Why are certain films remade, while others are not? Is it a form of flattery, a kind of homage to the original director? Or is it a way for an actor, director or studio exec to show he can do better than those that came before him? Or is it simply for the money? Whatever the reasons are, sometimes remakes are just not up to par. In Hollywood, there are plenty of examples of non-effective knock-offs: Charles Shyer’s Alfie; Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven; and Gus Van Sant’s Psycho.
However, a close look at the remakes of Don Siegel’s 1956 cult classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, provides some light at the end of an imitation tunnel. On one hand, Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake is entertaining, meaningful, and actually pays tribute to the original. On the other, Abel Ferrara’s 1994 dreadful depiction could easily join the ranks of the remakes listed above. Compared to the remakes, Siegel’s original is the stereotypical, black and white B-picture of the fifties that on the surface appears to be a simple, outdated sci-fi film.
However, this film can be interpreted and connected to on many levels. As a social statement and piece of filmmaking, Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is superior to the 1978 and 1994 remakes. The original film addressed the paranoia sweeping America in the 1950s and captured the ideology and the politics of that time perfectly. It was “both a mirror of a particular moment in history and a compass indicating the symptoms of a growing societal illness” (Whitehead). The Cold War scenario led to the “Red Scare” and the American hysteria over the danger of communist infiltration in the United States.
Before the release of film, the Truman administration used the fear of communism as a platform to help his campaign. Truman frightened the American people with tales of political brainwashing of American soldiers by the Chinese and terrified the American people into believing that communism was an infectious disease that would invade their country (Lippe). He encouraged Senator Joe McCarthy as leader of the House Un-American Activities Committee and supported the Hollywood blacklisting of anyone who was linked to communist thought (Lippe).
McCarthy also used fear as a tool to gain widespread support and popularity. As Miles accused people in the film to be aliens, McCarthy accused many high ranking officials in the government and elitists of being Communists. Both of these “character’s accusations result in the spread of fear, havoc and confusion” (Whitehead). The alien take-over of an entire community by seed pods from outer space who replicate humans as they sleep and transform them into “perfect, emotionless, vegetable doubles” clearly represented the threat of communism (Hoberman, 186).
Italian film critic Ernesto Laura said that “it is natural to see the pods as standing for the idea of communism which gradually takes possession of a normal person, leaving him outwardly unchanged but transformed within” (qtd. in Johnson, 71). Panic swept the nation as communism had been visualized as a “form of alien mind-control” that took over people’s souls, spirit and identity (Hoberman, 186). Many Americans considered Russians to be ice cold, outwardly peaceful but very authoritarian and emotionless.
They were thought of as a different species that were soulless and wanted to conquer America and turn its people into Communist clones. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover warned Americans to “remember, always, that there are thousands of people in this country now working in secret to make it happen here” (186). The notion that “you must destroy it before it destroys you” had taken over the mindset of the American people and is evident throughout the film. In one scene, Miles suspects the man at the gas station of being an alien invader, simply because the man opened the trunk of his car.
Even though Miles was correct in his suspicions, the paranoia he felt emphasized the questioning state of mind that the Red Scare imposed on the American people. The film’s villains and the public’s view of the Communists presented limitless parallels (Whitehead). The height of the Red Scare hysteria was from 1948 to 1953. Administration change in 1954 rendered Eisenhower as the new U. S. President. In Hoberman’s article he suggests that Eisenhower’s “soothing presence” (186) calmed people’s fears of communism and put their concerns of invasion into perspective (Lippe).
At the time of the film’s release in 1956 and in the next few years, America experienced an economic boom. There was much emphasis placed on upward mobility, consumerism, and the business world became the center of society-corporate America was coming into view (Lippe). Charles Gregory writes: “Made in 1956… peopled by men in gray flannel suits, the silent generation, the status seekers, McCarthy, and lonely crowd, Siegel’s science fiction thriller was a cry of frustrated warning against the conformity and uniformity of society” (qtd. in Sobchack, 122-123).
As well as a drama about communist subversion, Invasion of the Body Snatchers can also be read as a threat to individuality and personal freedom. The film directly represents the horror of a conformist society through the alien doubles that take over the small town of Santa Mira. When someone becomes a “pod person” they become detached, emotionless clones who cannot experience any feelings-the very essence that makes us human. In the movie the pod-psychiatrist reassures the people that: “love, desire, ambition, faith- without them life is so simple”.
Carlos Clarens writes: “the ultimate horror in science fiction is neither death nor destruction but dehumanization, a state in which emotional life is suspended, in which the individual is deprived of individual feelings, free will, and moral judgment” (qtd. in Sobchack, 123). Loss of self and identity is a prevalent theme in Siegel’s film. In one scene, Miles says to Becky, “In my practice I see how people have allowed their humanity to drain away, only it happens slowly instead of all at once. They didn’t seem to mind. All of us, a little bit.
We harden our hearts, grow callous, only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is. ” The real conflict is between society and the individual. The idea of “normality” and society’s demand for it is the real threat (Lippe). People were pressured to be like everyone else; to have the same ideas, values, and thoughts. Those who did not were seen as a threat to society (Lippe). Through its alien demand for a presumed normality, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers showed America alienated from itself” (Hoberman, 186).
While Siegel admitted that his film showed the struggle between individuals and different forms of mindless authority, he denied an anti-Communist motive (Whitehead). Even Jack Finney, who wrote the novel The Body Snatchers to which the film was based upon, did not intend on making a statement about the Cold War. He related his story to the idea that people in a conformist society become detached, and soon discover that the people they thought they knew well, they did not really know at all (Lippe).
