Home Viewing: ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’

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Donald Sutherland and Jeff Goldbum in 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers'
United Artists

Geoffrey is not Geoffrey.”

Well, on the outside, Geoffrey is Geoffrey, but Elizabeth (Brooke Adams) knows something’s off with her husband. It’s a spousal sixth sense: They can tell with a simple hug if you’re happy or sad, anxious or calm. When Elizabeth hugs Geoffrey, she recoils.

Matthew (Donald Sutherland) might be a little too happy hearing this. He’s in love with Elizabeth, and this might be the window he’s been waiting for. If only Matthew knew the truth.

Truth is, Geoffrey’s been replaced. Space goo that floated across the galaxy has settled on Earth — San Francisco to be specific — in the form of attractive flowers. Those flowers intoxicate people and produce large pods that replicate them identically. Once the individual falls asleep, the pod people siphon off what’s left and take the victim’s place. All that remains from the original is a large dusty pile of dryer lint.

Released in 1978, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the second time Hollywood adapted Jack Finney’s 1955 novel. The previous incarnation — released in 1956 and directed by Don Siegel — was a Cold War classic. Most saw the emotionless dupes as an allegory for communism, though a few wondered if the criticism was pointed in the wrong direction. Might these mind-numbed masses stand-in for McCarthy-era groupthink?

That fear takes a much deeper root in the 1978 version, directed by Philip Kaufman from a screenplay by W. D. Richter. In this version, the presence of a surveillance state only adds to the willies. Blank faces watch Matthew and Elizabeth’s every move, compromised government officials are always one step ahead, and no one knows who’s been duped and who hasn’t until it’s too late.

Talk about effective. And the lion’s share of the credit goes to the late, great cinematographer Michael Chapman who died Sept. 20, 2020, at the age of 84. He gives Body Snatchers a profound layer of unease. Everything looks displaced and unnatural. From rat droppings found in a soup to telephone cords retracting into walls like snakes lying in wait. Then there’s the city of San Francisco: Victorian houses built on steep hills exaggerate canted angles, crooked shadows engulf claustrophobic spaces, fog shrouds what’s right in front of us, dampness permeates everything — it’s tailor-made for terror.

Few cinematographers were better adept at finding the sinister corners of a city like Chapman. Just a few years before, Chapman shot Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, another tale of terror (for vastly different reasons).

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a little more Halloween-friendly. It’s unnerving, no doubt, but there’s a touch of humor courtesy Leonard Nimoy and Jeff Goldblum (playing a psychiatrist and a poet, respectively). They hold the horror at bay long enough for all hope to slip away. By that time, neighbor has turned against neighbor, loved ones become strangers, and the faceless mob has consumed all. As Kevin McCarthy warns: “They’re already here. You’re next.”

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, The Criterion Channel, DirecTV, Hoopla and Showtime.