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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978): Movie in Review

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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
Due to the paranoia built incredibly with shots filmed directly on the streets of San Fran, director Philip Kaufman was heralded as an iconoclast, breaking the walls of normalcy and showing us a world we no longer recognize, our own non-fictionalized world. Kaufman didn’t take us into a small California town where everyone knows your name, as in the original Don Siegel film, no, he took us into a sprawling city where recognition is hard to come by. In San Francisco, people are too busy to stop and listen to Harry “Jerry Garcia” play the banjo or to pet his bulldog and drop of few cents into his jar. A man can get run down in the street and people crowd with looks of disinterest. Vandalism can occur and witnesses simply pull the blinds close. Bizarre folds of webbed dust, as if something had been shredded, molted, or decayed, are being collected throughout the city in truck fulls, yet no one seems the wiser. Kaufman is brilliant in the way he adds his brand of creeping horror throughout the movie, building tension until we cannot help but run with the band of friends as they do whatever it takes to survive, to remain who they are, to not fall asleep. Another brilliant aspect of the film that needs to be mentioned (as it plays on our fears), the systematization of the camera, the shaky cam, putting us, the audience, right smack inside the movie, was wonderfully done. This is a remake worthy as a successor to the 1956 black and white commie-fearing original. But if we stop and ponder a moment, is Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers really a true remake or even a reboot as we know them today, or is this movie more of a continuation of the first?
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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The Many Faces of Salem’s Lot

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Thanks in part to my indulgence of never being able to get to bed early, I was able to sit down and watch both mini series versions of Salem’s Lot through the course of the week. That’s right. I watched 6 hours of of Salem’s Lot… TOTALLY WORTH IT! I’d seen the 2004 before, but it had been years ago, and I’d seen parts of the 1979 original. As luck would have it, I was able to get my hands on a copy of the original ’79 film. The 2004 one was already in my collection.

It was nice being able to watch these amazing movies once again. First off, before we dig into the meat of the discussion here, lets talk a bit about the source material for these mini series’. Its an important place to start. Salem’s Lot, as for many of you I’m sure, is one of the pillar novels every horror fanatic reads. Even people who don’t like King, read Salem’s Lot. It’s a classic vampire tale told in a very traditional way, even more traditional some would say then Richard Matheson’s I am Legend. In all it’s glory, Salem’s Lot doesn’t have some black ink virus running amok, nor does it glitter in the sunlight, nor are there packs of ravaging monsters with shark teeth. Salem’s Lot is about evil incarnate taking form in a small town that from the outside seems idyllic, but for those who walk its streets and call it home, its nothing idolize.

Here’s a short synopsis of the legendary book:

Author Ben Mears returns to ‘Salem’s Lot to write a book about a house that has haunted him since childhood only to find his isolated hometown infested with vampires. While the vampires claim more victims, Mears convinces a small group of believers to combat the undead.

Cut and dry, and for a lack of a better word, each of the mini series’ captures the jest of what King wrote, though some more than others, I’d say. In in mentioning that, I’m begging my own question, just what are the differences?

Dynamic Verses Literal Translation…

Yup. That’s pretty much what the differences boil down to. The Tobe Hooper directed 1979 made for TV movie mini series was what I’d call a dynamic interpretation of the source material, meaning, the movie is not a word for word literal translation of King’s masterpiece. Tobe took the ideals of the book and made it into his own movie, which was to be frank, creepy as fuck.

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Here’s a short synopsis of the 1979 Tobe take:

Ben Mears (David Soul) has returned to his hometown of Salem’s Lot to write a book about the supposedly haunted Marsten House that resides on a hill overlooking the small town. His project is curtailed, however, when he finds out that someone has bought the long-empty property. But when people around the Marsten House start dying mysteriously, Mears discovers that the owner of the mansion is actually a vampire who is turning them into an army of undead slaves.

Was it perfect?

No, what movie is…especially a King adaptation?

Some of the bigger differences from the book to the 1979 movie include a lot of marginalized characters, such as the priest and most of the town, though, you could argue that the town of Jerusalem’s Lot is more imaginative than the 2004 counterpart. Barlow is also a notable difference, Tobe seems to have wanted to go full Nosferatu in terms of the Master. I actually liked this version of Barlow more than in the suave 2004 version. The return of the Glick boys, I think, is also more terrifying in the 1979 take. And if we’re going to be honest, the 1979 movie was more terrifying.

So, what happened with the 2004 version?

Before we movie on, here’s a quick synopsis of the 2004 movie:

Ben Mears, a writer returns to the small Maine town of Jerusalem’s Lot (also known as Salem’s Lot), where he spent the first few years of his life, to write a book. Little does he or the townfolk realize that a couple of other new residents are coming…Straker, an antiques dealer, and his partner and master Barlow, a ancient and malevolent vampire bent on making Salem’s Lot his new home

The 2004 version was directed by Mikael Salomon, not a well known name among horror fans because as far as I know he’s never directed any horror movies, before or after. Salomon’s direction for the 2004 take of Salem’s Lot is what I’d call a literal translation. This mini series is the closest of the two compared to King’s original book. Some of the highlights that I enjoyed from this version involve the actors.

