Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo & Samuel Scott (29th October 2013).
The Film

It’s hard to believe that there was a time when remakes were treated with a little more respect than they are today. When a director wanted to put his own spin on a classic, there was a great deal more thought and effort put behind into the creative process. Studios weren’t simply churning out one after the other in an effort to capitalize on some hot marquee title rather than making a quality film that could stand on its own. Remakes came sporadically, and they often featured a wholly different take on the source material in order to allow the picture to stand on its own merit. Now, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978) doesn’t stray entirely too far from the original 1956 classic, but it’s one of the few examples where a remake can stand toe-to-toe with the inaugural film that preceded it. The original version, directed by Don Siegel, is an outright staple of the science fiction genre. Based on the outstanding novel written by Jack Finney, it is regularly cited as being among the best films the genre has produced. It’s interesting to note that “The Body Snatchers” (the title of Finney’s novel) is second only to H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” in theatrical adaptations of the source material. There have been four theatrical films based on it thus far, the most recent (and least successful) arriving in 2007 as “The Invasion”. Cult director Abel Ferrara took a shot at the material in his version, “Body Snatchers” (1993), which was scripted by longtime genre vets Larry Cohen and Stuart Gordon. It wasn’t very well-received and it did exceptionally poorly in theaters. I remember it being a favorite of mine as a kid, though I haven’t seen it in a number of years. But, the two versions that stand above the others are the original from 1956, and this version from 1978.

Matthew Benell (Donald Sutherland) is a health inspector living in San Francisco who begins to slowly uncover the truth behind bizarre personal experiences and stories he’s heard of people not being who they seem. It turns out that humans are being replaced with identical duplicates grown from pods hidden throughout the city. Matthew, along with his co-worker, Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), hook up with a trusted group of friends who are slowly starting to realize that these “pod people” are taking over the city, and if they aren’t able to find a way to stop them the world will soon follow.

There’s so much that Philip Kaufman got right here that I don’t know where to begin. This was the first film that Kaufman directed but did not write, as that distinction went to W.D. Richter. Genre fans will know him as the man behind the insanely bizarre cult classic “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension” (1984), as well as pulling some scripting duties on John Carpenter’s equally-cult “Big Trouble in Little China” (1986). He perfectly updates Finney’s classic tale for the 70's era, doing well to represent the disillusionment that had captured society during those years. In keeping with the original film and source material, Richter never underwrites any of the lead roles, no one character is more important than the other. The story starts of benign enough, with some minor rumblings around town and on the news, but it begins a gradual build to crescendo in a wave of terror and paranoia as suddenly no one is sure of whom to trust, who’s really human. Many critics have surmised that Finney’s tale, and Siegel’s original film, in particular, were thinly-veiled critiques of McCarthyism and post-communist life in America. But, the fact is that neither Finney nor Seigel had ever intended for viewers to read into any political groundwork in either case. The fact remains, however, that both are perfectly suited to those claims, just as this 70's version is tailored to the zeitgeist of the times. There are no overreaching political themes that one could draw from the film (though I’m sure they’re there if you wanted to look hard enough). Richter simply crafted a superior horror film, one which relies heavily on psychological terrors over the de rigueur blood & gore which is frequently the norm for the genre.

Your film is only as strong as your cast. Luckily, Kaufman put together a strong ensemble with some serious chops. Leading the pack is Donald Sutherland as the health inspector who uncovers the mystery, and he’s got enough respect from his peers that they believe him. His co-worker, and eventual love interest, Brooke Adams, is just as smartly written as he is – the only difference is that she doesn’t have the physical capabilities Matthew possesses, so she has to reply on him a great deal. Leonard Nimoy plays Dr. David Kibner, a self-help guru. I know it’s nearly impossible to see Nimoy on-screen and NOT think of him as Spock, but his turn here as a calm, cool and collected psychiatrist shows that he has range beyond that of an emotionless Vulcan. The inimitable Jeff Goldblum plays Matthew’s good friend, a writer and owner of a spa where the pods begin to take hold. His wife is played by Veronica Cartwright, best known for her role the following year in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979). All four of these characters provide a different outlook on the epidemic which is overtaking the city, whether it be through dismissive, questionable conversation or outright fear & terror. They all come across as real people who viewers can relate to on a personal level - something Kaufman considers a key component of the film.

