While there is much to love about Philip Kaufman's 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers,' one particular scene remains a long-time favorite. The late Kevin McCarthy ('Piranha,' 'Twilight Zone: The Movie') will likely be best remembered as the star of the original 1956 classic on which this movie is based on (as well as the Jack Finney novel, of course). In one very cool moment of meta and self-reference, McCarthy makes a brief cameo appearance that reminds viewers of the closing moments in the first movie. And he's even credited as Dr. Miles Bennell. It also, in its own way, gives fans a more satisfying, albeit gloomy and cynical, finish to that movie's open-endedness, a conclusion closer to what was originally intended by Don Siegel, who also does a cameo as the taxi driver.
The entire sequence brings a smile to my face every time I watch it and serves as a fine example of the sort of self-awareness that goes on with this version and makes it such a joy to watch after all these years. Phillip Kaufman's remake is a rarity in the history of remakes. It's a feature film that's just as good as its predecessor, a motion picture that's mindful of its source and adds its own unique, distinctive voice without losing that which makes the original so memorable. At the core of Finney's sci-fi story about an alien invasion where human doubles are born from giant pods is a theme on universal social fears, of a terrifying realization that everyone is being turned into a vegetable, as Pauline Kael once wrote of Siegel's film.
'The Body Snatchers (1978)' opens on a mysterious planet with gelatinous spores flying through space. They land in thick globs on plants throughout San Francisco, mingling and forming little pods with pink flowers. This bit of information is mostly hinted at previously, but Kaufman puts it to great visual use and establishes a dark, eerie atmosphere of foreboding. As chilling apprehension and dread continues to slowly and methodically grow, we see unnamed characters suddenly appear on screen, running wildly as they're chased by an unfriendly-looking mob. Large, red garbage trucks come and go, carrying heaping mounds of dust. More sinister still are the endless stares by unknown, unidentified characters — one of which includes Robert Duvall — that not only gawk at one another with threatening eyes, but they also seem to be watching us through the camera.
The main characters are completely oblivious to those blank, remorseless stares — the ones we are made aware of but helpless to do anything about. And the creepiness is made all the more real after spending some time with Mathew (Donald Sutherland), Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), Jack (Jeff Goldblum) and Nancy (Veronica Cartwright). What makes it so scary is the fear of losing one's identity and individuality, of being transformed into something that lacks humanity and character. The cast, particularly Adams and Goldblum, do a splendid job in this respect, showing idiosyncratic traits that make the characters feel like genuine human beings. And so, when they run, they're not running for fear of being caught, but for fear of being assimilated. Of losing a sense of self and personal identity. And lest I forget, Leonard Nimoy is also great as the steely, detached, and skeptical Dr. David Kibner.
Kaufman, who later went on to direct 'The Right Stuff' and 'Quills,' never wastes the surrounding area of the frame, always occupying our vision with odd, peripheral action. Background activity is made just as important as everything we see in the foreground. It's brought to the attention of viewers and effectively creates a world that is gradually and systematically developing around the focal point of the film — a small group of friends and their escape. The new alien society is bit by bit encircling the protagonists. We know it's happening, but they don't. And by the time they realize it, it's too late. The horror film is already in full effect. The scary monsters have already won, even before our would-be heroes had a chance. By this point, the movie is terrifying and made ever more frightening by the bloodcurdling screams of the alien creatures. Especially that final, bleak scene of hopelessness that's just as shocking today as the first time.
'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' truly is a rarity in the movie industry. It's a remake just as good as the original and even more terrifying. It's a smartly written and well-crafted film, thanks largely to Phillip Kaufman's direction. The amazing cinematography of Michael Chapman is a brilliant addition, with the many dark, obscuring shadows generating an awful feeling of secrecy and brooding evil, creating wonderful audience engagement. Pushing this sci-fi horror feature up another notch is the avant-garde and unusual music of Denny Zeitlin, who normally worked as a clinical psychiatrist, intensifying the movie's already unnerving and unsettling sense of paranoia. The entire production simply makes for one of the best films in the horror genre, a real spooky treat full of frights as well as drama.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Imported from the United Kingdom, this Blu-ray edition of 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)' comes courtesy of Arrow Video. The Region B locked, BD50 disc arrives inside an attractive, beige-and-orange steelbook case with a picture of the film's original poster art. The package includes a glossy, 50-page booklet with color photos and an interesting essay by David Cairns entitled "We Came from Outer Space." The booklet also features an essay by Charles Freund titled "Pods over San Francisco" and a pair of interviews with director Philip Kaufman and writer W.D. Richter. At startup, viewers are taken directly to a menu screen with options along the bottom, music playing in the background and full-motion clips.
'Body Snatchers' invade the British Isles with a great-looking and generally pleasing 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that's practically identical to the American release from 2010. It wouldn't surprise if in fact the same master was licensed for this steelbook edition, which frankly is not a bad thing. The video shows excellent fine object and textural details throughout with facial complexions appearing healthy and revealing during close-ups while contrast is crisp and well-balanced. Black levels are not always consistent, but darkest portions are mostly full-bodied and shadow delineation is quite strong. Primaries are very well-saturated and bold while the rest of the palette is cleanly and accurately rendered.
The less pleasing aspects of the 1.85:1 image are due to the quality and condition of the elements used, coupled with the film's original cinematography. Several sequences are softer than others and poorly-resolved though thankfully, they don't distract from the movie's enjoyment. Low-lit interiors show spikes in the grain structure, but this is natural and to be expected. Overall, the high-def transfer has a terrific and appreciable cinematic quality that devoted fans will love.
In the audio department, Arrow Video was kind enough to offer fans two listening options: an uncompressed PCM stereo track and an upmixed DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Usually, my preference goes to that which is closest to the original design of any film, and in this case, that would be the former option, especially since it was originally recorded in Dolby stereo. However, I was shockingly underwhelmed by the PCM track, which sounded mostly hollow, detached and generally flat overall. The soundstage was wide with good separation, but overall, it didn't seem very engaging or welcoming.
To my surprise, I found myself enjoying the 5.1 upmix much better, as it exhibited a far more pleasing and broad imaging with excellent fidelity and full of warmth. Dynamics were crisp and detailed, reaching the upper ranges with superb clarity. Although not very palpable or commanding, low bass was adequate and responsive, providing some weight to the music and a few action scenes. Dialogue was precise and intelligible in the center while other background sounds occupied the other two channels, generating a terrifically enjoyable and wide soundfield. A few discrete effects moved to the rears to create a subtle ambience, but some of the memorable musical tones did the majority of the work, which added to the film's suspense and make this lossless mix greatly satisfying.
'Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)' is a very well-crafted and creepy sci-fi horror film that delivers the frights along with the drama. Phillip Kaufman's 1978 remake remains a memorable and entertaining feature with beautiful cinematography and an unconventional musical score. Arriving in an attractive steelbook edition from Arrow Video in the UK, the Blu-ray offers a great-looking video transfer and an excellent audio presentation. With a nice assortment of bonus features, fans are sure to be satisfied with this great edition, making the overall package a praiseworthy purchase for those with the capable equipment.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.