Film Seizure #211 – Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Don’t go to sleep on this episode of Film Seizure because you might just wake up replaced by an unemotional alien pod person! We discuss Philip Kaufman’s very eerie, existential crisis that is 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

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  1. I just watched this a couple of days ago, having received the (quite nice!) 4K disc. The previous time I saw it, running it for some friends’ first time, I realized that it is 100% one of my favorite movies of all time, without qualification. I was very happy yesterday to hear that this was your next selection.

    Now to listen . . .


  2. Where the ’78 is at least just as good each time I see it, and often gets better, the more I see the ’56, the less I’m engaged by it.  It has the unfair disadvantage of being second of the two for me, though I do recall being very impressed with the discovery of Jack’s duplicate, and the garden duplication scenes, and how close both were in tone and sort of organic grossness to the ’78.  It’s very good, and I own two blu-ray editions of it, but even with the factor where as time passes every movie is received more as its own thing than as a product of personal expectations, it always makes me think I could be watching the better one.  I’d audiotaped the ’78 off ABC in the 80s, and sometimes I used to just listen to the conversations, the bookstore, Jack’s other body, the debate in Matthew’s apartment especially.  It’s smarter dialogue than it needs to be, and part of making this film evidence that as bad as a lot of it can be, and that ratio is high, in the horror genre (and I’d add the musical genre) can be found cinema at its most cinematic and artistic.  And yes, this is a horror movie.  And a thriller.  It’s both.

    One amazing thing about this picture is that when people write screenplays, certainly for horror, but let’s be honest for many genres, one of the first things they try to do, keeping budget considerations in mind, is to isolate it. Set it in just a house. Get it into a warehouse as soon as possible, or a military base, but basically the goal is to get the setting isolated; it’s almost a default. This one does not do that.  It almost defiantly takes place in an open, busy, big city. That may be one of the reasons why it still stands out so much.  

    You know, after Aliens was a hit, it was quickly announced that there would definitely be an Alien 3 and 4, and the broad plan was that Alien 3 would have the company finally get their aliens to Earth and try to turn them into military weapons, which of course would go badly, and Alien 4 would be about a world Infested by aliens. Now, these had some promise! Instead, Alien 3 does what? Let’s isolate ourselves on a prison planet.  Ummm… okay. And Alien 4? We’re on a space station.  1978’s Body Snatchers simply had scope. In fact, you didn’t know until the very end, listening to the megaphone guy directing pod-person traffic, weather it had just happened in San Francisco, or we were seeing one city exemplifying all the cities of the world. Turns out it was the former, but by the end, when the other cities are being mentioned as travel targets, you very much believe that it’s their doom.

    The sound editor was John Nutt, who would also do sound editing for Amadeus, if you want a great, really noticeable example of good sound editing. How early in the film do we first hear the Body Snatchers scream? Try about 14 minutes.  It’s an overall editing feature, planting these cues; we’re treated to the man running across the street for no apparent reason, as you guys said, and then briefly, behind Brooke Adams, we see what looks like a regular nice couple running. Like they’re chasing him. And we hear the scream.  We start to hear police sirens right away. We start to hear, and see, garbage trucks right away.  All of the stuff that will become terrifying is buried in the commonplace so early in the film that most people don’t catch much of it, yet by the end, police sirens are alarming.  Garbage trucks are signs to not run in that particular direction.  When were we told those things?  As Chuck said, “stuff is going on throughout the entire movie.”  It acts on us even without our noticing it.  It’s int’resting that the human remains in the garbage trucks look like cigarette ash colored wall insulation, humans reduced to a poison and something industrial.  “David, you’re killing me” is correct.  The people don’t get transferred, they get copied, and the original (you) gets desiccated.  Matthew doesn’t kill Jack, he kills jack’s parasitic murderer.

    As Chuck also says, Nimoy is perfectly used, and not even just when he’s flat.  Even his sometimes very apparent humanity is something we read as compared with Spock.  And as if to remind us, we get a little Kirk, Spock, Bones dynamic in Matthew, David and Jack, so to the degree that we register emotion in him, we may subconsciously blow it off.  “What’s the emotion gauge for Nimoy? Hmm, I’m not sure.” He throws Goldblum against the wall, faking an event for Elizabeth, so human or not, he can fake emotions.  The lady he helps in the bookstore returns to Elizabeth later, now a pod but all smiles.  Likewise the dry cleaner (Wood Moy, star of Chan is Missing!), so faking it is something the pods can do.  When Kibner definitely is fully empoddened, laying on Matthew’s couch debating with Nancy, he sounds the same as he did before.  I agree with Chuck (I think it’s Chuck) that he may never be a non-pod in the film, but we don’t know, and we definitely don’t suspect him in the bookstore. We may not until he gets into the car with Geoffrey.  Whichever tuft of fluff got his body got some good people skills, which are being put to use.  His “The sooner the better” was a gasp moment in the packed crowd I saw it with when I was 9.  Nice work, Kaufman.

