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“They Get You When You Sleep!”: 
A Salute to 1978’s ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’

Not counting anything written by Shakespeare, you’d be hard pressed to name another bit of literature that has been adapted into a movie as many times as Jack Finney’s 1953 story The Body Snatchers.

Finney’s novel of alien pod-people taking over a small town is a reflection of the paranoia of the 1950s, and a barely-veiled allegory for McCarthyism and the national fear that the Commies were coming to take over.
The story stands up remarkably well today—as all significant and resonant sci-fi will do—because its themes of personal identity, infiltration, loss of emotion, and fear of contamination can be readily applied to the terrors of the world, no matter what era.

This explains why this particular bit of sci-fi has been filmed and remade so many times (four official versions so far). The first black-and-white film adaptation from Don Siegel in 1956 came at the tail end of the McCarthy era, but its Cold War paranoia was palpable then and remains chillingly persuasive today.

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Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version is a remake as well as a continuation. The same ideas that were in 1956 an allegory for the Cold War are expounded on for a different era—a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate age of cynicism, distrust, narcissism, ecological pollution, and sexual revolution. There are nods aplenty to Siegel’s adaptation, but when Kevin McCarthy from the original film bounces off Donald Sutherland’s fender and rants and raves about how “They’re already here! Help! You’re next! They’re coming!,” it is a clear suggestion that this is the same guy from the black-and-white movie, still on the run from the pod-people of Santa Mira and now being chased by a mob in San Francisco.

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Moments later, he’s flattened by a car—a fiendishly twisted and multi-pronged homage to the film and to actor McCarthy, and one that is somehow appropriate given the bleak original ending of the 1956 movie (ultimately softened with studio-mandated bookend bits).  Kaufman’s film isn’t solely homage, however: several distinctive signature elements of Body Snatchers lore were born here, most memorably the elaborated life cycle of the pods and the alien-pig-squeal shriek of a pod-person, cribbed without shame by director Abel Ferrara in his 1993 remake.

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As for the action being transplanted from small-town Americana to the streets of San Francisco, perhaps no other American city in the 1970s—with its eclectic population of flower children, freaks, geeks, and stiffs—could have served as a more ideal base of operations for “Pod Central.” The city itself serves as a character, and it really lends the film tremendous production value and gives it an epic scale. The two subsequent remakes in 1993 and 2007 are pricier and flashier, yet neither movie feels as “big” as Kaufman’s version.

Technical aspects are top notch, and the film’s seething organic-and-synthetic musical score, its squishy sound design, the fascinating and gruesome practical pod effects, and the darkly lit film-noir-style camerawork all coalesce into one giant dreamscape of dread.

If you haven’t actually viewed Kaufman’s 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and you’ve somehow avoided spoilers, be warned, as I’m going to dwell a bit on the shocking ending.

Just like in the film noir of the B&W days and the classic conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, the climax is a downer—the biggest of all downers: the ending of the world has commenced and life as we know it will never be the same again. The final blood-curdling shriek is the most wrenching turn of the screws, a bleak resolution that assures us unequivocally that we are doomed.

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While digesting that final morsel of terror, the end credits roll in stark silence. No spooky theme, no skittering sound effects, nothing; the film doesn’t even let us off the hook with exit music, apropos for a movie scored by a one-shot film composer who was so exhausted after the grueling mixing sessions that he quit Hollywood and vowed to never work on another motion picture again.

Alas, you cannot appreciate the vastness of the 1978 film’s greatness without having seen the subsequent inferior remakes—one progressively more dispiriting than the next, though both have their well-earned moments of queasy tension and icky viscera.

Abel Ferrara’s 1993 film Body Snatchers uses the military as a microcosm for society, and lurking beneath the alien invasion is the tale of a military brat enduring her parents’ divorce, and a rumination on how soldiers are reconditioned during combat training and in war. With Gulf War I still very recently headline news at the time of the film’s release, the themes of Ferrara’s version are muddled, and I never feel an emotional attachment to any of its characters like I do with the 1956 and 1978 versions. I’m still not quite sure if the ultimate pod takeover is supposed to be viewed as tragedy or triumph.

The 2007 remake The Invasion is not quite a fiasco, but it’s a big hot mess. Its gravest misstep is in tinkering with the plot, turning it into an Outbreak-type virus thriller, only here the virus is from outer space. For no apparent reason, the film is set in Washington, D.C.—an intriguing locale ripe with politically themed possibilities, all of them squandered.

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In jiggering the formula, the screenplay jettisons one of the signature elements of the book and three previous films—the actual duplicate bodies along with the associated garbage truck imagery and ooey-gooey pod-person effects. (Note no corporeal thievery is referenced in the 2007 film’s truncated title.)

Even with the sour memory of the 2007 version still in mind, I am anxiously awaiting the inevitable next iteration of Finney’s novel. Were it filmed today, I trust its themes would serve as a fitting metaphor for how people allow themselves to be brainwashed by mass media, influenced by ugly political discourse, and provoked to hostility. In which case, heaven help us all, because “They’re already here! Help! You’re next! They’re coming! They’re coming!!

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As for Kaufman’s immortal 1978 interpretation, perhaps I wouldn’t go so far as to proclaim it the best remake ever, but it’s certainly the crown jewel of scary movie reboots, and gives the whole concept of Hollywood movie remakes a good name.

Take some time to revisit it again. But be careful—“They get you when you sleep!”

And…Happy Halloween.

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