WeMissE: So, keeping in tune with the Halloween season, we had time to watch another scary movie. This time we decided to skip the original and go right to the remake. There are four different Body Snatcher movies, and the second version, directed by Philip Kaufman in 1978, is considered by many fans and critics to be the best of the bunch.
This isn’t really a horror movie by today’s standards. It has no gore to speak of, and no real “gotcha!” moments either. What this movie has in spades is a deeply unsettling feeling. Kaufman never lets the viewer get comfortable. In many of the movies images, something is just a little off. I noticed from very early on that he often used unconventional camera angles. Sometimes the camera is very low, shooting up at people faces from the waist. Sometimes he uses close-ups in unexpected places. Characters are often in darkness. The movies deepening paranoia keep the viewer on edge, expectant. And then Kaufman obscures the images in ways that keep you from seeing what you want to see.
In an early scene, Donald Sutherland’s windshield is broken by some angry cooks at a restaurant he inspects. This incident really happens for one reason; so that in a later scene, when Sutherland and Brooke Adams are driving in this car, the windshield is splintered into a spiderweb of cracks. As Adams is talking about how the city looks the same, but somehow people are different, the camera is face forward, looking through the window. Except we can’t see clearly. There is another scene in a bookstore where Donald Sutherland and Jeff Goldblum can only be seen in a mirror’s reflection, but it’s one of those funhouse mirrors that distorts the image. Kaufman does good a job as any director I can think of at keeping his audience off-balance.
The foreground is not the only thing Kaufman is peppering us with imagery. We see plenty of references to pod plants being stuffed into garbage trucks throughout the film. While the characters are pushing their narrative in the foreground, things just keep right on happening in the background.
Not only are the angles and scenery off-putting, the soundtrack does an excellent job emitting a disquieting feeling to the viewers. The whole film is filled with intermittent nauseous sounds. Seeing Goldblum in that fun house scene you mention also reminded me of another filmmaker he worked with, Robert Altman. In that very scene, we see Sutherland’s Bennell and Goldblum’s Bellicec having two different level conversations at the same time. Bennell is talking on the phone, and Bellicec is disturbingly talking over him at the same time. This method ratchets tension, even though there are no boogeymen to be found.
Sometimes the sound come from the scene, like when Bellicec’s radio tuning turns into a rhythmic pounding as they gather in Bennell’s apartment. That pounding then turns into a swelling echo as the pods begin to grow.
When Bennell starts making calls to Kibner and other city officials and Elizabeth starts testing the flowers, there is a surging keyboard sound that pushes through into a siren and then a ringing phone. This repeats into a surging sound as a series of calls emanate while Bennell walks through town, feeling the oppression settle in.
One sound that is completely unsettling is the screeching wail of Cartwright’s Nancy Bellicec. She has two of the most memorable screams in cinematic history. One, of course is the “Oh God!” she emits in the midst of the birth of the xenomorph in Alien. The other is at the very end of this film.
If the ethereal soundtrack and ambient noises lull you into a sense of dread, her scream is the sound that wakes you to a nightmare. Am I the only one who finds it ironic that she is the one that discovers the secret to walking among the turned is by showing no emotion?
That’s a great observation, I’m glad you pointed that out. Setting the movie in San Francisco was a great choice. It is such a cinematic city, and this film ranks right up there with Vertigo, Zodiac and the Dirty Harry franchise for making the city a character in the movie. While Hitchcock and Fincher gave the city by the Bay a more stylized look, Philip Kaufman makes it dirty, gritty, with lots of shadows in the corners. Some credit has to be given to cinematographer Michael Chapman, who shot a few movies for Martin Scorsese in this same time period. The lighting works in conjunction with the music to create that sense of foreboding we talked about earlier.
Besides Veronica Cartwright’s trademark screams, the acting is solid. Sutherland and Goldblum fall squarely in the character actor camp, even though they have both been cast as leads from time to time. They are two stalwart actors who have been contributing solid performances for 4 decades apiece. It’s interesting to see Leonard Nimoy in any role that is not Spock. I wouldn’t say that he got the opportunity to show a great range here, but that was due to the limitations of the character. How would you classify the performances?
