Author Archives: Alex Good

Charlie Chan in London (1934)

*. This was the sixth Charlie Chan movie to be made by Fox starring Warner Oland as Chan, but only the second to have survived. Now it’s true that a great many old movies have been lost, but I think this still might give us some idea of the disposability of the product in this case.
*. It’s also notable that this was the first Charlie Chan movie not to be derived from an Earl Derr Biggers story. Biggers only wrote six Chan novels, so for the character to become a franchise they had to start coming up with something new. In doing so, they stuck mostly to formula though.
*. Charlie’s not in London for long. Instead, most of the action takes place at a massive country estate in Retfordshire (which I don’t think is an actual place), giving the story the familiar air of a English manor-house mystery. An innocent man sits in Pentonville Prison on death row and Charlie is called in by the man’s sister to clear him by finding the real killer. Which he proceeds to do.
*. In our own time the character of Charlie Chan, with his frequent bowing and pidgin English, not to mention the whitecasting of his being played by a Swedish-American actor, will likely be offensive to some. I don’t find it so, or at least not egregiously so, especially given how sympathetically the character is presented. Charlie is, after all, the saviour-hero (Raymond “Don’t call me Ray yet” Milland is the love interest, but doesn’t hold our attention at all). And it’s notable that when the maid finds Charlie’s snooping around to be suspicious an older maid replies that he is reputed to be a “nice, kind gentleman.” That’s high praise in the English class system.
*. Speaking of that class system, this movie’s greatest claim to fame today may be that it’s what the American film producer is doing research for in Gosford Park. No need for spoilers though, as Maggie Smith’s character tells him that nobody staying at Gosford Park is going to see it anyway.
*. In fact, there’s not much in the way of mystery here. The explanation, which involves international espionage, comes out of left field, with the killer actually being the least likely suspect, at least to my eyes. But up till the end it seems anyone could have done it. There’s even the classic moment when Charlie gets everyone gathered together and tells them that the killer is among them, followed by individual shots of each of the suspects glancing guiltily at each other. I wonder what the first movie was to do this. Perhaps it’s now lost as well.
*. Still, it all wraps up tidily, and quickly. The villain is apprehended by way of trickery, followed by a man in authority saying “All right Sergeant, take him away.” A coda provides the proper bow, as every Jack gets his Jill. The whole film is pretty much a formality, but the formula works so there’s no point in knocking it. Unless, you know . . .

The Invasion (2007)

*. Let’s kick things off with a bit of dialogue from 1978. Not from the Philip Kaufman version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but from the discussion of that film by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel on Sneak Previews (as their first review show on PBS was called):

Ebert: “Why did they remake Invasion of the Body Snatchers? We’re both movie buffs, I think I’ve seen the original 1956 version two or three times. Sitting there appreciating the film I still didn’t know why it was necessary.”
Siskel: “Well what’s more amazing is that it’s sort of typical of this year. We have so many sequels, part two of this, part two of that, remaking an old movie . . . isn’t it amazing to you as we see these films that here’s this whole colony of filmmakers and they’re bereft of ideas? I don’t understand why it happens.”

