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Body Snatchers (Blu-ray Review)

10 Oct, 2016 By: Mike Clark

Available via Warner Archive
Street 10/18/16
Sci-Fi Horror
$21.99 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for violence, nudity and language.
Stars Gabrielle Anwar, Terry Kinney, Meg Tilley, Forest Whitaker, R. Lee Ermey.

R. Lee Ermey ends up as an unlikely pod, while child actor Reilly Murphy (whose final scene is, have to say, memorable) presumably risked a future life in therapy from having been directed here by Ms. 45 mischief-maker Abel Ferrara. In other words, here’s the third and probably most obscure of four variations of Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers novel filmed from 1956 through 2007 — the last being Nicole Kidman’s marginally lukewarm riff, The Invasion, which didn’t go anywhere, either.

Despite a screen story co-credited to flashy trash-master Larry Cohen (It’s Alive and Q) plus a finished screenplay co-credited to Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator), Ferrara’s take on Finney’s source novel must be the least seen of the bunch, and I’m the only person I know who paid to see it — and somewhat ideally as a Saturday afternoon January matinee — in a theater. This was after Warner dumped it early in ’94 (at least so far as major U.S. markets were concerned) following previous-year engagements in Europe and Scandinavian countries. The picture played in some small house on New York’s East Side (an exclusive booking, fairly sure), and I’m not even certain it lasted the full week.

Now, as then, plain old Body Snatchers (minus any “Invasion of the” this third time around) near-completely lacks the emotional force of the earlier Don Siegel and Philip Kaufman versions (respectfully from ’56 and ’78) — which isn’t to say that there aren’t some interesting dramatic asides floating around like seedlings or to deny a memorable shot here and there. There were possibilities from transporting the action from California (both preceding versions, though in vastly different vicinities) to an armpit Southern army base, especially when gruff Ermey is the commanding officer and grunts might be so intimidated into following orders that they’d come off as emotionless pod replicates of real people even under normal circumstances. But like so much else here, the movie doesn’t really do much with what might have been workable tools.

Both the Siegel and Kaufman versions had grown-up protagonists: Kevin McCarthy is a physician and presumed civic leader in the first (even dating a woman who dons a cocktail dress in a small town) while the Donald Sutherland-Brooke Adams remake has no shortage of adult sexual tension against a spacey San-Francisco-in-the-’70s backdrop full of folks we can imagine having put some time into graduate schools. In contrast, the central protagonists here are teen girls and servicemen just a little older — with the limited, pandering pay-off something akin to ’50s exploitation (think a less juvenile version of The Blob, which was also needlessly refilmed). Lock-jawed romantic lead Billy Wirth brings to mind a wonderful term that James Woolcott once used to describe the forgotten hunk-ish movie host who replaced Bob Dorian on the original incarnation of American Movie Classics when the network was still good (that would be  “sweater buster”). Meanwhile, Gabrielle Anwar (then briefly hot in both senses just after Scent of a Woman) is somnambulistic even in a normal state, though she does have an erotic presence during her near-transformation into a pod before Wirth barely extricates her from the enveloping tentacles that are part of the process. You can tell that Wirth risks becoming transfixed and using up valuable rescue time because he’s seeing his new girlfriend all comely and naked for the first time, even if it is in compromised form.

Anwar’s previously married dad (Terry Kinney) is a fairly ineffectual presence but a pro at his EPA job; his characterization suggests what used to be called a “quiche eater.” And environmental sleuthing is the reason he’s transported Anwar, a new wife (Meg Tilly) and kid brother Murphy to boilerplate army housing in the first place (their home suggests the Tommy Lee Jones-Jessica Lange digs from Blue Sky, which came out later the same year despite having been filmed much earlier). Anwar gets an inkling of something dreadful in a filling station restroom (I know how she feels) even before they reach the base, and there’s a good early bit where Murphy takes an instant traumatized dislike to his preschool when all the other kids’ paintings in art class look identical. We also get a seriously alcoholic Ermey wife who suddenly adopts water as her liquid of choice before whisking herself off to bridge parties when she doesn’t even know how to play the game, another serviceably creepy plot point.

Kaufman’s ’78 version had outstanding sound recording for its day — with some of the most pristine Dolby clarity I can recall until Steven Seagal began to snap the wrists of his screen adversaries in something akin to an audiophile’s version of pretzel breakage as a kind of 5.1 career motif. Similarly from the opening credits, this version can make a similar claim in its screamings and wailings and then even the silences that get effectively set up by the prevailing sound pyrotechnics. The Finney premise (these pods are turning us into walking serial numbers sans human compassion) is probably foolproof to a point, and Body Snatchers’ result is still a tepidly compelling view until the very end, a letdown that feels rushed. I remember thinking at the time what it must have been like in the Warner screening room, circa 1993, when something that seemed sure-fire as at least a limited moneymaker failed to deliver despite flashes of originality. As a Blu-ray view, however, the movie isn’t easy to resist — though probably more as a rental unless you want to collect all four versions (something I can imagine, given certain people I know).

If there’s ever a fifth version, I’d like to see one where Ermey starts out playing the same bellowing drill instructor he immortalized in Full Metal Jacket — and then pod-evolves into someone who eventually shows up in the barracks to say, “Well, I really don’t care what you do.”

About the Author: Mike Clark

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