Invasion Of The Body Snatchers: How Philip Kaufman’s Remake Improved on the Original

Few remakes are as clever or scary as 1978's Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. We celebrate its 40th anniversary...

Walk into any DIY store or supermarket, and you’re likely to hear a familiar tune sung by an unfamiliar voice. It might be a cover version of Tracy Chapman’s ’80s hit Fast Car, or maybe Queen’s Crazy Little Thing Called Love.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with these alternate renditions of well-known songs – the singing’s in key, the guitar playing’s perfectly confident, but at the same time, there’s no escaping that something’s missing. An edge has been knocked off somewhere. It all sounds a little bit too sanitized.

Predictably, this brings us to the headline topic: the movie remake. They’re nothing new, and we’re all familiar with the process of plucking an old, familiar name from the archives, and producing a new version of it with current actors and sharper special effects. And while there are plenty of examples of great, even brilliant remakes – we’ll be getting to the pertinent one very shortly – it’s often the case that remakes end up like the cinematic equivalent of those songs mentioned above: perfectly competent, yet missing a vital bit of creative warmth.

Take, for example, 2012’s Total Recall. Despite producer Neal Mortiz’s pre-release insistence that Len Wiseman’s film would be a “closer” new interpretation of Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, it actually bore a far closer resemblance to Paul Verhoeven’s loose adaptation released in 1990. There wasn’t necessarily anything wrong with the resulting film – it looked slick, and it ticked along at a decent pace – but again, something was missing. That spark of absurdist Verhoeven anarchy. That sly humor lurking beneath the surface.

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Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is the absolute antithesis of something like Total Recall. It doesn’t play out like a broadened, flattened reworking of Don Siegel’s classic original, but an inspired companion piece. Naturally, it takes ideas from the 1956 version, but it does new things with them, subverts them, and presents them in unexpected ways. 

Don Siegel’s original Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, adapted from a novel by Jack Finney, saw a small Californian town subjected to an extraterrestrial takeover of the most insidious sort. One by one, its inhabitants are replaced by expressionless clones hatched from pods, and while mild-mannered local doctor Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) uncovers the whole plot, he’s too late to prevent the invasion.

Arriving at a time when anti-communist paranoia was at its height, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is widely described as one of the finest examples of the era’s ‘reds under the bed’ science fiction films. But beyond the political allegories that have been read into it over the years – allegories that author Jack Finney and actor Kevin McCarthy have said were unintentional – Body Snatchers is also a chilling film about conformity and free will. That it takes place in a sleepy town where everyone knows each other is what makes the eventual takeover all the more effective; a society connected by familiarity, warmth and friendship is quietly replaced by one devoid of emotion.

Phillip Kaufman’s remake cleverly shifts the Body Snatchers location from a small town to San Francisco – a sprawling city where warmth and familiarity are already in short supply. In Kaufman’s version of Body Snatchers, the invasion is horrifying not because family and friends are being replaced by emotionless copies, but because everyone’s too busy and self-interested to even notice. 

In remaking Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Kaufman also had the opportunity to fix the original’s studio-enforced happy ending. Siegel had originally intended for his movie to end with the unforgettable sight of Kevin McCarthy’s doctor standing on a freeway, cars hurtling left and right, as he bellows into the camera, “They’re here already! You’re next!”

Unfortunately, Allied Artists found the conclusion too bleak and disturbing for comfort, and made Siegel add a wrap-around pair of scenes which implied that, despite the invaders’ seemingly unstoppable advance, the FBI had rushed into action just in time to stop them from taking over the rest of America.

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Kaufman’s film not only avoids such a compromise, offering up its own brilliantly bleak conclusion, but even finds a way of tying the remake’s events to the original. In one brief scene, we see a cameo from McCarthy as an older Miles Bennell, yelling the same anguished lines he gasped out in the 1956 film before being chased away to his doom by a screaming mob. 

More than a throwaway call back to the earlier film (like the three-breasted lady shoehorned into the Total Recall remake), McCarthy’s cameo implies that the invasion has spread very slowly from Santa Mira in California, and is now ready to advance on San Francisco. It’s only a brief moment, but it’s an example of the thought and ingenuity Kaufman and writer WD Richter (who’d later write The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai) put into the new film.

