Halloween is almost upon us, about it and I have to confess that I haven’t been feeling it this year. Blame a busy work schedule, hassles with an ongoing process of dental reconstruction, or the reajustment of priorities due to a spouse recovering from a busted ankle — whatever the cause(s) may be, the fact remains that spark of excitement which hits as soon as the nights grow colder and the leaves begin to turn has passed me by this time round. The ennui has extended to my spooky season viewing habits, with the month-long horror marathons of previous Octobers reduced (so far) to a handful of films caught on the lower-tier movie channel fly…
…like Body Snatchers.
I passed on catching the film during its initial run back in 1994, and would have done the same a couple weekends back if not for the impressive list of talents cited in the opening credits. Any movie helmed by dude behind Ms. 45, co-plotted by the schlock auteur behind The Stuff and co-scripted by the trash cinema genius responsible for Re-Animator had to be worth a look…or so I foolishly assumed.
Body Snatchers is the third movie adaptation of Jack Finney’s influential sci-fi novel, and therein lies the biggest problem with the film.
The notion that vampires speak with Bela Lugosi’s suavely sinister Eastern European accent has been internalized by folks who have never seen the 1931 film version of Dracula, as echoes of the source material have resonated through the shared space of pop culture for decades now. The same applies to the tropes associated with the Body Snatchers franchise, where the mechanics pod-borne assimilation have become the stuff of referential familiarity.
Granted, all genre material — including horror — is subject to a form of predictability which inevitably incorporates the efforts to deviate from the established formulae. It’s never a question whether Jason will kill the randy teenagers, but rather when and how. Execution (no pun intended) and craft are what separates the wheat from the shopworn chaff, but the “body snatchers” concept is faced with the additional hurdle in that the thrills and chills are predicated on a paranoiac dread rooted in a sense of uncertainty.
An epidemic of odd behavior is noticed in a community. The protagonist starts off unconvinced but begins to sense that something terrible truly is unfolding. The nature of the invasion is revealed. The protagonist struggles against the horde and assimilated former friends/allies/loved ones, resulting in an ambiguous or downbeat ending. It’s a mystery tale wrapped in a sci-fi thriller wrapped in a horror story, and one familiar to anybody who has dipped his or her toes into pop culture’s communal pool.
The 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers film shifted the theme and setting of the original film and novel away from 1950s concerns about communist infiltration and creeping conformity in a small town and onto the post-Watergate disillusionment and slouching apathy of the Boomer generation. Body Snatchers updated the formula to include teenage angst and conformist culture of the military — perfectly workable material within the overall context, and yet horribly developed in practice.
What you got was pretty, pouty Marty (Gabrielle Anwar) sulking her way — with the help of some excruciatingly Emily Dickeisonian narration — through familial issues with her EPA scientist father, stepmother and younger step-brother as they adjust to life on the sinister Fort Foreshadowing Military Reservation. The establishing sequences — which are crucial for setting up the right note of dread — do contain a couple of legitimate creeps, yet most (with the exception of a nightmarish interlude in a primary school art class) presume and depend on a familiarity with the 1978 remake.
In any case, the suspense-building groundwork is given short shrift in order to cut to the chase thriller which constitutes the husk and tendrils of the cinematic proceedings — an oft-contradictory series of lazy fake-outs, uninspired action sequences, and underwhelming squicky bits that culminate in airborne pyrotechnics and (SHOCK OF SHOCKS) an ambiguously downbeat ending.
It seems odd that the filmmakers would take a franchise whose underlying strength resided in its metaphoric aspects and then proceed to downplay said aspects. While that could have been a deliberate decision to break from tradition, the extensive references to the previous films run counter to that theory and suggest the film is what it appears to be — the analog precursor of a SyFy Channel original picture (only with more full frontal Meg Tilly) cranked out during a time when the horror film genre was staggering through a downcycle.
Recommended listening: Blood & Roses – Possession (from Enough Is Never Enough, 1985)[audio:111027brp.mp3]
Let the power of anarchopunk compel you…to form a gothic rock band.