Keen-eyed viewers should also be on the lookout for many of the numerous cameo appearances throughout the film. Kevin McCarthy appears as a deranged pedestrian trying to spread the word that “they’re here”, just as he was last seen doing at the end of the original film. Original helmer Don Siegel shows up as a cab driver, cinematographer Michael Chapman makes two appearances during the film, and even director Philip Kaufman appears as a man impatiently waiting for Sutherland to finish up on a pay phone call. They aren’t much, and most people are likely to miss most of them (except for McCarthy’s, whom everyone should instantly recognize), but it’s a nice touch to incorporate the old with the new.

Not only can I not believe this is the first score written by composer Denny Zeitlin, but I was amazed to learn that, despite the critical praise it received, he hasn’t done another since. A quick glance at his biography shows that he’s an accomplished jazz composer with over 30 albums to his credit, and he currently resides as a professor of psychiatry UCSF, so I can see why he might be a little too busy for film work. In fact, a brief piece I read stated that he didn’t like dealing with the “20-hour work days” that come with working on a feature film. That’s too bad because his shrill, brass-heavy orchestral themes that run throughout the film are incredibly suspenseful and foreboding. I can recall numerous scenes where our protagonists are trapped, looking for an exit to escape from the denizens of Pod People attempting to capture them, and Zeitlin’s score is ever-present, rising, rising until it hits a peak and the fear reaches a fever pitch.

Kaufman pulled off a rare feat: he remade a superb film and made it every bit as good as the original, perhaps in some ways better. In doing so, he places his film on a very short list alongside other masterful remakes as David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” (1986) and, the pinnacle of how this sort of thing (no pun intended) should be done, John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982). Filmmakers these days seem more concerned with cashing in on the hype surrounding a title rather than taking the necessary time to craft something that respects what came before it while making something that can stand on its own. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is smart, cerebral, thrilling, creepy, psychological, tense and utterly fantastic. And it’s got one hell of an ending.

Video

Arrow Films release Invasion of the Body Snatchers onto Blu-ray for British audiences in the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The transfer is 1080p and uses an AVC MPEG-4 codec. Straight from the opening scene, it manages to impress, with the opening credits looking exemplary. These moments go on to show the level of detail we end up seeing for the vast majority of the feature. Outdoors scenes in the daytime, and lighter scenes in buildings look fantastic, with facial close-ups immaculate (even the detail in actress Brooke Adam's scar). Unfortunately, some of the darker scenes are unable to keep this standard up, featuring a lot more grain than the rest of the feature and less clarity. Still, the number of scenes like this are few and short, and not too much of an issue. For the most part, black levels are strong, though sometimes not quite deep enough (again, during the occasional darker scene). The rest of the colours appear natural at all times, especially the browny/beige clothing of Elizabeth and the greens and reds. To my eyes, it appears Arrow have avoided manipulating the transfer with digital noise reduction, and skin looks natural and clean. I did notice a spot of very minor aliasing at 102:38 when people in the background walk past the open door, and the odd compression artifact, but I detected no edge enhancement. The print is quite clean, with just the odd speck, and there are no signs of damage such as scratches. Overall, the transfer shows what Blu-ray is capable of, but some scenes are of a slightly lower quality likely due to the filming conditions and source material. There are certainly no major issues here.

The disc is region B encoded, and the feature runs 115:35.

Audio

There are two audio tracks available here:
- English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
- English LPCM 2.0 Stereo

I opted for the upmixed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track for my viewing, which was pretty good - and that comes as no surprise. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was actually the first film to ever use Dolby mixing so has always been looked upon in high regard in terms of audio design, and this Blu-ray release makes sure it manages to uphold that praise. The sound effects all use real world elements to great affect, and when mixed with the score by Danny Zeitlin, you can't help but notice how atmospheric it helps make the feature feel. The score makes good use of the LFE with low key rumble, and the subtlety of some of the small effects that appear in the rears really adds to the tension well. Of course, it's the final moments that really shine, though I won't spoil it for those unfortunate enough to have never seen this before.

It should be noted that an audio error on previous releases where you cannot hear Don Siegel's radio dispatcher as he talks to him in the taxi has now been fixed and is clear as a whistle. Over.

Optional subtitles are available in English.

