Read the following quote: “They’re already here! Help! You’re next! They’re coming! They’re coming!” Disturbed? Bothered? Maybe a little scared? Well, you should be. This quote is meant to knock you off kilter. In this 1978 remake of the classic 1956 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” there are no pulled punches. With a surprised PG rating, the fear is turned up high, not with over-the-top gore or practical effects (though there are some really haunting scenes) or naughty language, but with an idea, a very real idea of not knowing the people around you. Who are they? We don’t know. You don’t know. But they’re odd. They talk without speaking. They look cold and calculated. The city is as it always has been, but slowly and surly those unknown faces are being replaced with even stranger ones. Stoic. Everywhere. And always watching.
Before we delve into this review, here’s a quick fire synopsis to jog your memory:
“This ‘remake’ of the classic horror film is set in San Francisco. Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) assumes that when a friend (Brooke Adams) complains of her husband’s strange mood, it’s a marital issue. However, he begins to worry as more people report similar observations. His concern is confirmed when writer Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum) and his wife (Veronica Cartwright) discover a mutated corpse. Besieged by an invisible enemy, Bennell must work quickly before the city is consumed” -Wiki
Let me back up.
Remember the quote at the beginning of our discussion? That quote comes from a very odd character, one you may recognize, if you’ve got a good eye. At the end of the 1956 film, producers felt on edge to leave the movie with the writer’s original script as Doctor Bennell walks down the freeway, shouting, “They’re here already! You’re next!” Instead, they added the scene which implied the FBI rescuing America, rushing in and destroying the invaders. The quote at the beginning is from the 1978 version, with notions of 1956, where we find the leading cast members driving in the city and theorizing. Matthew Bennell is attempting to calm his love interest, Elizabeth, who is convinced something is terribly wrong with her live-in boyfriend, Geoffrey. “He’s just…different,” she says. All of a sudden, a man dashes out and lands on the hood of Matthew’s car. He’s grey haired with wide bloodshot eyes and looks eerily like Dr. Miles Bennell from that small town in California. Panicked, he begs for help. Realizing, no help will be given, he warns Matthew and Elizabeth…”They’re here,” he shouts. “They’re coming!” And he dashes off, only to be run down in the middle of the street. This little scene is the most genius one in the film. Not saying there aren’t other more jarring scenes, because there are, but this one is superb because it ties together the past to the present.
The scene also implies that the events of 1956 did not end with the salvation from the hands of the FBI, but the invasion has continued to grow, slowly, and now, those “pods” have set sights on the budding metropolis of San Francisco, and as we see during the dockside events in the 1978 Invasion movie, as the “pods” are being loaded into the ships docked at port, the world seems to be their game. While in 1956, the invasion event was isolated to the small town… that’s simply not the case anymore.
There are so few remakes nowadays that are as brilliant as this one, if we can even call Invasion of the Body Snatchers a remake, just as it is difficult to call John Carpenter’s The Thing a remake as well, though he has testified, calling his work as such. One would think, given the way remakes and reboots are the norm today, someone within the echelons of Hollywood would remember the key elements from classic remakes of original films. To make a remake great, or even attempt to create something even more grandiose than the original, as we’ve seen in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there must be a balance between disassembling what made the original great, understanding those themes and nuances, and then reassembling the components into something new. And of course we would hope the remake was thoroughly thought-out and warranted as well. If the balance is done right, the remake shouldn’t feel like a remake at all, but another “title” movie. Personally, I don’t even like using the term “remake” for films like these. If the balance is done right, I’d rather call them “continuations.” But I know I am in the minority with such notions.