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Donald Sutherland played a wonderfully creepy Richard Straker…maybe, to be hair, too over the top. A few other favorites include, James Cromwell as the priest, and Dud Rogers, the hunchback landfill guy who traded his handicap to become not just equals with his peers, but better. I will say this about the Priest character, neither movies got it right. I like the 2004 part slightly better only because I really enjoy seeing Cromwell on screen. What they did to his character though, especially at the end…is the most annoying thing abut the redub. Even though he’s a very minor character in the mini series, I thought it was a wonderful part. And if we were to say anything comparable of the two takes on Salem’s Lot, its the focus on the characters. I thought both films did a marvelous job with that. And in fairness, perhaps the 2004 version actually brought in more of those characters than the 1979 one. The one character I could have done without was Rob Lowe. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but his narrations were buggy.

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Overall, I think because of my particular tastes for classic films, my favor is leaning towards the 1979 version. Sometimes a literal translation of a book to film doesn’t always work, in fact, it hardly ever works. Was the 2004 entertaining? Yes. And I think you should at least watch it once. Was it better then the 1979 take? No. The 1979 film took the theme of the book but made it its own movie, giving the atmosphere a more chilling presence then the 2004 counterpart. The 1979 movie really gave me an impression that evil was coming into Salem’s Lot.

My Review:

1979 = 5/5 

2004 = 3/5

Often called The Hemingway of Horror, Thomas S. Flowers strives to create character-driven stories of dark fiction ranging from Shakespearean gore dinner feasts to paranormal war thrillers. 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 and hosts a gambit of guest writers who discuss a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can follow from Thomas at a safe distance by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.


Opus Questions with Madeleine Swann

Much like the late great H.P. Lovecraft, I believe that the most merciful thing regarding humanity is our inability to grasp the whole of anything. If we could somehow piece together the great mysteries of life, said knowledge would cause us to go scampering off, mad from whatever terrifying revelation that came our way, sending us screaming gleefully from the light and into another Dark Age. And this is what horror does, is it not? Reminding us through strange and unusual stories our very own magnum opus, our grand plight as mere morals, our inability the fathom the depth of the cosmos. And horror also illuminates our desire to look, reckless and heedless as it is. We voyage into the unknown because at root we crave that which terrifies us. Horror writers of the strange and unusual are the grand heretics of the macabre, derelict puzzle guardians, whisperers in darkness asking, “What is your pleasure?” But what do this writers read? What sends them running for fear into the light? Opus Questions delves into this curiosity. To understand the works that stimulate the heretics. It most certainly feels like a prerogative. To write, you must first read. So, to keep things interesting and to be a bit villainess on my part, I’ve asked my guests, up and coming authors of bizarre tales, to tell us a bit about their favorite books. And they could pick only two. You heard me. Just two!!! (laughs manically) So, without further ado, here is…

Madeleine Swann:

The Giant Book of Zombies, 1995.

The Giant Book of Zombies, 1995.

The first book I’ve chosen is The Giant Book of Zombies, edited by Stephen Jones. It holds a special place in my heart as it was the first Christmas present from my stepdad when I was around 14 or 15 (he already knew me so well).

I was very fond of the ‘weird one at the end’ as I called it, On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks by Joe R Lansdale. Also Patricia’s Profession by Kim Newman has an intriguing take on the mythology where people pay to ‘murder’ living dead girls.

Sex, Death and Starshine, by Clive Barker, involves the mission of undead visitors in a theatre to make the director’s play as good as possible. Les Daniels’ story They’re Coming for You is about an affair that goes wrong; when my teenage self-first read the ending I laughed and laughed like the strange person I was. Finally Re-animator, Schalken the Painter and A Warning to the Curious are classics, and there are lots of other very good ones too.

The Weird, Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, 2012

The Weird, Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, 2012

 

The next one is called The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. One of my favourite genres by far is weird fiction and it’s an extra packet of biscuits if it’s dark too.

Edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer, this enormous tome (incidentally also a Christmas present, this time from mum. Hi mum!) contains almost everyone I’ve ever been influenced by ever. My eyes literally bleed and I prolapse when I try to explain how much I love this book.

Here’s just a tiny amount of those involved: Neil Gaiman (with an unexpectedly dark tale for him); Haruki Murakami; silky worded Angela Carter; George RR Martin (wrote some stuff about thrones or something); Daphne Du Maurier’s story Don’t Look Now, which became the film with Donald Sutherland; Saki (if you’ve never read Saki, do – he is possibly one of my favourites and very mischievously funny); surrealist Leonora Carrington; Robert Aickman; Kafka…need I go on? Just read it!

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I want to thank Madeleine Swann for taking the time to tell us a bit about the works that have inspired her, that have pushed her into the mad dark abyss. For those not in the know, Madeleine Swann is the author of several pieces of bizarre fiction, including her own collection of short stories, The Filing Cabinet of Doom: 17 Bizarro Short Stories. You can find Miss Swann lurking about her blog and on Twitter. Madeleine Swann is also contributing a new bizarro story in the upcoming horror anthology, The Black Room Manuscripts, due later this summer.