*. 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.