‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ at Pier 70

Phil Kaufman’s 1978 ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ is the most frightening film ever made in SF.

Plenty of horror films are far from “frighteningly plausible.” Most, in fact, only succeed in momentarily casing their spell before evaporating. Take Night of the Lepus, for instance. Giant bunnies hopping their way through our worst nightmares is hardly a wake up call to the world.

San Francisco director Phillip Kaufman’s 1978 rendition of Invasion of the Body Snatchers isn’t as easy to brush away.

It’s based on a source that’s been frequently filmed, and more frequently ripped off.  Jack Finney’s 1955 novel Sleep No More was set in the author’s home in Mill Valley. The original is a small-town horror story. (The 1956 movie was filmed in the Inland Empire suburb of Sierra Madre). But the 1978 version, the most effective and the most haunting of them all, has a great deal of San Francisco terroir in it… and terror, too. 

The screenwriter is W.D. Richter, who did the rewrite of the Chinatown opus Big Trouble in Little China. He also directed Buckaroo Banzai, and wrote that Thanksgiving classic, Home for the Holidays.

He has an unusual kind of hero, an intrepid government functionary. Donald Sutherland plays Matthew Bennell — a San Francisco health inspector, too canny to be persuaded by an expensive French restaurant’s claim that a rat turd is a Mediterranean caper. (In revenge for him suspending their license, loitering sous-chefs in the alley smash a wine bottle against the windshield of Matthew’s car. Later, when the creatures multiply and mobilize on the streets, we see them through this cracked window.)

As in The Birds, the characters are full of unresolved or unresolvable emotions. Matthew’s co-worker is the appealing Elizabeth (Brooke Adams); Matthew has a shy, British movie-like crush on her. 

She’s the first to notice something wrong. Her live-in boyfriend (Art Hindle) suddenly has meetings to go to that he won’t talk about. And though he was a passionate fan, he has no interest in the Golden State Warriors tickets he was going to use. The signs are everywhere, though; on all sides, people are becoming disconnected and silent. Elizabeth says “I’ve lived in this city all my life. I feel like everything has changed.” 

Is it a city-wide Capgras Delusion, the belief that something is replacing your loved ones with doubles? Maybe, as also in The Birds, emotional tensions drew the invaders. The bombing of London in the 1940s meant something surprising — in the craters, nurtured by the residue of explosives, locals observed wildflowers that hadn’t bloomed in London for centuries. Drifting into earth from some place far away, delicate spores generate ‘grex’ plants, tiny flowers that had never been seen on earth.

These new flowers reveal their mystery. They sprout mildew-like tendrils that weave into pods and turn into human forms. As you sleep, you are consumed… to be replaced by an emotionless double whose first duty is to tend other pods.

The interiors are exactly like the way Victorians of the time were dressed: lace curtains in the big bay windows, parlors filled with Boston ferns and philodendrons. (The fanciest watering holes of the era tried to look as much like conservatories as possible. Places with ceiling fans, brass fittings, and lots of plants were nicknamed “fern bars.”) This ferniness of the settings is evocative, but the fronds everywhere make it seem as if the killer plants already had their foot in the door.

The San Francisco of 1978 was a darker city than the one that exists now. Because of the dimmer streetlights, the late cinematographer Michael Chapman floodlit the front of the old wooden buildings to heighten the shadows of the leads; they look like escaping prisoners in a guard-tower’s searchlight. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is thoroughly engineered to make San Francisco look scary. Much of it takes place on Telegraph Hill, so steep that it makes its own Dutch angles.

The original 1950s Body Snatchers was read as an allegory either for Communist takeover, or an allusion to the triumph of anti-Communist hysteria. The 1978 remake refers to that source material, bringing in the original film’s star, Kevin McCarthy, for a perfect, baleful cameo: a popup in the Tenderloin. Don Siegel, who directed the original Body Snatchers, is at the wheel of a taxi, trapping our heroes in the gleaming white tiles of the Broadway Tunnel.

