Adam Nayman on Invasion of the Body Snatchers
When I was nine or ten years old, I was allowed to rent two movies a week from the public library around the corner from our house; one fateful weekend, I selected Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake of Don Siegel's 1956 chiller Invasion of the Body Snatchers, based largely on the cover art, which showed four figures running against an abstract beige backdrop, trailing twisted black shadows. Looked creepy, I thought, and my hopes were stoked even further by the promise, written in bold text on the back of the box, that the film contained "perhaps the scariest last shot of all time!"
I almost didn't make it to the—as good as advertised—final shot because of something that occurred during the penultimate set piece, when Donald Sutherland's Matthew Bennell—one of the last San Franciscans unaffected by the titular invasion of extra-terrestrial usurpers—lays waste to a greenhouse stocked with alien seed pods. Perched on an elevated catwalk, Matthew hacks at the wires supporting the building's track lighting system, sending the bulbs crashing onto the rows of chubby green pods, crushing them beneath their weight and also starting an electrical fire. And then, walking amidst the flames, Matthew's friend and unrequited love interest, Elizabeth (Brooke Adams)—now inhabited by an alien consciousness, and completely starkers—spots her former friend and, pointing up and in his direction, lets loose with a bloodcurdling scream, a sound effect derived from recordings of pig squeals, courtesy of sound-effects genius Ben Burtt (who was coming off his Oscar-winning work for Star Wars).
It's not the first time in the film that we see —or hear—a pod person communicate in this way. An early scene on a suburban street is shattered by just such a call before we've been given the narrative information to contextualize it; a scene where the film's four protagonists—Matthew, Elizabeth, and also the loveable hippie mud-bathhouse owners Jack and Nancy Belicec (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright —are chased by a vengeful mob weaves the shrieks into Denny Zeitlin's spiky synthesizer score; a moment where Nancy's studiously maintained calm breaks in the face of an unfortunate dog-human hybrid contrasts her choked sob with the roared warning of the woman beside her. And it's obviously not the last, since that famous final shot, which, for those of you who might not have seen the movie, reunites two of our heroes for a very unhappy ending, is bathed in those very tones, filling the soundtrack as the camera pushes into a trilling maw, into blackness, and then silence as the credits roll. It’s the first true quiet in a film of ingenious sound design, starting with the moist, organic throbbing undergirding the main titles, and extending to the way that the soundtrack gradually switches from natural to mechanical background noises as an analogue to the narrative's body-snatching action.
But back to Brooke in the greenhouse: twenty years later, I can still remember my exact reaction to the shot where she points out her former friend and lover, her serene features suddenly contorted, her tongue lolling snake-like and (in my mind's eye) impossibly long. Simply put, I freaked the fuck out, and missed the next two minutes of the movie by going to the kitchen for a glass of water, trying to convince myself that it was because I was thirsty but knowing that I was truly upset and confused and not just because of the palpable sense of taboo in seeing a naked woman onscreen. The sound-image combination—a beautiful human form in a fertile, fiery, elemental space, suddenly emitting a noise that undercut her allure and laid in her inhumanity as bare as her skin— was simply overwhelming.
I'd like to think that the scene would still be just as powerful absent these particular spectatorial circumstances, although my dozen or so viewings of the film are necessarily tinged by this first encounter. From a more detached point of view, however, I can say with some confidence that Invasion of the Body Snatchers 2.0 resonates as strongly as it does because it is the rare—or possibly only—entry in the people-are-being-taken-over subgenere (which I would extend to include the recent zombie-apocalypse cycle) in which the personalities of the body-snatched register beyond perfunctory types. Whatever sociocultural smugness might be latent in W.D. Richter's (generally brilliant) update of novelist Jack Finney's original 1950 scenario—which transplants the action from a cookie-cutter small town to a fog-shrouded, subtly gentrified San Francisco—is offset by the warmth of the actors.
It might seem enough to simply cast a furry rascal like Donald Sutherland in a role previously essayed by a milquetoast square-jaw like Kevin McCarthy, but there's also a real performance here—one that makes Matthew Bennell attractive in a way that other non-alpha male Seventies leads (including Sutherland himself in Klute) never quite managed. The scene where a frazzled Elizabeth avails Matthew of her suspicions that her dentist boyfriend (a nicely anodyne Art Hindle) has been "changed" plays on several levels at once, bringing the creeping unease of the film's early passages into sharp relief while also confirming his romantic feelings for his co-worker. Matthew’s semi-requited yearning made more affecting by the fact that he seems to be genuinely interested in making her feel better rather than using her anxiety as a way to get her into bed—although he does make a (welcome) joke about getting her some more wine. As for Adams, well, she's eminently worth carrying a torch for, wringing endearing effects out of her throaty voice in addition to her more obvious charms (including a bit of eyeball-spinning that, in one of Sutherland's best line deliveries, is framed as proof that she's "not crazy").
The genuine affection between these characters raises the stakes as the plot machinery kicks in and they go on the run from the body-snatched (who are led, in another masterstroke of casting, by America's favorite alien, Mr. Spock, with Nimoy doing a perfect impersonation of a soft-pedal psych-guru). Our fear that they might be caught is heightened by our understanding that something valuable would be lost in the process: told that she will “awaken into an untroubled world, free of love” Elizabeth veritably spits out "I love you" in Matthew's direction—a defiant affirmation that is also a credible revelation (and Sutherland's face registers Matthew's understandably mixed emotions beautifully).
When they escape their captors and make a run for the city's fringes, they might as well be the last man and woman on Earth, which sets up Kaufman's jaw-dropping reverse-Eden imagery—again, only as good as the aural manipulations that cue it. Searching for a way out, Matthew momentarily abandons Elizabeth in a field; his discovery that the harbor is teeming with co-opted vessels transporting pods across the ocean is amplified by a haunting organ rendition of "Amazing Grace" which is then rudely truncated and replaced by ominous radio chatter. Elizabeth has since fallen asleep in the field and as Matthew returns to embrace her, whispering comforting nothings, she crumbles to dust —an amazingly ambitious and vivid physical special effect in a movie full of them. She then rises through gnarled, beige foliage as a blank, seductive Eve, extending a bare arm to tempt Matthew into oblivion, loudly repeating his name evenly in a cruel parody of an earlier scene where she had roused him from a potentially fatal stupor in his backyard— the last time that we'll hear that rich, tender voice before it's supplanted by that horrible, heartbreaking howl.