspense turns to action. I think most people, most critics anyway, think the first part of these movies shows them at their best. Danny Peary complained of the 1978 version that “about halfway though it stops being suspenseful,” while Gene Siskel thought it turned into “just another chase story.” That’s also the effect here. I absolutely love Meg Tilly’s “Where you gonna go?” scene and its climactic air-raid siren howl, but after that things do get a lot less interesting and the explosive climax is less cathartic than lazy.

*. It’s a tight production, what Ebert called “a hard-boiled entry in a disreputable genre,” but one that indubitably works. I like how quiet the first part of the movie is, beginning with that obligatory overhead car shot taking us to the military base. A setting where we might expect to find Lee Ermey, but one that also makes us question its significance.
*. There is a question here that can be asked of all the Body Snatchers movies, including 2007’s The Invasion. Horror is a genre that often exploits contemporary social anxieties: radiation (giant monsters), environmental disaster (ecohorror), venereal disease (body horror and the slaughter of promiscuous teenagers), the breakdown of the family (anything by Stephen King). But the Body Snatchers movies, by the very way they insist upon being read metaphorically, resist clear analysis in this manner.
*. Stephen King thought the initial story capable of so many different renderings because it tapped into a primordial well of fear that new interpretations could be layered on: “although the uneasy dreams of the mass subconscious may change from decade to decade, the pipeline into that well of dreams remains constant and vital.”
*. Here’s Ebert again: “The first film fed on the paranoia of McCarthyism. The second film seemed to signal the end of the flower people and the dawn of the Me Generation. And this one? Maybe fear of AIDS is the engine.” Hm. You could debate all of this. But just on the last point, how is this a movie about AIDS? Only if you want to see everything at the time as being about AIDS (Cronenberg’s The Fly being another example of a movie that got so labeled).  If I had to plump for one interpretation I’d guess this is a movie that has something to say about militarism and the way the army turns individuals into killing machines. But even that’s a message that’s made complicated.
*. I guess the most basic point is just the one Jack Finney wanted to make about individualism vs. the group. That’s made more explicit here in Ermey’s speech to Whittaker about the necessary for him to be “conformed”: “It’s the race that’s important, not the individual.” This is a somewhat new idea: earlier pod people had worked together without conflict but there was still a sense that they had individual identities, even without the ability to feel or show emotion. What Ermey is invoking is something more like the Borg Collective from Star Trek: The Next Generation, whose drive to assimilate made resistance futile.

*. The Borg were first introduced in 1989 so they’re worth mentioning in this context, but what do they, or the pod people here, represent? Commies? By this point the Cold War was over and the Wall had fallen. So, cult members? Groupthink? Corporatism? Was a loss of individualism such a pressing anxiety at this time?
*. I like the effects and the dark, formal, and rigidly posed photography. I like the cast. Terry Kinney (I had a hard time placing his face, but he was a regular on Oz) looks overmatched by his wife even before she’s transformed. We know he’s not going to be up to the job. Meg Tilly, “the woman who replaced your mom,” is wonderful. I love how, in the big scene that I mentioned, she’s the one trying to calm Kinney down as he goes into hysterics (“that’s right, that’s good, you’re listening now, that’s very good, I know you’re frightened, I know you’re scared, that’s OK, I understand that you’re confused”). Billy Wirth already looks like he’s an alien, doubling down on the ambiguity these movies revel in. Gabrielle Anwar projects as smart, and as vulnerable as a girl who looks like she weighs about 70 pounds would be.
*. The chances still are that you don’t know this movie, unless you were around at the time. So it remains underappreciated, if not underrated. And while I wouldn’t call it the best of the series it does full credit to the franchise and stands out as one of the better horror efforts of this period.

