08 September 2018

The Entertainment Value of Paranoia

Last Sunday night (at last) I watched Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the original, that is.   When the remake came out, I saw that in the cinema, and I thought highly of it (scary enough that I did not go back a second time . . . now I am curious to revisit it, of course).  The triumph of the original is that it does not depend on any special effects beyond the era’s capabilities, most of it is the script and the acting.  Holy cats, that was Morticia (Carolyn Jones) as Teddy Belicec.  My first epiphany was the score composed and conducted by Carmen Dragon, who before was just a walk-on at the end of The In-Laws to me.  I half-wondered if Miles and Becky did not kiss too long for the censors of the day, though of course they were standing.

As a mere formality, I shall say SPOILER ALERT, though anyone who has seen even the remake, or knows a fair bit about the movie unseen, will not find any objection here.

So Becky does fall asleep, and she is taken over.  But how (or why)?  Presumably there was no pod in the tunnel.  And, the whole idea is that the pod becomes your double, perfect in every detail, except it lacks your mind, which it absorbs from your nearly sleeping self.  As I read it, there is no reason why Becky should not have awakened herself.


Oh, I almost forgot: an uncredited Richard Deacon!

Last night, then, and for the first time since watching it in the cinema when it opened, oh, 40-ish years ago, the remade Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  At the time of the original movie, the studio suits had little tolerance for genre-mixing, and after they overheard laughter and gasps alternating through the course of a test-screening, they compelled Don Siegel to drop the humorous elements.  It means something, that the movie which remained nevertheless worked as a good “study in paranoia” for the era; but it is arguably a bit flat.   What a delight, on revisiting the remake, to find (to be reminded, that is) that there is ample humor strewn here and there for comic relief, which does serve the main story, is no distraction.

So, almost completely ignorant of the original as I was back then, I missed the fact that the screaming man who rebounds from Sutherland’s cracked windscreen is Kevin McCarthy, essentially recapitulating a scene from the original.  Let alone that it was Don Siegel driving the cab which is not going to take Matt and Elizabeth to the airport.

So a core of “the team” from the original was on board with the remake, and there is a degree of “making it, now, the way we should have preferred, in 1956” at play.  Most particularly the ending, where (as 1978 director Philip Kaufman says) the movie doesn
t let the audience off the hook.

I love the ensemble in the remake—Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright.  I ought to include Brooke Adams, hers is a more central character than any, and it seems a discourtesy to her.  But.  On the one hand, unlike any of the four I named as the ensemble, Brooke Adams cut something of an indistinct figure.  Fact is, when I saw her at first, I wondered if she was Karen Allen (Marion in the Indiana Jones movies), although I soon understood that Karen Allen would have been too young at the time.  On that other hand, her role is rather passive.  Her husband, Geoffrey, pod person though he has become, is in some ways a more dramatically interesting character (in, say, the scene when Matt has had the police in to find, or not to find as it happens, the duplicate body for Elizabeth).  She winds up being Matt’s love interest, which is not simply an outgrowth of their always having been flirty friends from the start, but (again) something of a defensive reaction to the events all around them.  And, of course, like Becky Driscoll in the original, she grows too weary, and winds up needing to sleep.  One could argue that Jeff Goldblum does less actual acting than does Brooke Adams . . . he is more or less himself, plus some physicality.  But then, the tension between Goldblum and Nimoy is one of the lesser plot points (Matt telling himself, more than telling Jack, “You’ve never agreed with him in your life before”).

I like both, though my preference goes to the remake, both because of the sentimental factor—I might have been 19 when I saw it, and I was in for the ride, finding it every bit as creepy and compelling as the director might have wished—and because the elements which remake “restores” do add value.  As with the original, the special effects for the 1978 outing are, erm, organic, and serve the story and the tone perfectly.  The score is adequate, but not IMO great.  At times it feels like ABC Sunday Night Movie (so, of its era), at times like a poor man’s William Schuman, at times like the nascent synthesized music scene.  It all works, do not get me wrong; with a perhaps too-critical ear, I call it patchy, workmanlike.  There, the original with the score by Carmen Dragon gets the nod.

Other quibbles with the remake are: I think the opening outer space sequence unnecessary.  The big set-piece near the end, of Matt chopping the light cables to throw the nursery into (hopeful) ruin . . . for me, the weak point of a strong narrative arc.  And the two cuts or so in this montage, of pods spitting blood, are the weakest special effects of the flick.

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