*. I’ll repeat, that was 1978. One can only imagine what Gene and Rog would say looking out over today’s landscape, so dominated by sequels, prequels, remakes, and reboots. An industry that, at least in so far as the major studios are concerned, is totally bereft of ideas.
*. Or is that a fair conclusion to draw? Since 1978 there were two more Body Snatcher movies to come (with more, I am sure, in the pipeline). But as Kaufman remarked of his version, the original story is sort of like Hamlet, infinitely capable of modern reproductions set in new contexts and having different meanings. And isn’t that what’s going on here?
*. The twenty-first century context is a world in conflict. There are problems in Afghanistan and Iraq, India and Kashmir, and a list of other hotspots that newscasters repeat throughout the film like a chorus of chyrons, albeit with no clear sense of how we’re supposed to feel about any of them (Roger Ebert: “How many references in the same movie can you have to the war in Iraq and not say anything about it?”). As things proceed, the takeover of the pods looks as though it’s going to put an end to all this, ushering in an age of global if not universal peace.
*. This isn’t a good thing because . . . well, because it means we’d no longer be human. The lecture of the Russian diplomat Yorish provides this version of the story with its theme, which is that civilization necessarily involves cruelty and carnage. It’s messy and there’s no cleaning it up.
*. That doesn’t strike me as very nice, or very profound. Nevertheless, the filmmakers (whoever they were, more on this later) thought it so important that they repeat Yorish’s lines at the very end just so we don’t miss the point.
*. The messy messaging doesn’t stop there. The politics are a muddle, as the aliens (they aren’t pod people this time because there are no pods) take over a high-ranking official in the government’s department of health first, who then organizes a mass flu vaccination program, enforced by cops who drive around beating people and hustling them off somewhere. The vaccinations will of course, lead to the spread of the alien virus, in effect making people sick. Wow. It’s an anti-vaxxer, Big Pharma plus Deep State, One World Government takeover fantasy!
*. In short, I’m not sure what the message is here, but it doesn’t feel right. Manohla Dargis thought she understood it well enough to call it “creepy” and “abhorrent,” which sounds pretty apt from where I’m sitting. Though I’d want to note that there’s an uneasiness you can feel in all of the Body Snatcher movies. Only in this one it feels somehow worse.
*. A happy ending, but is it? It’s so ridiculous and pat that I don’t think we’re meant to take it seriously (the infected are cured, with a convenient memory lapse concerning all that happened, with Kidman’s cute son being the golden child immune to their hostile takeover). Plus we get Yorish’s words returning to mock us. Is this what we really wanted? Well, if you’re high-priced D.C. doctors and look like Nicole Kidman or Daniel Craig I would say yes.
*. Not only can you not show any emotion while imitating an alien, you can’t sweat. What? Not even on a really hot day? Come on. Physiologically they’re still human.
*. It’s interesting that right from the start the Body Snatchers story has dealt with broken and imperiled families. In Jack Finney’s novel Miles and Becky are both divorced, but there are no kids involved, which is the same as in the 1956 movie. In the 1978 version it seems clear that Elizabeth is going to be ditching her boring dentist husband pretty soon so she can shack up with her co-worker Matthew, and again there are no children. The subject of dysfunctional families is brought up by Dr. Kibner at one point, but it’s hard to judge how to read him (in part because we can’t be sure if he’s still human). In 1993 the new step-mom is already a replacement before she’s replaced, and now parent-child relationships are the main focus. Which is again the situation here, with Dr. Bennell trying to protect her son from her sinister ex.
*. I bring this up because it’s such an essential part of the mythos and yet I’m not sure what point is being made. The loss of our emotional connections to our nearest and dearest should be what scares us the most, but instead we’re presented with a bunch of people who have already drifted apart.
*. More of this mouth-to-mouth vomiting stuff. I wrote about this in my notes on Annabelle: Creation, which came ten years later. I thought then that it might have got its start in Prince of Darkness or The Hidden (both 1987). You get something kind of similar when Robert Patrick infects Salma Hayek by puking a bug in her ear in The Faculty. It was also used in It Comes by Night and to spread the zombie plague in 28 Days Later. I guess it’s just gross. There’s really no reason why the aliens have to use such a crude form of transmission here, especially in settings like the press conference.
*. I mentioned that I wasn’t sure who the filmmakers were. The movie was directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, but the studio was apparently so dissatisfied they demanded additional scenes written by the Wachowskis and shot by James McTeigue, at a cost of some $10 million. I’m not sure what the stuff that was added was, but I think it was mainly meant to juice the action. So maybe the car chase through Baltimore, which I actually thought was pretty good. Having all the people go flying off of the car was neat.
*. There are other things to like. I thought Kidman was good. And the movie isn’t terrible. But it is a mess in more ways than just its message. There are too many car chases, too much action, and not enough slow-developing horror. The cutaways to animation of the virus spreading through Kidman’s bloodstream was silly. The ending is a joke, no matter how ironically you take it.
*. Critics weren’t kind. Let’s face it, they’d had fifty years to sharpen their blades. But the previous three versions had actually been excellent, each in their own way. That this was clearly the worst of the four is in itself no harsh condemnation, but it allowed reviewers to finally vent some spleen. They probably went overboard trashing what is mainly just a mediocre muddle. Alas, you really can’t judge this movie on its own. It takes a seat with distinguished company, and has to suffer the comparison.