Invaders from Mars (1986)

*. This remake of the cultish classic 1953 film of the same title divided a lot of people when it came out. I think that’s probably as it should have been, as the original version was a weird movie that opinions are still split on today. I would have been disappointed if they’d just played it safe.
*. No movie made in the ’80s was going to be able to duplicate the dream-like weirdness of the 1953 version, but at least in the early going here I thought this one did a good job, having a unique feel of its own while being studded with references and in-jokes tying it back to the original. The best of these has the actor Jimmy Hunt, who played David in the original, back as one of the two cops who go to investigate the crash site the morning after. As he walks the hill he says “Gee, I haven’t been up here since I was a kid.” There are a few other cute parts like this. But what the alien head in the glass bubble was doing in the school’s basement is beyond me.
*. I like almost all the players. Hunter Carson (Karen Black’s son) does well in the part of David. He played the kid in Paris, Texas and (trivia alert) the original Bud Bundy in the pilot for Married . . . with Children (which I don’t think ever aired). I see from his filmography that he’s kept working, but I don’t think I’ve caught him in anything since this.

*. Timothy Bottoms is great as a dad whose concern would be off-putting even if he weren’t being controlled from the mother ship. Karen Black is the woman who is just too humanly weird to ever be duplicated by an alien. It’s Louise Fletcher though who steals the show as the possessed and obsessed teacher who is going to get her hands on “David Gardner” if it’s the last thing she does. About the only casting decision I wasn’t totally on board with was James Karen as the general. He’s jut too obviously comic and loopy.
*. Directed by Tobe Hooper, who was coming off of Lifeforce, a really good movie that bombed for Cannon. This movie would bomb as well, and Goland and Globus apparently hated it and thought Hooper had misled them. Hooper seems to have been one of those guys who had a hard time catching a break after his initial success with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Which is a shame, because he had real talent.

*. The creature effects were by Stan Winston and I think they’re wonderful. The monsters are likened in the script to Mr. Potato Heads, and I really liked seeing creatures that looked realistic, a bit different, and that weren’t CGI. The head alien looks a bit like the belly-mutant in Total Recall, but that movie came later so you have to give Winston credit here as well.
*. But like I say, it divided people. Those who hated it, really hated it. I liked it though. At least the first half is very good. The back end turns into more of a routine action flick and I’ll admit that’s where I lost a lot of interest. The first part of the movie does a great job balancing creepiness and humour, but they give up on that at the end as well.
*. They do, however, keep the bizarre dream-within-a-dream twist from the original, though it doesn’t have the same punch. Because we’d been here before and knew what was coming? Maybe. It just felt too pat this time around.
*. Part of the weirdness may relate to the target audience. Winston was working on Aliens at the same time, which had a lot more violence and bad language but which still appealed to kids. Put another way, this is a family film, in a genre where I think everyone (including kids) would have been expecting something a little stronger. As it is they just have to make do with Louise Fletcher eating a frog.

Quiz the one hundred-and-sixteenth: Original sin (Part one)

Why would you get a piece of the core stuck in your teeth? Wouldn’t it be more likely to be a piece of skin? Who eats the core? No, despite the catchy title I’ve given it we’re not getting sexy with this week’s quiz. Though I’m not ruling that out moving forward. Instead we’re celebrating apple eating. Apparently one of them a day is good for you. It’s a regimen I stick pretty close to myself, and I can’t complain.

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

*. The pods are back, but we’ve moved on as a culture from the cozy white-picket fence community of Santa Mira to the dirty streets of San Francisco. Indeed, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen San Francisco, which is a pretty city, ever look this grungy. But then we’re following a Health Inspector (Donald Sutherland) around as he finds rat turds in restaurant kitchens. Hell, not just in the kitchen, but in the food! This San Fran is a creepy, run-down place. When do you think Matthew is going to get that windshield fixed? And sure there are kids picking flowers in the park, but what’s up with that weird priest playing on the swings? And Robert Duvall no less! Immediately we’re on our guard. Things can’t be what they seem.
*. So it’s a pretty place, but run-down and full of weirdos. Like this cast. Brooke Adams is the only conventional-looking movie star. The others appear alien even before the spores land. Donald Sutherland’s hair mimics that hanging moss in the opening shots of the park (even director Philip Kaufman thought it a bit much), and his nose (which Kaufman seems to delight in exaggerating) is definitely out of this world. Leonard Nimoy is wonderfully cast and manages to steal every scene he’s in, but as Gene Siskel remarked, if aliens ever landed “Leonard Nimoy would be the last person I’d go to for advice.” Veronica Cartwright is wonderful, and would have more alien trouble just the next year, as well as a small part in The Invasion in 2007, but is she the one you’d expect to have kept her shit together at the end?

