FEATURE: Shocktober '15 - Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here. Minor spoilers here.

Humans, as a species (particularly us Westerners), are spectacularly afraid of our own extinction, especially if it comes at the hands of monsters we don't know or understand. It's always been there, but recent centuries have seen this fear explode with the advanced knowledge that scientific research has afforded us. Way back in Frankenstein, Mary Shelley's eponymous creator feared that providing a female mate for his vengeful creature wouldn't keep to his promise of a peaceful life, but would instead create an army of likeminded creatures intent on wiping out the human race. Post-Charles Darwin and his Origin of Species, the idea that some random biological adaptation could take over from humanity as the dominant species began to run rampant throughout fiction.

Darwin's ideas of adaptation gave these fears scientific weight; humans were no longer at the top of the food chain by deific design, but by sheer, dumb luck. What would happen if a new adaptation came along? One which is smarter, faster, more deadly. Dracula is fraught with this idea that humans could soon be locked in what Darwin termed a 'struggle for existence' with a species that was much stronger and capable of consuming humanity in the form of the vampiric Count. It isn't enough to be scared of extinction, but we're also scared of losing our humanity, becoming something monstrous that may look human but is anything but. 
As 20th century horror and science fiction progressed, so did this idea of humanity's extinction, brought about by monsters who had adapted themselves into the ultimate killing machines. 

Not only did scientific research make this feel like a more distinct possibility as the 20th century advanced, so too did the political situations that humanity found themselves in. The biggest science fiction boom since HG Wells arrived in the 1950s, a decade defined by uncertainty and paranoia thanks to the arrival of the Cold War and McCarthyism, forcing everyone to question their neighbour. The first adaptation of Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers capitalised on this dread in 1956, its protagonists unable to know who to trust as their friends and family are slowly subsumed into the emotionless pod people. The alien invaders are a unseen threat, benign in their evil and intent on eradicating humanity quietly and peacefully.

Phillip Kaufman's updated remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers doesn't have McCarthyism to infuse its scares with, but with an audience still reeling from the events of the Watergate scandal, it isn't without its own fitting context. One of the running themes throughout the 1978 film is that of the San Francisco infrastructure working against the remaining humans. Donald Sutherland's Matthew repeatedly contacts the police for help only to find them unresponsive and later, entirely taken over. City Hall becomes the base from which the duplicates distribute their pods to further take hold in the city and the wider governmental safety net is non-existent. It's a population let down by the infrastructure that is supposed to protect them, but is instead working to corrupt them in its efficiently systematic way.

Kaufman mounts the tension beautifully, layering on the odd circumstances steadily to produce a slow burning dread that never really lets up. It's a methodical approach to the story, much like the invasion itself. Little hints that something odd is going on build into more unnerving moments before the film crescendos into outright horror. He also uses a sense of the uncanny to render seemingly innocuous occurrences into something more disturbing; the blinking light of a ringing phone distorted through frosted glasses or footsteps on a pavement, gradually quickening into a sprint as a chase begins.

The low-key performances of the cast, all keeping their internal hysteria just bubbling under the surface, are essential to producing this unsettling effect. Sutherland's Matthew and Brooke Adams' Elizabeth are pragmatic heroes, attempting to solve the mystery and stay alive long enough to fight back provide an emotional core to the narrative. Leonard Nimoy and the additional baggage from his most iconic role is also well used as the apparent voice of reason, a sinister satire on self-help culture and humanity's hubris. A young Jeff Goldblum is also a lot of fun in his supporting role and his neurotic tics provide some nice jitters.

Its pessimistic ending, famously opposite to the more hopeful novel, feels inevitable after the the weight of despair that permeates the rest of the narrative. It speaks of a population disaffected by those leading them and fearing that their culture and way of life has been taken from underneath them. And for a film that tells the story of how humanity is lost, these emotions - the hope in the face of adversity, the despair at being let down - make it feel very human indeed.

- Becky

You can find my other Shocktober '15 reviews here.

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