Body Snatchers, the third screen version of Jack Finney’s novel, should have been a contender. In 1956, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers emerged as a landmark cheapie, attracting a cult following that still won’t quit. Here’s the basic plot: Seed pods duplicate humans while they sleep, then liquidate them; the replacements are emotionless, conformist veggies. Some saw it as Siegel’s attack on Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the head pod behind the House Un-American Activities Committee, who turned citizens into Commie-hunting mobs during the ’50s. Others saw it as Siegel’s attack on the Communists themselves as aliens in our midst. Everyone saw it as a terrific film about dehumanization. Philip Kaufman directed a darkly comic update in 1978 that took sharp jabs at the New Age geese who flew in formation as the Me Generation. Kaufman also upped the ante on shockingly vivid special effects.
The new Body Snatchers is the most graphic of all, featuring more overt violence and decomposing flesh than the other two films combined. But it sorely lacks the focus and resonance of its predecessors. This is dumbfounding considering that the director is Abel Ferrara, whose ferocious independent films (Bad Lieutenant, King of New York) make him the ideal rebel to extol individuality. But Ferrara’s style is cramped working for a major studio (Warner Bros.), which has been holding up the film’s release for over a year. The conflict between Ferrara and the suits has been widely reported, and it’s easy to believe. You can almost feel Ferrara pushing against the constraints of slick, commercial filmmaking.
Considering the leads in the first two films were middle-aged men (Kevin McCarthy and Donald Sutherland, respectively), it’s a kick to find Ferrara’s film dominated by a teen-ager. She is Marti Malone, an attitude queen played by Gabrielle Anwar (Al Pacino’s tango partner in Scent of a Woman). Marti is royally pissed that her scientist father, Steve (Terry Kinney), has moved her to a military base in Alabama, where he takes samples of toxic waste. Marti, whose mother has died, feels excluded from the family made up of Steve, his sexy new wife, Carol (Meg Tilly in screaming-meemie mode), and their 5-year-old son, Andy (Reilly Murphy).
Five writers contributed to the potent setup: Marti is an alien in her own home even before the pods show up to wrap their creeping, oozing tendrils around her. It’s tempting to see the film as Marti’s revenge fantasy against her family, who are all shown suffering horribly. But the film keeps opting for flash over substance. The conventional scare tactics are hard to recognize as the work of Ferrara. Pressured to produce a mainstream hit, he shows only flickers of his renegade spirit. The rest got snatched.