*. And Jeff Goldblum. Pauline Kael, who raved about this movie, crushed on him, commenting of his performance that he “knows enough to disregard his handsomeness.” That struck me as odd, but I guess compared to his castmates he seems the least odd, all 6’4″ and 170 pounds of him (he would bulk up to a very buff 185 for The Fly). In 1978 I might not have suspected his subsequent career appearing in many of the biggest box-office hits of the next several decades. His character is such a perfect antiheroic type. The going gets tough and he (1) gets a bloody nose; (2) starts to cry; (3) falls asleep; and (4) is fascinated by the pretty pink flower. Poets get no respect. Though I guess he redeems himself a bit near the end.
*. Yes, Kael loved this movie. She had days, a lot of days, like that. Here’s how her review begins and ends: “Invasion of the Body Snatchers is more sheer fun than any movie I’ve seen since Carrie and Jaws and maybe parts of The Spy Who Loved Me. . . . it may be the best movie of its kind ever made.”
*. Of what kind would that be? Not thought-provoking social commentary but popcorn thrills like Carrie, Jaws, and James Bond. But is that really the kind of movie this is? I mean, to take the most obvious point, it has that real downer of an ending. They get rid of the upbeat frame story the studio insisted on in 1956 and doubled down with a bitterly ironic twist (albeit giving Matthew a moment of heroism in destroying the grow-op). I love the ending here, even though I’m not sure Kaufman helped things by taking such an iconic shot as Sutherland’s scream and zooming straight into his mouth.

*. It was the ’70s, that great decade of paranoia in American cinema, so we feel right at home when Cartwright starts on about how “It’s a conspiracy, I know it.” And she’s right. But since we’re no longer in the grips of a Red Scare, who or what is the enemy within? The Red Scare hadn’t turned into the Fed Scare yet in America (that would have to wait until 1993’s Body Snatchers, and even more emphatically with 2007’s The Invasion), so what anxiety is being addressed? The counterculture? But surely that spirit of nonconformity and individualism is what the pods are seeking to erase. What are the politics of this movie? Or does it have any?

*. Muddying the waters further is the matter of how we can tell who is and who isn’t “one of them.” Take the question of when Kibner is taken over. The short answer is we don’t know, we’re not told. But when do you think? Was he already one of them at the book signing event? Or is that just the way he is? Cinematographer Michael Chapman remarked in an interview that it’s “hard to tell if someone is a pod or just a ’70s asshole.” So were ’70s assholes the target here? And what kind of assholes? The “cloying sympathetic” (Kaufman) Kibner? On the DVD commentary track Kaufman says that he hasn’t been transformed yet at the book signing (note his one angry outburst after they leave the bookstore), but that Robert Duvall was already a pod priest.
*. Is the point then that we can’t really tell if we’ve lost our humanity, either because we’re not connected well enough anymore to notice or because modern people are less human anyway? There seems to be a connection here, at least in my eyes, to the zombie apocalypse movies that followed. These would ultimately result in movies like Shaun of the Dead and Juan of the Dead, where jokes are made about how you can go outside and walk down the street after the zombie apocalypse and not know if the people you meet are alive or dead. This is another way of thinking about something Kaufman says during the commentary: “I feel like everything that is talked about in Body Snatchers has come to pass, and that we are now living in a world largely controlled by pods.” This is apocalypse in its literal meaning of revelation, not a fantasy but a realistic depiction of the way we live now.