At its core, the 1978 Body Snatchers is a similar film to the original, with a central huddle of characters – headed up by Donald Sutherland’s health inspector Matthew Bennell – gradually noticing the quiet invasion unfolding around them, and futilely attempting to escape it. Yet the 1978 film escalates the sense of creeping horror in clever ways. The growth of replacement people from gooey pods is brought to life with superb practical effects. There are flashes of quite shocking gore. A moment involving a dog and a tramp’s head is bizarre enough to cause nightmares as well as nervous laughter.

Where the protagonists in Siegel’s movie were well-to-do and crisply dressed, the characters on the run from the listless pod-people in the 78 version are engagingly off-beat. Jeff Goldblum’s Jack, a mud bath owner and struggling writer, and Veronica Cartright’s plays his skittish wife Nancy. Donald Sutherland is Matthew, a somewhat pompous health inspector, and Brooke Adams is Elizabeth, his colleague. Best of all, there’s Leonard Nimoy as an inscrutable psychiatrist who insists on wearing a weird little leather glove. They’re quirky, neurotic characters right from the beginning, but they’re invested with a kind of twitchy naturalism that makes the film as a whole feel disturbingly real.

What’s more, the pod people themselves are truly menacing. Their habit of pointing and screaming at the humans who’ve yet to be taken over has been parodied repeatedly since the 70s, yet it still has the power to curdle the blood (legend has it that Veronica Cartwright’s anguished response in the haunting final scene was genuine). But even when they’re not shrieking and pursuing their victims, the pod people are as subtly disturbing as they were in the 1956 film; in the concluding part of McCarthy’s cameo, there’s something unsettling about the way the crowd simply stand and stare emotionlessly at the character’s body lying in the street. 

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It’s in scenes like this that Kaufman’s Body Snatchers reveals its lasting relevance. In taking the original film from the small town and into the city, it explores new themes of distrust, paranoia and individualism against a more contemporary backdrop.

Kaufman’s Body Snatchers was shot at a time when distrust of the government was at its height, following the Watergate scandal and the terrible loss of life in Vietnam. These events ushered in a wave of movies filled with cynicism and resentment, including the conspiracy thrillers The Parallax View and Capricorn One. The 1978 Body Snatchers is perhaps the best film of its type to emerge from this era of fear and loathing.

(Indeed, it could even be said that it signals the end of that particular era of filmmaking; Star Wars had come out a year earlier, and provided a counterpoint to the bleak dramas that came out of the Hollywood new wave; when Body Snatchers came out in the autumn of 1978, it had the cheer of Richard Donner’s Superman to deal with.)

Body Snatchers few authority figures are strange and untrustworthy – Nimoy’s psychiatrist is little more than a post-modern snake oil salesman, who dashes off a self-help book once every six months, and, it later turns out, knows far more about the invasion than anyone realises. Meanwhile, characters talk darkly about not trusting cops. Conversations repeatedly contain the word ‘conspiracy’. Mysterious government representatives on telephones tell people not to create a panic, and most ominously, “Don’t mention to anyone about duplicate bodies.”

It’s a Body Snatchers for the post-flower power age of feminism and pop psychology, and could be a read as a meditation on the loss of identity in the modern age. It’s the city relocation, and the aggressive, furtive otherness of the invaders, as opposed to the drone-like listlessness of the ’50s pod people, that makes the 1978 Body Snatchers more than just another sci-fi rehash.

It helps, of course, that the ideas present in Jack Finney’s original novel are strong enough to withstand multiple takes on the same story, since there’s also much to recommend about Abel Ferrara’s 1993 version, simply titled Body Snatchers (the less said about 2007’s The Invasion, the better). But it takes a director and writer as clever as Kaufman and Richter to not just retell an existing story, but create something fresh and tonally different with it.

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This, then, is why 1978’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is the prime example of a perfect remake. it’s more than just a reworking of the same elements, or a soulless cover version of a popular song. It’s a remake that deconstructs the original film, understands what is great about it, and then reassembles those component parts into something new and quite, quite terrifying.

If only all remakes could be as intelligent as this one.