Siegel maintained that his idea in making the film was to warn against the loss of humanity in everyday life. His inspiration for the alien doubles was the people he knew in the film industry who had lost their sense of humanity and lived solely for their own interests (Lippe). In an interview he stated “Pods. Not those that come from outer space, vegetables from outer space. People are pods. Many of my associates are certainly pods. They have no feelings. They exist, breathe, sleep. To be a pod means that you have no passion, no anger, the spark has left you” (qtd. in Hendershot, 11).
The producer of the film, Walter Wanger, also insisted that the film’s subject was “conformity” showing “how easy it is for people to be taken over and lose their souls if they are not alert and determined in their character to be free” (qtd. in Hoberman, 187). Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a significant film because of the strength in its underlying social statements. The fact that this film is open to various interpretations, from communist infiltration and McCarthyism to dehumanization and conformity, proves that is a very rich film which deserves the word “classic” in front of its name.
Not only does the film represent the culture of the time but it is also a strong piece of filmmaking. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was released as a low-budget, B-film and was perceived as a low-budget, B-film as part of a double bill with Atomic Man (Lippe). The subtle film was effective in eliciting fear and suspense even though there were no monsters, minimal special effects, no violence, and no deaths. The ‘less is more’ approach which left much to the imagination, the low-key lighting which created a sinister mood, the strange camera angles and editing, added to the film’s slow-building but effective tension (Lippe).
A prologue, a new ending, and a voice-over narration were added after the film’s initial release to provide a slightly more optimistic ending (Hoberman, 187). The film is presented as a flashback, with Miles explaining the alien take-over to skeptical doctors. It was never Siegel’s intention to have the film start and end this way. The last image of the film was to be Miles running wildly on the streets, pointing and screaming into the camera-and essentially the audience-“YOU’RE NEXT! ” (Whitehead).
Although the narration and flashback scenes were added, they succeed in creating the sense of a nightmare being played out right in front of you, which adds to the suspense of the film. Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is rich in social comment as well as cinematic content-it is no surprise that this film survived several reworkings and two remakes. There is a lot of skepticism surrounding the remakes of classic films, but Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version is better than most would expect.
Kaufman relocated the nightmare from the small, all-American town to the big, anonymous city of San Francisco. In a big city, people become isolated, relate to few people, and know even less. The change of setting meant that it lost the familiarity and sense of community that evoked the ‘inescapable fear’ of the ’56 version. While the original film builds on the fear that people we know and love will change forever, the remake builds on the fear that the people around us might be friends or enemies.
In 1978, communism is no longer a threat but becoming right-wing and losing yuppie ideals is. The film is a critique of mindless consumerism and the cost of conformity. Leonard Nimoy’s psychologist who is famous for his shock therapy treatments shows how people are becoming more passive and more willing to believe whatever they are told. The difference in the time is that in the seventies, people looked to the intellectuals for security whereas in the fifties, people looked to the military for safety and authority.
Like Siegel, Kaufman causes fear with simple methods. He creates a sense of dread and a sinister atmosphere through an excellent usage of natural noises or just silence. The camera is constantly moving-zooming, cutting, hiding behind objects, staring a little too long on irrelevant people, and even flies into Donald Sutherland’s mouth. The picture is almost always dark which carries the sinister mood throughout the film. Kaufman’s version has some added gore, a pig-like squeal of betrayal, and a few ridiculous scenes (the man’s head on the dog’s body! but overall maintains the greatness of the original. The movie relates quite well to themes appropriate for 1978; communism is no longer a fear but the harmful, pod-like effects of conformity are quite relevant. Kaufman remake is well done as it does not try to outdo Siegel’s film but simply approaches it in a different and equally skillful manner. Don Siegel also believed that the remake was well done, otherwise he would not have agreed to make a cameo in the film as an alien cab driver.
Abel Ferrara’s 1994 remake titled Body Snatchers begs the question: was a remake of a remake necessary? After watching this film, the answer is “no”. Ferrara transfers the alien invasion to a military base and focuses the drama on a family. The military base is not conducive for thrilling horror or even lightweight suspense. The locale is too distant for many to relate to. Small towns and big cities frighten people because it is familiar and understandable. Also, with small towns or big cities-there are many types of people and personalities.
On a military base, soldiers are already forced into conformity with their shaved heads, uniforms, and regimented schedules. The military is not exactly a place that promotes individuality. There is too little emotional involvement in the film which makes it difficult to care about what might happen to the people involved. The transformation scenes are more evolved than Kaufman’s version and there are some apocalyptic fireballs added at the end, but they still do not add any suspense or intrigue to this uninvolving movie. Body Snatchers should be watched, but not compared.
Where Siegel’s version was a social statement about communism and dehumanization, and Kaufman’s version focused on the struggle against conformity, Ferrara’s Body Snatchers can be seen as a post-modern version where there is no threat of communism, where individuality is not a priority, and where there are no values left to be stolen. Nevertheless, some people argue that the remakes surpassed the original in terms of special effects or cinematic content, but in the words of Herman Melville: “it is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation”.
Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a truly classic film. As a social statement and a piece of filmmaking, it is superior to the 1978 and 1994 remakes. It addressed contemporary anxieties and reflected the culture of the time. The popular film spanned many genres such as science-fiction, horror, drama and suspense. Siegel’s film was a great analogy for the Cold War and the Red Scare, as well as a representation of dehumanization and conformity as the enemy. To be claimed by both schools of thought as a metaphor, is a sign of true greatness.