*. Again I wonder what the pod people are up to, what their end game is. To devolve into a lower form of plant life, parked in front of their TVs like Art Hindle, headphones on and listening to music? Plants like music, Cartwright has told us. And why are they still going to work, and keeping their regular hours even after they’ve obviously taken over the city entirely? Are they actually doing anything in the lab, or just instinctively going through the motions, like the zombie mallwalkers in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead? I like how Elizabeth’s husband says, in trying to reassure her about being transformed, that “Nothing changes: you can have the same life, the same clothes, the same car.” These things are important! But does that mean he’s still a dentist? And what if Elizabeth doesn’t want to go back to the lab?

*. There are some new curves thrown in to the mix that are so good they’d be held over for the next instalments. Two stand out. The first is the alien scream and their pointing fingers. The ultimate j’accuse, signaling banishment from the new in-group, and a nice set-up for the flourish at the end. The other new wrinkle is the way the old human bodies are removed by garbage trucks. Proving once again the old adage that one man’s waste is another man.
*. People who talk about this movie inevitably get drawn into arguments over which of the two Invasions is better. I think they’re both great movies, but I’d have to say I enjoy Siegel’s version more. Not just because it’s less gloomy, but for its snappier pace (Kaufman’s movie is nearly 40 minutes longer). But really they’re two very different movies, reflecting entirely different styles and different Americas. Kaufman references Hamlet in his commentary, talking about how that play has been adapted in different productions reflecting new contexts and ways of interpreting and understanding its characters and story. I think that’s what happened here.
*. In itself, it’s good entertainment. The effects have held up very well. Even the dog with the human head still works. I believe Denny Zeitlin’s score was a one-off, but it’s effective. There are lots of cameos, from Kevin McCarthy to Don Siegel as the cab driver and Kaufman himself as the man waiting outside the phone booth. In some ways it feels like a very freestyle production, with Kaufman letting himself go in a way that you wouldn’t be expecting in a big-budget production today. You might think of it as coming at the end of the burst of maverick American filmmaking of the period. After this, the pod people were going to take over and everything was going to look pretty again.

The Brain Eaters (1958)

*. Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957) is usually regarded as having set a standard, and perhaps the standard, for bad movies. But it was far from alone in being an instance of low-budget, incompetent filmmaking in the 1950s. The next year would see the release of this movie, which, while no means as hilariously awful as Plan 9, is a fun example of the so-bad-it’s-good flick.
*. It does have Joanna Lee in it, who had also been in Plan 9. And it did get a nomination for a Golden Turkey Award, which was what launched the audience cult for Ed Wood’s folly. So you might as well sit back and enjoy the crazy switches from day to night and back again, sometimes within the same scene, the hopeless acting, the ridiculous dialogue (“Will he live?” “No, but he’s going to, at least as long as science can make him”), and the laughable monsters, which are crudely concealed from view most of the time in glowing crystal-ball traveling cases but look like bedroom slippers when they finally appear.
*. You wouldn’t have expected anything less (or more) from a film shot in six days on a $26,000 budget. Even Leonard Nimoy has his name misspelled in the credits as Nemoy. I don’t think he was looking to conceal his identity. I think it was just a typo.
*. As in all such movies there are also a bunch of little things that make you go “Hm.” Like the description of the giant cone as being 50 feet tall and with a diameter at its base of 50 feet. That’s not what it looks like. Then there’s the scene where Glenn confronts the Mayor, who turns out to be his dad. But the actors looked the same age to me (I checked, and the fellow playing the Mayor was in fact nine years older).
*. The story is actually kind of strange. Robert Heinlein sued the producers for ripping off his novel The Puppet Masters, but I don’t see a resemblance that’s close enough to be actionable. For one thing, the Brain Eaters aren’t aliens but creatures who have been lurking underground since the Carboniferous Era. As for attaching themselves to the back of their hosts’ necks, something similar had been done in Invaders from Mars. I’m not sure you could copyright that. The main line of continuity I saw had to do with the takeover of the communications network.
*. Roger Corman said he hadn’t been aware of Heinlein’s book but settled out of court for $5,000. The bigger effect, however, was that a production of The Puppet Masters being planned was scrapped, meaning it would take another forty years before that novel would get filmed.
*. The Brain Eaters themselves are more like the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers than Heinlein’s Puppet Masters. Indeed, Nimoy’s speech at the end was pretty close to what he’d say in the 1978 Philip Kaufman entry into the Body Snatcher franchise. If the Brain Eaters take over then everyone will live together in peace and harmony. Who could object to that?
*. A cheap, silly, but still pretty enjoyable time-waster that has the added virtue of not wasting too much time (it’s only an hour long). A minor example of the alien-takeover genre that was big in the ’50s, so also instructive on that front. But mainly of interest to people who just like bad movies.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

*. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of those movies that I saw as a kid and that I’ve never grown out of. I still drop in for a re-watch pretty regularly and it always holds up. Not a perfect film, but perhaps a perfect B-film, and one with a real cultural resonance, as evidenced by the various directions taken by its remakes.
*. The main tack taken with regard to its significance is to read it politically. This has been so seductive precisely because its politics are so ambiguous. Danny Peary: “Much of the film’s cult following is a result of the picture’s ability to be interpreted in two quite contradictory ways: as being anti-McCarthy and an indictment of the red-scare American mentality; and as being an anticommunist allegory.”
*. And the reason why it is so ambiguous? I think because nobody involved in making it thought they were making a film with a political message. Instead, it was part of a sub-genre of alien body snatchers that was popular at the time. Peary points to the other SF movies of the time dealing with the same theme: Invaders from Mars (1953), It Came from Outer Space (1953), and I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958). He might also have included The Brain Eaters (1958), which may have been derived from Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951). I’d note here that The Puppet Masters, chronologically first on this list and perhaps the first SF story of this type, had an explicit anti-communist message. So there’s no denying this was in the air. When the psychiatrist here explains the mass hysteria as “worry about what’s going on in the world, probably” there’s a tip of the hat to anxiety, but over what, exactly?

*. I don’t see it so much as a Red Scare movie today, but that may be because the Red Scare itself is such a distant memory. Do we still think of communism as “a malignant disease spreading through the whole country”? Instead the film’s message seems more like a general broadside against thoughtless, soulless conformity. Does that have a political side as well? Today accusations of being brainwashed or having become “sheeple” get thrown around pretty freely on the right and the left. I don’t see the pod people as commies, but then they’re not libertarians either. Instead they’re a bit like Nietzsche’s last men: Earth seems like a nice place to call home, so they’ll just move in and get comfortable.
*. The novel by Jack Finney doesn’t say much more. The aliens are just another embodiment of the universal life force. They’ll settle down on Earth and breed and . . . that’s about it. They don’t really have any goals or larger purpose. And I think this is the real critique of the aliens. Not that they are conformists, or have no emotions, but that they have no ambition beyond survival. They aren’t as evil as they are boring and one-dimensional.
*. I like Finney’s novel a lot, and while they drop some good parts from it I think the screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring here changes things in ways that work better on screen. It’s also made into a far bleaker story, even with the addition of the upbeat ending that was insisted on by the studio (“Operator, get me the Federal Bureau of Investigation, this is an emergency!”). In the book Becky and the second couple are never transformed, and Miles manages to discourage the aliens from any takeover plans just by burning down their pod farm. They know they’re licked then and so just hop off planet so they can start wandering again and find a better place.
*. So yes, the ending here is terrible. On a par perhaps with the end of Psycho. Both Siegel and producer Walter Wanger disliked it. But in its defence I’d point out a couple of things. First, there was no way they were going to get away with Miles wildly ranting “You’re next! You’re next!” Second, the ending they wound up with is actually better than the ending of Finney’s book, which really feels tacked on and unconvincing.
*. Don Siegel. Yes, you could think of him as a hack. He worked very quickly shooting genre material, but he was good at it and not without a sense of style and an eye. In addition to keeping everything whipping along for a tight 80 minutes he does some interesting things with shooting at odd angles to disorient us. This is small-town America but on a kilter. Then look at the way that curved branch in the foreground mimics the snake of people climbing the hillside at the end. What a nice touch.