Extras

We start off the extras with an audio commentary by director Philip Kaufman. Solo commentaries are a hard gig, and so they often vary dramatically in content and can suffer heavily from long moments of silence. Kaufman manages to keep going for the duration though, and gives us a very informative look at various aspects of the film. He talks about the casting, how some of the special effects were done, the locations, the sound effects, and of course, the story. Although Kaufman does not have the most enthusiastic tone, he does deliver a commentary that should appeal to fans.

"Discussing the Pod" is a discussion with filmmaker Norman J. Warren and director Ben Wheatley, moderated by horror expert Kim Newman about Invasion of the Body Snatchers (51:53). This is a really interesting grouping. Warren directed various low budget horrors including Evil Heritage (1976) and Bloody New Year (1987), Kim Newman is one of the foremost horror experts in the UK with various excellent books released, and Ben Wheatley is possibly the best British director working today after his Kill-List (2011), Sightseers (2012) and A Field in England (2013) all gained both critical and audience praise. Newman takes charge here, and he is a smorgasbord of information - a true genre fan. He pushes the discussion forward about the genre in general, remakes, and of course, various aspects of the story and the characters in the film in question. The three look relaxed (typical British tea/coffee/fruit), and the way they gel together and never talk over each other makes for an enjoyable viewing. They don't always agree (is the 1993 version any good?), but are always polite and well spoken. I have seen similar extras on other films, which have been difficult to watch as all the participants fight for the spotlight, but that is certainly not the case here.

"Dissecting the Pod" (17:23) is an interview with Annette Insdorf, who is director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University. She wrote a book about Kaufman and has interviewed him many times on stage over the last ten years. She has studied Kaufman and his films in-depth, and here she gives us a more analytical approach as to various aspects of Kaufman's work, including political and anti-authoritarian elements.

"Writing the Pod" (11:14) is an interview with Jack Finney expert, Jack Seabrook, author of the book "Stealing Through Time: On the Writings of Jack Finney". Here, he talks about how Invasion of the Body Snatchers came to be. He gives us a brief history of Finney's career and some of his short stories which were published in the 1940s in magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping. Finney never considered himself a science-fiction writer, but his Invasion of the Body Snatchers story was published in Colliers magazine in 1954 as a three-part story before extending it to a novel in 1955. He even revised the novel to update the 1950s elements to the 1970s in preparation of this film version.

The "Re-Visitors From Outer Space" featurette (16:14, SD) interviews director Philip Kaufman, screenwriter W.D. Richter and a couple of cast members including Veronica Cartwright and Donald Sutherland about various aspects of the movie. Subjects discussed includes the decision to film in San Francisco, why Kaufman decided to remake the film, the various inspirations, and character development. There are also various clips and stills from the movie included. They also mention the cameos including Robert Duvall and Don Siegel.

"The Man Behind the Scream" (12:36, SD) is an interview with sound designer Ben Burtt. Burtt used real world methods rather than computer generated effects for the sound in the film, including slowing down the sound a baby waking up. The garbage truck sounds are mentioned as a favourite and they recorded the sounds of garbage trucks as they went around their daily routines. The pod scream is also talked about, and surprisingly, the sound comes from a squealing pig. Sound design is an interesting science that Burtt and his team managed to get down to a tee, in a field that is often under-appreciated. We need more featurettes like this on future releases.

"The Invasion Will be Televised" (5:23, SD) is an interview with director of photography Michael Chapman. It's an interesting, albeit too short a piece on the way they filmed the feature in a 40s noir style. A lot of natural lighting was used with shadows being used as a way of increasing tension.

"Practical Magic: The Special Effects Pod" (4:38, SD) is an interview with special effects technician Howard Preston and director Philip Kaufman. Here, we learn how the pods were created using with practically no money. The set was only 20 inches wide and 24 inches deep and they used volcanic rock to make the set look large. The stars and planets were simply a plexiglass sheet and that a $10 bottles of art store glue was mixed with water to make the gooey substance of the creatures. Like the previous interview, this is too short, but an enjoyable watch.

The on-disc extras finish with a theatrical trailer (2:12, SD).

There is also a booklet in the case featuring new writing on the film by critic David Cairns, as well as re-prints of classic articles including contemporary interviews with Philip Kaufman and W.D. Richter, illustrated with original archive stills and posters. This was not included for review, so we cannot comment on it any further.

Overall

The Film: A Video: B+ Audio: B+ Extras: A- Overall: A-

 


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