Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: We greet the hostile extraterrestrial visitors of The 5th Wave with more movies about alien invasions.
“Where you gonna go? Where you gonna run? Where you gonna hide? Nowhere. ’cause there’s no one like you left.”
The most expensive movie that Abel Ferrara—the wild-man chiaroscuro painter of addictions and moral decay—ever got to make is one of his most overlooked: a re-imagining of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, set around an Army base. Both the Don Siegel original and the Philip Kaufman update are considered classics, but Body Snatchers—the title stripped down to the two essential words—is mostly known as a career oddity that found New York heroin poet Ferrara, fresh off the one-two of King Of New York and Bad Lieutenant, working with genre nerd Stuart Gordon and B-movie maestro Larry Cohen on a science fiction horror flick for Warner Bros. Like a lot of people who’ve given Ferrara money over the years, the studio didn’t know what to make of what they got in return, and though Body Snatchers premiered at Cannes and had the support of a lot of critics (including the one that mattered the most in those days, Roger Ebert), it ended up getting dumped into a few dozen theaters in January, where it made only a fraction of its budget. Not that it was even that expensive; it cost only about $13 million, which is around $20 million in today’s dollars.
Ferrara was no stranger to genre. His first movie was a porno, his second was a punk slasher, his third a rape-revenge flick, and from there, he basically worked his way up into crime movies and gangster films and then into the arthouse. Later in life, he’d say that the two movies that had the biggest impact on him as an aspiring filmmaker were A Woman Under The Influence and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which both hit theaters in the fall of 1974. Maybe there are traces of them in Body Snatchers. The not-so-subtle parallels of conformism (military and community versus pod people) mark the movie’s most obvious departure from other versions of the story; unlike the earlier films or Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers—one of those books that’s mostly known for being made into a lot of movies—Ferrara’s version is told mostly from the perspective of children, and is narrated by a teenage girl whose dad, a civilian EPA agent, has relocated the family to a military community to work on a survey on the local ecosystem. So obviously it’s about fitting in.
But it’s also about family as a place where people are supposed to feel like they belong—the kind of conformism that’s said to be good for you, personified by the stepmother (Meg Tilly, superb) who becomes the first of the new arrivals to be replaced by a pod-grown impostor. If Ferrara and his longtime writer Nicholas St. John—who re-wrote a script by Gordon and his writing partner Dennis Paoli—are going after anything in Body Snatchers, it’s the family unit. Part of what makes the film so creepy is the lengths it goes to eroticize the pod people; the emphasis here is on Body, and the writing, worm-like tendrils that wrap around potential snatchees have an undercurrent of sexual nightmare. Like the vampires in The Addiction, Ferrara’s other exploration of horror themes and the metaphors they invite, the pod people are more alluring than the drab reality they’ve invaded. Ferrara, a visual expressionist at heart, creates some really unsettling moments, though maybe the most impressive thing about the movie is that it manages to make what’s basically a happy ending seem soul-crushingly bleak.
Availability: Body Snatchers is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.