*. There are few special effects, but the bodies coming out of the pods look good and I think they’re quite effective. That there is no way to tell the aliens from the humans makes everything more sinister, and easier. I like the indeterminacy it gives rise to as well, as in the scene where poor little Jimmy is given his sedative. About the only moment I wish they’d cut is the peek behind the curtain to see Wilma and her uncle. We don’t need that. We know she’s been transformed.
*. When Miles goes snooping around Becky’s basement, is that a movie match he lights, or did they just make much better matches in the ’50s? By my reckoning it burns for 30 seconds before it gets down to his fingers, all in one take so there’s no trickery. I do think matches were probably better back in the day, but on the other hand, it looks suspiciously thick so it may have been a special prop.
*. “I want your children,” Becky says to Miles. Bold, but I guess things are looking desperate for them by that point. What she says also makes me think of something A. O. Scott had to say about the film: these are “old flames who clearly want nothing more than to jump into bed with each other, and it sometimes seems as though the whole alien conspiracy is designed to prevent exactly that from happening, because instead of doing what they so obviously want to do Miles and Becky have to run all over the little town of Santa Mira.” They can’t sleep and they can’t fuck. What a nightmare.
*. Remember that in the novel Becky isn’t transformed. Here she is, and Miles’ recognition of the change is the film’s dramatic highlight. Who can forget those two close-ups? But what’s the point? To say that she’s changed, she’s no longer the woman he loved, and then she betrays him! “A moment’s sleep and the girl I loved was an inhuman enemy bent on my destruction!” More than one man has woken up to a similar experience. And even more women, probably.
*. Well, it’s a great movie. One of the few Bs from the period that transcends its budget and genre. It’s not a movie I see more in with every re-watch, but one that I enjoy just as much every time. The pod people have never gone away, and who doesn’t feel at some point, looking around him or herself, that they may be next?

Invaders from Mars (1953)

*. A movie so strange and singular that I hardly know where to begin.
*. Perhaps one way is to see it as the start of something. In the introduction to my paperback edition of Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, Heinlein biographer William H. Paterson Jr. refers to that 1951 novel as “the first to work [the] aliens-among-us cultural fear.” The ’50s would really run with this, from Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers (first published as a serial in 1954 and made into the classic movie in 1956) to 1958’s I Married a Monster from Outer Space and Ed Nelson’s The Brain Eaters, the latter being a movie that Heinlein sued for plagiarism (The Puppet Masters wouldn’t be filmed until 1994).
*. So perhaps Invaders from Mars, a film based on a story treatment that had apparently been inspired by a dream the author’s wife had, is the first movie to tackle this same theme. I don’t know if it was connected to The Puppet Masters at all, either at the time or since, but the idea of aliens controlling humans by way of a radio receptor implant on the neck is at least similar to where the “titans” (Heinlein’s puppet masters, so called because they hail from Saturn’s moon) attach themselves to their hosts at the beginning.
*. Another first for this film came by way of its being rushed into production to beat George Pal’s War of the Worlds as the first feature to show aliens in colour. As cheesy as much of it looks today, audiences must have been impressed at the time, though the effects can’t hold a candle to what Pal achieved with his much larger budget.
*. These firsts, however, don’t make Invaders from Mars strange, only notable. What makes it strange are two things.
*. In the first place, there’s the look of the movie. It was directed by William Cameron Menzies, best known as an art director (a job title he is credited with inventing). Menzies has some well-known credits, but I don’t know if he did anything as odd as this. And I’m not talking about the fact that it was designed to be shot in 3D and then wasn’t, or any of the alien effects. Actually, the alien ship is kind of dull, a feeling that is not lessened by knowing that the bubbles on the walls were actually thousands of inflated condoms.