Originality, of course, is the name of the game, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers has it in spades. The relationships are what sold me. Donald Sutherland as the hardnosed Health Inspector, who is as sharp as a razor with snobby overpriced restaurant owners, always with a keen eye for rat turds, but is soft as rose petals and somewhat blinded with his love interest, and unavailable by the way, Elisabeth Driscoll, played by the fantastic Brooke Adams. Watching them on screen is mesmerizing. How he loves her, yet understands he cannot have her, but still wants to protect her. And how can we forget the dynamic between pop-psychologist Dr. David Kibner, played by late-great Leonard Nimoy and Jack Bellcec, a not-so-popular (or even published writer for that matter) philosopher who scoffs at how easily Kibner pumps outs books; also one of Jeff Goldblum’s earlier roles by the way. I found it very interesting how the first of the friends to put the mystery together, though perhaps she went a bit far in her “Worlds in Collision” and “Flowers in Space” paranoia, was Nancy Bellcec (played by Alien star Veronica Cartwright), Jake’s wife, who at the end (SPOILERS!) is the sole survivor of the small party of friends. And it gives me even more pause in how she survived. Every time she is swallowed up by the crowd and separated from Matthew and Elizabeth, we assume she was “taken.” However, there she is, she turns up unscathed because she has learned to “act” like one of the “pods.” Though how much of that is really an act, I wonder. When Matthew and Elizabeth are discovered, unable to hid their humanity and doing a poor job “blending in,” Nancy quietly disappears into the mob as they turn on her friends only to turn up again at the end. What does her character tell us? What questions does she raise? Perhaps, that to survive a world in which individuality has faded into a common core one must assimilate similar behavior of the so-called “hive mind…” It certainly begs the question of what the original writers were thinking (be it fear of Communism or fear of Conservatism), and of course what was Kaufman thinking as well.
To all of these questions, I imagine, we must answer for ourselves.
With a face only a mother could love, Thomas S. Flowers hides away to create character-driven stories of dark fiction. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, his debut novel, Reinheit, was soon published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews movies and books on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can hide from Thomas by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.
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Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the last of Universal’s classic monsters. The Creature Walks Among Us, released in 1956 in 3D, was the final movie showcasing one of the original pillars of horror and the end to a rather lengthy franchise. All things considered, it is a very sad farewell. To say goodbye to an era of film now entombed in cinematic history, discussed only by historians and the most dedicated of film noir nerdom. But sometimes its okay to say goodbye. There’s a famous saying, stop me if you’ve heard this before, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” In many respects, for whatever dollar bill reason, producers keep certain franchises going, long past their prime. I think the classic Universal Monsters could have probably ended with The Creature from the Black Lagoon back in 1954, but as it would seem, there was still a little life left in the series. The 1950s, the Atomic Age, the Red Scare Days, were breeding a different type of monster. For horror in America, there was either radiated beasts and scientific blunders OR invaders from space. There was no fear for the gothic tales of old anymore. Mythology wasn’t scary anymore, not knowing who your neighbors might be, not knowing if someone was going to invade your town, or not knowing if some mutated creature created from mankind’s atomic mistakes was going to come and bite them on the ass, that was scary. Times were changing, and The Creature Walks Among Us debuted at the curtain call, giving the long loved characters of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, and The Mummy a somewhat provocative end. There is some interesting dualities at play in this film. Man verses nature. Regression verses progression (symbolized in this movie with the return to the jungle verses the coming space age). And of course, domestication and women’s suffrage (represented here between Dr. Barton and his wife, Marcia). All seemingly packed in tight inside an 80 min movie. Did it work? Was The Creature Walks Among Us a proper goodbye to a franchise spanning three decades? Lets see what our esteemed guest has to say.
THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US
By Daniel Marc Chant
Today franchise film making is in vogue, no studio likes to just release a standalone solo film but rather pin their hopes on each installment being part of a wider cinematic universe. It’s therefore easy to grow weary of sequel after sequel and remakes of films barely a decade old. But way back in the 1950’s it was a much different story, horror films didn’t really get directly connected sequels.
While the Universal Monsters films were all painted on the same loose tapestry they didn’t really share any meaningful connections and the studio’s need for more meat for the grinder meant the later films suffered in terms of quality and consistency. Indeed in 1954, when The Creature From the Black Lagoon first crawled from the depths, Universal’s fortunes were already in decline and had been for many years. So when the titular Creature struck box office gold the studio wasted no time in green lighting a sequel – Revenge of the Creature (Clint Eastwood’s first film!). The film was a success for Universal’s coffers and so, once again, they craved more meat for the grinder. And so, in 1956, The Creature Walks Among Us hit multiplexes in the hopes of scaring cinema-goers out of their hard earned dollars.