    On that note, the dogfaced pod got laughs (Jerry Garcia’s goofy banjo music made it feel comic), as did the “take five” line.  

    What hit me watching it this week is that it’s such a quick takeover, not weeks, but days.
    Day 1 – plants land, Geoffrey gets got.
    Day 2 – Health department, thing with the eyes.
    Day 3 – Elizabeth follows Geoffrey around, meeting Kibner, Jack’s body, rescuing Elizabeth, hunkering down at Matthew’s.
    Day 4 – Matthew on the phones, hunker pt. 2, garden of pods, fleeing with the whole city overtaken, “He can’t stay awake forever.”

    Then an epilogue, Sometime Later – day in the life of Matthew and The Big Scream

    I know what Kaufman said about Duvall, but you caught that teacher, too, in the same scene, not just watching, but outright glaring at Elizabeth.  It’s pretty brash for day one. On that second day, after Elizabeth wakes up and notices that Jeffrey is different, she and Matthew are being watched immediately. Right before they walk by the door with the creepy guy with his face pressed up against the window watching them, they step out into that hallway and pass two guys.  Just before the guys disappear off screen, they stop talking and look at our heroes, and one of them points at them. There’s some amazing editing in this that I think works subconsciously, so that by the end of the film, some of these same things become frightening, yet they remain connected to their usual, common placements, such that you left the theater and walked around the neighborhood thinking, yeah, this could be that.

    On that note, the film wisely uses the General Flat Affect which most people normally have when they’re doing things like walking around, or briefly meeting your gaze as you pass by on the street. You left Body Snatchers looking around in a world that looked just like San Francisco did in the last third of the movie, when Matthew was running around making phone calls. What a great way to help people take the scares home. Most of us don’t live near an ocean, so Jaws can really only have the lasting impact it has in coastal communities. Most of us don’t spend our time at Camp Crystal Lake every summer, so there’s that one gone. Body-snatchers? We all walk around on streets and sidewalks.

    Matthew’s intro is as effective as the use of Nimoy.  A vendetta against a restaurant is a pretty human thing (inappropriately so [In fact all of the people we first meet at the Health Dept. have some character to them]).  So is cutting newspaper clippings.  We just saw that in Close Encounters, the previous year (the other movie with scope – it’s global!).  In the end, we see him possibly taken, or possibly blending in, at the health department, but still clipping papers at home – so he is just blending in?  It’s another unfelt nudge that lets the final moment work so well.  Even if we suspected, at best we only suspected, we didn’t know until she did.

    PS – Ben Burtt needs to be commended for his organic sound design in this movie, a year before that term would be invented for (and by) Walter Murch for Apocalypse Now, all the weird noises he made for the pods, which relies the organic.  In 2002, he told me that one of the pod sounds was him blowing into his wife’s placenta.

    PPS – One note on film scoring, Jason said of Williams and Goldsmith, “You were going to get what they gave you, and you were going to like it.”  That was definitely not their attitude.  Both of them made alterations to initial scores for directors, many times, actually.  Right around this little era, Williams had re-dos in The Eiger Sanction, Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters, Jaws 2, Superman, 1941, Dracula and The Empire Strikes Back.  (Actually, that list surprises me – it’s everything but The Fury over possibly his best 5 year run).  Goldsmith had re-dos in The Swarm, Boys From Brazil and The Great Train Robbery, which isn’t as high of a percentage, but he also did massive reworks for both ALIEN and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  While that may be the way you and I might feel if we hired these guys, it very much was not their attitude.  In fact, the opposite, a kind of humility, “I work to serve the film,” still pervades the Film Composer Community.

    I actually think Williams could have done this one, just based on Images and War of the Worlds, though I don’t think he would have.  Goldsmith could have much more easily fit in, because he basically doesn’t have a sound, like Williams and Barry (Barry has at least two ‘sounds’, but you know it’s him with both).

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