*. What I mean by odd is stuff like the set of the hill leading up to the sand pit, which apparently took a big chunk of the film’s budget but that they got a lot of good use out of. It’s odd because it’s so artificial it makes one think of the bizarre landscapes of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I mean, you’d know that much just from seeing a farmer go out to a field behind his house in his slippers. But that link to Caligari comes up again in the police station, with its long corridor and high desk sitting at the end. Where do you think the ceilings are in that station? Somewhere in the arc of the heavens.

*. As another example, look at the lettering painted on the street that says “Restricted Area.” I’ve never seen lettering of that Old West style used in such a way.
*. Of course, as with Caligari the point seems to have been to give the movie a dream-like quality, which ties into the other thing that makes Invaders from Mars so strange: its ending. First we follow David (Jimmy Hunt) running away from the spaceship, which has been planted with a bomb, while a montage of scenes from the movie are replayed over his face. This is weird, and looks weird too, echoing the looping of scenes that leads up to the countdown. But then the ship explodes and David wakes up. It seems the whole thing was a dream. He goes to bed and then the beginning of the movie plays again, as he is awoken by the spaceship crashing, again, into the sand pit. Wait, what?
*. It’s an ending that recalls Caligari, with its boxes-inside-boxes ending. And just like with Caligari the ending was changed in different versions because people didn’t like it. For the British release they cut the final bit out, which I guess made things a bit tidier. But it’s still pretty wonky.
*. Perhaps it’s just me, but I find the Martian head in the glass globe (played by Luce Potter, who had been one of the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz) very strange too. What’s with the tentacles? And her pained, voiceless face is wonderfully inscrutable. She seems performing in a silent movie, with some hidden script. And isn’t that how it should be? One wonders how a Martian would feel about all this. Just a job?

*. The contemporary New York Times review called it a movie for kids, and it has that feel. Those Martian guards in their soft green pyjamas (complete with zippers running up the back) are large but strangely unthreatening. In fact, the scariest people we meet are David’s transformed parents. David’s dad even lays into him at one point.
*. Only 79 minutes, but in this case I can’t really call it tight. There’s lots of stock footage of the U.S. army rolling out the tanks to take on Martian spaceship, which is kind of unnecessary since they don’t actually do anything. I wish they’d left that stuff out, but I guess they needed the extra running time to get a release.
*. The weirdness I’ve been talking about is what recommends the film today. It certainly is odd to look at. I’ve mentioned Caligari but it also reminded me a lot of The Night of the Hunter with its dreamy visuals and threatened children. I think it’s more a freak than a great movie, but its status as an indie/cult classic is well deserved. Despite so many movies that borrowed from it, and even a remake in 1986, it’s never been duplicated in either its look or its spirit, and much of it remains unforgettable to this day.

Animal Farm (1999)

*. I made the point in my notes on the 1954 Animal Farm that its style of animation was very much of its time. The same might be said of this adaptation, directed by the Academy Award-winning veteran effects man and former head of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop John Stephenson. Stephenson had, most notably, done the effects for Babe (1995), which this movie will immediately put you in mind of.
*. Orwell’s novel is a classic, both dramatic and accessible. Stephenson was an obvious choice to direct. The cast was all-star, with Pete Postlethwaite as Mr. Jones and the voice of Benjamin the donkey, Peter Ustinov as Old Major, Patrick Stewart as Napoleon, Kelsey Grammar as Snowball, Ian Holm as Squealer, Julia Ormond as Jessie (an Australian shepherd), Julia Louise-Dreyfus as Mollie, and Paul Scofield as Boxer (his final film role). Whew! Add to that a budget of $22 million, a fortune for a TV-movie, and you should have really been expecting something great.
*. Those expectations, alas, are cruelly dashed. This version of Animal Farm is awful.
*. It’s not too hard to say why. The story is trashed even worse than in the 1954 version, which at least had the excuse that it was being financed by the C.I.A. In this movie we get a subplot added involving the relationship between Mr. Jones and Pilkington (and Pilkington’s wife) which I thought totally unnecessary. A narrator is added in the form of the aforementioned Jessie, an animal not in the original. Napoleon’s canine praetorians have disappeared, to be replaced by a Rottweiler, while there aren’t enough pigs to constitute a social class. The ending is changed, again, to something a lot more upbeat, indeed uplifting.
*. I don’t think any of these decisions work, or add anything of value. Another new wrinkle, that has the pigs producing Stalinesque propaganda films, is another such novelty. At least in that case I could say it was kind of interesting, even if it was an idea that, like the other creative decisions, didn’t make sense. I also didn’t think the all-star voices were very apt. Stewart does well enough as the tyrant, foreshadowing his later turn as Macbeth, but he’s the only one who I thought passed muster.
*. I was thinking of writing more about this, but there’s no point. Given the talent involved it’s a huge disappointment that seems to have gone off the rails right from the planning stage. Save your time and go back and read Orwell.

