I recently tried – and failed – to endear two of my younger friends to Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Don Seigel’s 1956 classic. I personally think the problem was demi-generational as both of the young men I tried to introduce the film to were 5 years my junior and therefore entirely unconscious during the Watergate hearings, not to mention the slow cavalcade of Vietnam casualties being announced on the evening news in the early ’70′s and the protests that those deaths inspired.
When I was an undergraduate at Brown University in the ’80′s, I remember Michael Silverman lecturing to us about Kaufman’s remake of this oh-so-wooden ’50′s Cold War science-fiction/horror canard. “Pod-people, how absurd,” he’d said, “but such was the environment of the US during the ’50′s. when it was imagined that fluoridated water might divert the nation’s youth from red meat and turn everybody into Communists.” And it was no small consequence that Kaufman remade ‘Body Snatchers’ after Watergate and the Vietnam War because our distrust and suspicion had turned a full 180º to point at our domestic enemies, a President that had betrayed the public trust and put our young men into harm’s way. The ‘enemies’ of the ’70′s – the enemies of freedom and democracy were none other than the President of the United States, Richard Nixon at the time and the other s-called leaders who had propelled us into SE Asia with the Gulf of Tonkin, a draft, a decade of warfare and 50,000 dead American soldiers. How soon we forget.
Of course, the subtext of Kaufman’s film – and yes, film as opposed to movie, the like of which now occupy American Cineplexes for weekends at a time, failing to break even after a weekend of exhibition; films being crafted with greater introspection, with something other than product-placement or the mockery of another generation’s sensibilities as its centerpiece – is the betrayal of the public good. In Kaufman’s remake, it is public servants, the Police, loved-ones and self-improvement gurus, conspire with the invading aliens, a form of creeping vegetation. Of course, this metaphor of creeping vegetation, betrayal and Fifth Horsemen has proved so fertile that the Wachowski Brothers have crafted a fifth incarnation of this tale in 50 years, after Seigel’s original, Kaufman’s remake, the Heinlein variation of ‘The Puppet Masters’ and Abel Ferrara’s ‘Body Snatchers’, which put the Religious Right and the Military-Industrial complex into high-relief. I’m hoping that the Wachowski remake is something other than a gratuitous rebranding of an essential metaphor as old as the Salem Witch Trials.
But what makes Kaufman’s film memorable are his hundreds of small touches – his stunt-casting of a post-Star Trek Nimoy as an unfeeling psychotherapist, a young Jeff Goldblum as a misunderstood writer and Veronica Cartwright’s pre-Lambert hysteria turn as Goldblum’s wife, Nancy Belicec. Add W. D. Richter’s sometimes Woody Allen-like patter and you have something more interesting than the standard B-movie schlock that this sort of thing so often is.
And my guests said it was too long.