Good, contemporary horror films are scarce. Only a handful of exceptions avoid the bin containing wasted efforts; those horrors that are too often comprised of tired clichés and cheap, ineffective scare tactics, denying them any chance of lingering in the memory and opening the doorway for a slew of pointless sequels of varying crassness. It’s easier to search for old classics from the 70s/80s for worthy genre entries. Ones that come to mind are The Thing, The Omen, The Wicker Man, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, plus others, for their ability to be equally shocking, subversive and entertaining. Perhaps a less viewed horror – yet with a well-known title – is ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1978 remake), a profoundly disturbing tale of alien possession that knows how to scare its audience without trying too hard.
The plot: spores from outer space begin duplicating the human race one by one, perfectly copying every detail except for being entirely devoid of emotion. It’s a straightforward story that commences immediately with the main threat beginning its quiet invasion. It’s up to a few survivors – led by Donald Sutherland’s health inspector and his female colleague – to evade a chilling fate, while trying to figure out a way to stop something seemingly unconquerable. Who will survive? Will anyone survive? How can the remaining humans win? Questions like these haunt the runtime, and ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ is so effective because it feels strangely plausible. The narrative funnels you down an increasingly claustrophobic path with no outlet, no room to breathe, then snares you into an ending you won’t soon forget. It’s an inevitable conclusion, but it’s a no less intimidating final image just because it had to happen; a chilling kicker that touches primal fears of isolation and the unknown. Co-starring Jeff Goldblum, Brooke Adams and Leonard Nimoy, everyone does a commendable job of conveying panic, distrust and anxiety.
Director Phillip Kaufman employs gritty camerawork that further manipulates viewers emotions: low angle shots, tremulous zooms, lingering wide shots… these techniques all contribute to the unfolding chaos – the unbeatable alien menace – and ramping up the dread that becomes overwhelming halfway through when survival is paramount but improbable. It’s not your typical alien invasion, but the stealthy attack is all the creepier for it, as these plant lifeforms take over family and friends with reckless biological instinct. Seeing people as emotionless automatons is a flesh-crawling prospect, and the screams they illicit when discovering and chasing a survivor owes a lot to the eerie sound design which consistently complements each chilling image.
Overall, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ succeeds on very simple ingredients. It digs under the skin, coils tighter and tighter as proceedings play out, and relies on paranoia to generate its terror without needing violence and gore. Combined with strong direction, impressive practical effects (for the time) and a nerve-wracking sound design, this is true horror in its simplest form; a terrific blend of sci-fi and horror planting its roots deep for an unsettling experience modern genre efforts should try emulating.
Score – 8.5/10