As with Revenge, little to no explanation is given why the Creature is once again among us. In Revenge the monster is mercilessly gunned down by Policeman on a beach but reports of its death is (of course) greatly exaggerated so a team of scientists pursue the Creature from the Florida aquarium where it was captured in the prior film to the swampy Everglades. So douchebag scientist William Barton (Jeff Morrow) and his beautiful wife Marcia (Leigh Snowden) head out with professional hunter Jed Grant (Gregg Palmer), geneticist Thomas Morgan (Rex Reason), and biologists Borg (Maurice Manson) and Johnson (James Rawley). The relationship between Marcia (presumably here as bait given the Creature’s predilection for hot women in swimsuits), William and Jed is an overwrought love triangle that even has Jed attempting to rape Marcia not once but twice. Add to the mix her asshole of a husband and the rest of the cookie cutter cast soon become annoying distractions leading you to actually root for the Creature. In fact for the majority of the film’s run time the Creature is arguably the most human character and does little to live up to his monstrous reputation until the film’s climactic ending.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The group track the monster down in the Everglades, recycling a lot of the underwater footage from the first film in the process, and during a clumsy fight the Creature inadvertently sets itself on fire and is hit by two shots of Grant’s tranquilizer gun causing it to collapse and be captured. When aboard the ship surgery on the monster’s body reveals that the fire has damaged the skin of the Creature and, as they investigate further, they soon realize that the outer layer of skin hid a layer of human-like skin beneath the surface, and as a result of this discovery the creature morphs and loses its gills and begins to breathe using humanoid lungs.
It’s here that Barton goes full mad scientist and in the grounds of his mansion begins to experiment with the Creature’s mind as well as his body, but the Creature has become rather enamoured with Barton’s wife (as you’d expect) and soon becomes the patsy for Barton’s jealous rage. Barton catches Marcia and Grant swimming, and attempts to throw the hunter out but in a heated exchange Barton pistol-whips the hunter to death. He drags the body to the pen where the Creature lies captive in an attempt to shift the blame to the aquatic beast, but he has switch off the power to the pen’s electrified fence, and in a moment of predictable stupidity doesn’t have time to turn it back on. This gives the Creature an opportunity to escape and he storms after Barton, giving him his comeuppance when he catches up before lumbering off to the seaside, wading into the water. What’s important to note about this sequence is that the creature can no longer breathe underwater so, effectively, the monster is committing suicide. You can draw some deep meaning out of this sequence if you so wish, and indeed again the Creature is the most sympathetic character within the whole film. The whole ‘man is the real monster’ concept is something that litters genre media today but this film was one of the first to have a completely unlikable cast other than the monster, whether that was intentional on the part of the filmmakers or not is unclear but I like to think this subtext is there on purpose.
I’m sad to say that the creature FX is sorely lacking in this installment, the prosthetics and make-up look distinctly cheap and the lithe athletic beast from the first film is, after it’s skin shedding, a distinctly larger and hulking behemoth by comparison. Giving some of the complexity mentioned above it’s a shame that the FX can’t equally match the opportunity for emotion a few story beats provide.
While the film has a lot of interesting ideas none are fully developed and are thrown out in preference of script brevity and cheap production values. Universal had an opportunity with this third chapter to broaden the mythology, expand and develop the world in which the beloved Creature inhabits but due to their desperate longing for their golden age with Dracula and Frankenstein they didn’t give the Creature adequate room to breathe.
Indeed there’s a metaphorical comparison with the Creature and Universal’s fortunes at the time, both formerly larger than life but now struggling to find their place in a world they no longer understand and therefore having to react quickly, and aggressively, at their change in circumstances. This misguided passion unfortunately means The Creature Walks Among Us falls significantly short of its lofty forebear but remains an important stepping stone in the journey of Universal’s hallowed monster canon.
Daniel Marc Chant is the published author of several terrifying tales, including: Maldicion, Burning House, and his newest venture, Mr. Robespierre. Daniel is also one of the founders of The Sinister Horror Company, the publishing team that brought us such frights as, The Black Room Manuscripts and God Bomb!. You can follow Daniel on his blog, here.