Animal Farm (1954)

*. I first saw this movie when I was a kid, around the same time I first read Orwell’s novel. I’m no longer sure which came first (for me). I’m pretty sure though that I missed all of the political allegory, not knowing anything much about Stalin and Trotsky (roughly Napoleon and Snowball, respectively).
*. Did that make a difference? Well, like any good allegory Animal Farm can be appreciated on different levels. It’s not for children, despite Orwell subtitling it “A Fairy Story,” but that’s when a lot of us were introduced to it and I think young people can appreciate its message. The donkey Benjamin running after the truck taking Boxer away to the glue factory is a scene that’s stuck in my head for over forty years now.

*. Then again, I also remember scenes from classic Looney Tunes/Merry Melodies cartoons from around the same time. There’s no telling what’s going to stick in one’s head. And the animation here, by husband-and-wife team John Halas and Joy Batchelor, has much the same look as the Merry Melodies, with a lot of static painted backdrops with little movement in many of the shots. There’s also a cute little baby duck (not in Orwell) that seems to have wandered off the Warner Bros. lot.
*. There are other, greater, liberties taken with the source material however. These apparently came from the fact that its financial backers included the CIA, as part of a program to create anti-communist art. Or let’s just call it propaganda. Halas and Batchelor may not have known about the Agency’s involvement, but as a result of their influence the ending is changed quite radically, with the animals rising up against the now tyrannous pigs in yet another turn of the revolutionary wheel.
*. I have a hard time seeing the point in making this change. In the first place, Orwell’s novel strikes me as being quite sufficiently anti-Stalinist, especially with the nightmarish pack of dogs dealing out the state violence. Not to mention the fact that Stalin died in 1953. Second, I question the revolt of the masses at the end on two counts. Did the CIA think it realistic that the Russian people would rise up and throw off their communist rulers? That’s not even what happened in 1989. Then, is the idea of revolution something that the CIA wanted to endorse? Isn’t that how the farm got into this mess in the first place?

*. Up until the end I thought it a respectable adaptation. Maurice Denham is the narrator and does all of the voices. Perhaps as a result the dialogue has been greatly cut, as well as all of the lyrics to “Beasts of England, which is replaced by a barnyard hubbub. There is also some narration, a lot of which is probably unnecessary. The workhorse Boxer no longer has a girlfriend (Clover) but only a longtime companion in Benjamin. It is this stablemate who will be left to mourn (and avenge) his death.
*. The animation works, though I mentioned the connection to the golden age of American cartoons, which is what a lot of it looks like. That’s not a compliment or a criticism, but just saying it has the look of its time. There are some electric moments, and I enjoyed Old Major appearing to dissolve into a porky puddle after his big speech about eeeee-quality. Much of the art has a kind of liquid quality that may be interpreted as having some thematic relevance as well, with all that is solid in the old social order melting into air. As Mr. Jones turns to drink he sinks into a kind of deliquescence that fits the same pattern.
*. According to historians this was the first cartoon feature film made in Britain, and I think it stands up pretty well. It plays much better today than the live-action 1999 version anyway.