Less understood today is this Body Snatchers’ implicit joke about the est training methodology. Werner Erhard (born Jack Rosenberg) was the founder of a human potential movement that was particularly popular in Northern California. It later evolved into The Forum. Est used the drill sergeant’s method of tearing a person down to build them up; self-realization mattered more than one’s perceived duties to others, or the duty to apologize. It shared its confrontational tactics with a certain sci-fi based religion I won’t name. But then, there were plenty of authoritarian gurus plying their trade on the West Coast during the ’70s. 

Rebelling against such as them is the comic relief, Jack Belicec (Jeff Goldblum). He’s an amusingly depressed mope, working at the family business: a mud bath and steam room. Unable to make his name as a poet, Jack is full of the kind of spiky comic resentments at which Goldblum excels.

His sweet-tempered spouse and biggest fan is Nancy (Veronica Cartwright, who has first-rate screwball comedy chops). Nancy is the kind of person who thinks she ought to talk to her plants to make them grow better. 

Jack starts to see things — strange plant-human hybrids seething in the mud of his baths. Matthew advises Jack to take his worries to a local celebrity, the tweedy human potential movement psychiatrist David (Leonard Nimoy).  

Wise casting: Nimoy spent years describing the peculiarities of aliens, back when he wore the ears and raised eyebrows of Mr. Spock. He makes the revelation seem almost matter of fact. Nimoy uses his own peerlessly logical mannerisms to soothe the terrified: “Don’t be trapped by old conceptions. You’re evolving into a new life form. Come and watch.” 

Nimoy’s character has a conservative critique of 1970s pleasure-seeking — “Family unity is shot to hell,” he complains. Hindsight suggests that Invasion of the Body Snatchers hints at a conservative reaction lurking on the horizon. The film is also a last stand for a kind of quirky actor’s type that made the 1970s American film what it was. Take Donald Sutherland, with his haunted, dogged face, his frizzy hair, and his detective’s belted raincoat. His character here is “a man from the government who is here to help” — the kind of person whom the next president, Ronald Reagan, called more frightening than any other. Actors like Sutherland persisted in the 1980s. It wasn’t the end on screen for charming neurotic beta males like Goldblum, or Woody Allen, or Elliott Gould, or Dustin Hoffman. But all of them were all about to step aside, to make way for paramilitary bruisers with muscles and guns. 

As a director, Kaufman understands the city to its bones, its resentments, its melancholy light. And he admires the cubbyholes that these basically frail characters made for themselves. The clumsy, sweet humanity of this cast is what makes the alien invasion seem particularly cruel. When I interviewed Kaufman in 2012, he said: “People lulled themselves to sleep with the lullaby of Northern California perfection and wake up as pods.”

The perfection was arguable. The economy sucked, and lunacy and rage were ambient, with the Moscone/Milk assassinations and the bad news from Jonestown. Still, this Invasion of the Body Snatchers gets under the skin of local people because of a cherished illusion: that San Francisco was a rock you could cling to when the world went nuts.

What befalls this City-State of ours in Invasion of the Body Snatchers is exactly what happened to equally magnificent cities. Budapest and Paris and Prague… the Czech capitol’s 1968 invasion by the USSR was the subject of one of Kaufman’s best-remembered films, 1984’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

This allegory of takeover is as keen in its way as Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. The City becomes an occupied night-town, in which catching a few minutes’ slumber means almost instant destruction.

The finale has the perfect evocation of a dawn after a sleepless night, or after a bad acid trip. Somewhere, bagpipers are playing “Amazing Grace” as a wailing farewell to the world. An even more horrific noise is the film’s famous last howl — an effect engineered by the renowned sound designer Bill Burtt, something like the scrape of a freight train wheel crossed with the shriek of a slaughtered pig.

It finishes under the London plane trees behind City Hall, trimmed for the winter. The sight of those pollarded trees has made me uneasy ever since. Invasion of the Body Snatchers does what a great horror movie ought to do:  it takes a familiar spot and makes it fearful, never to be completely trusted again.


Screening on Halloween, Oct. 31, at 8 p.m. at Pier 70, with a one-car, contact-free dinner from La Cocina; tickets here. And streaming on the Criterion Channel.

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