The Faculty (1998)

*. Back in the ’90s it was the thing to describe every movie like a pitch, as a blend of Movie X and Y (and maybe Z). The Faculty happily adopted this approach, and I think very few reviews avoided calling it Invasion of the Body Snatchers (of whatever vintage) and/or The Thing meets The Breakfast Club.
*. That it should be such a knowing hybrid is no surprise, coming from the pen (or keyboard) of screenwriter Kevin Wiliamson (who had been called in to make a story by David Wechter and Bruce Kimmel more hip for the target audience). As Kim Newman puts it in Nightmare Movies, Williamson “became the go-to guy for teen demographic terror” at this time with Scream (1996), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Scream 2 (1997) and this film. Before fizzling out career-wise. I mean, he went on to write a lot for TV, but while people still watch these silly horror movies, who watches Dawson’s Creek today? Who?
*. The Faculty is actually a fascinating movie in terms of career arcs. Look at the cast. Josh Hartnett in his virtual debut and before Black Hawk Down, Elijah Wood before The Lord of the Rings, Jon Stewart before The Daily Show, Jordana Brewster before Fast 5 (and counting). Oddly enough, Laura Harris’s career may have been winding down, though she’s very good here. There’s also Salma Hayek, Piper Laurie, Famke Janssen, Robert Patrick, Usher, and instantly recognizable character actor Daniel von Bargen. This really was Hollywood High in the ’90s.
*. Directed by Robert Rodriguez, another interesting figure career-wise. Was it all downhill after El Mariachi? Well, Sin City was pretty good. But that’s about it for me. He’s certainly an odd, and probably a poor fit for this material.
*. So a curious blend of people coming up, people at the top, and a handful of veterans in various roles. And it’s also a movie that marks a watershed in terms of its effects, with some decent practical work unfortunately overwhelmed at the end by lots of very shaky CGI.
*. It’s a movie that couldn’t miss, but also couldn’t really work either. It’s just too derivative even for Williamson’s brand of knowingness. Take the roll call of kids: the nerd, the jock, the bitchy hot chick, the new girl, the goth girl, the rebel bad-boy. And yes, the token Black guy. Familiar. Well played, but just not that interesting.
*. Maybe they should have focused more on the faculty. They seem like they might be an interesting bunch. At times they even seem to enjoy messing with the kids. But as with most if not all alien body-snatchers they ultimately don’t have a very compelling story or motivation. Yes, they’re going to take over and then there won’t be any more of the bad feelings that you experience in high school. But just what will life be like? Will we all splash around like dolphins in freshwater lakes and streams? Will the parasitic slugs ditch their human bodies completely? Why keep them?
*. So OK, we’ve been here before. Even the jump from society at large to high school had already been made in the remake of Invaders from Mars. There’s just not enough that’s new here, so it ends up playing more like a rehash than a new interpretation of what’s being sampled. The Thing is obviously referenced in the testing scene and the business with the spider head, but those scenes aren’t done nearly as well as in the original and they don’t add anything new by way of homage.
*. Still, it’s a movie that has its fans. It’s a bit of fun and goes down easy. I wouldn’t say it has a cult following, but it’s a minor favourite that I look at and think should have been something more. Instead of being a mix of this and that it would have been better served if it had a clearer idea of what it wanted to be and stuck to it. But high school is a tough place to forge an identity. All anyone wants to do is fit in and be popular. Maybe the original story had more punch to it, but in Williamson’s hands it settles for just wanting to be liked.

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.