San Francisco is one of the major cities of the cinema, to be sure. I could add Foul Play, Escape from Alcatraz, Freebie and The Bean and So I Married an Axe Murderer among the films that use the scenery to their advantage.
The performances are solid, circa 1978. In an era when colleagues could be work friends and deny the chemistry between them until they are brought to a crisis point, Adams and Sutherland play the mature relationship angle for all it’s worth. One gets the definite feeling of the chemistry between the two. This is especially effective in the kiss they share when they are on the run in the last third of the film.
This is Adams on her way up in what may be somewhat an underwhelming career. Interestingly, she is related to the namesake of one of the two names for our series, John Adams.
It’s a good role and performance, though. A strength in the development of the cast here is that the bigger characters aren’t necessarily the ones we see rising to the challenge, even if they do a majority of the sleuthing. I really enjoy this aspect of the film. It makes one feel like the stakes are higher. Sutherland excels in his ability to vary between scared and scary. It’s hard to think that his box office draw was any stronger than it is here. As you say, he’s had a solid career.
It’s amazing to witness Goldblum before he is at the height of his powers of Goldbluminess. It’s more than a little strange to see him play someone as incredibly straight as a struggling writer. Then again, seeing as he and his wife run a bathhouse in San Francisco in the 70’s, straight might be relative.
It was beginning to look like an awful Nimoy performance, but for the saving grace of revealing that he is indeed turned by the time we’ve seen him first. Even so, the hugging and togetherness would seem a strange move for one who has been configured to have no use for emotions. In the end, his performance is salvaged and brought back to his strength as an actor.
That is one strength of Kaufman using Richter’s script. There is no over explaining of plot elements. We don’t know a ton about the invaders. We don’t know why their planet died out. We do know they’re used to taking over. That’s enough, and thank God they never came up with a sequel to explain even more.
That’s a good point. There is that one scene of exposition where the already-changed Nimoy gives a little back story, but that’s all there is to it. We are left with a lot of unanswered questions, which makes the movie even more unsettling.
Kaufman did a lot with a little in this movie. Other than warehouse finale which is full of explosions and mayhem, there is very little spectacle in this movie. It was made very economically, with practical effects, and they work very well. I’m not one of those purists who laments the age of digital effects, but when I look at how convincing the effects in this movie are, I do have a lot of respect for the artistry in the craftsmanship of those early effects. Digital effects can be great, but they often lack subtlety. When we finally get to see a pod “birthing” its host body, the shock does not come from it being bloody or gruesome. Rather, it is slow, laborious, matter-of-fact, and all the more horrifying because of it.
Philip Kaufman is an interesting case, right? He had a sweet spot of about a decade where his fingerprints were on a bunch of really good movies, either as writer or director. Then his output slowed down considerably. His career arc reminds me of Curtis Hanson, who started as a B-movie director, then achieved greatness for a few years. As I close out my comments on this movie and bid you good day, I ask: what is the legacy of Kaufman as a director, and does this stand as his best film?
This is probably approaching the crest of Kaufman’s greatness, but with the Indiana Jones story credit for Raiders of the Lost Ark, then The Right Stuff in the early 80’s, one would have to think that era is likely his sweet spot. I have never seen The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry & June, but they have garnered some esteem over the years. Let’s just say by the time he was pissing off Crichton with his lukewarm take on Rising Son, his star had faded a bit. I did enjoy Quills with its perversely gleeful performance by Rush and the wonderful acting and beauty of Kate Winslet. I tried to like Twisted, but Ashley Judd’s wooden acting has the power to override my love for Samuel L. Jackson and my respect for Kaufman.
What he showed was remarkable range and the ability to get the most out of available resources. If he isn’t a great director, he’s certainly in the upper reaches of good.
This film does have good pacing, acting and like you say, unnerving cinematography. I also agree with you the conventional special effects are better than most movies at the time without the word “Star” in the title. Even the dog man shown above looks creepily real when you stop to look at it. It’s ending is spectacular. Overall, it deserves a spot as one of the scariest films of the decade. I would even call it one of the 50 scariest films in cinematic history.
With that surmise, I too Sir, bid you good day.