What people find scary is as wide ranging as what people find funny. For some it’s animals such as snakes or insects that make their skin crawl. For others thoughts of homicidal maniacs and murders put them on edge. Others may find that stories of ghosts or otherworldly events are what keep them up at night. Everybody has something, and we’re all different. But there are certain universal fears that go deeper than just the basic heeby-jeebies. Fear of losing loved ones, and more fundamentally fear of losing oneself. It’s this universal fear that lies at the heart of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and of the four film versions of that story that currently exist the 1978 version is the most frightening.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is set in San Fransisco, where extra-terrestrial spores have landed and blossomed into rather lovely flowers. When people pick those flowers and take them home, something happens to them. They appear to be unchanged by those close to them find them somehow different in a way that is difficult to articulate. Elizabeth (played by Brooke Adams) has noticed such a change in her live-in boyfriend. She confides in her department of health co-worker Matthew (Donald Sutherland.) What appears to at first be just a mild paranoia, as diagnosed by local celebrity psychologist Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nemoy,) soon becomes something much more dangerous. People are being replaced while they sleep with duplicates that physically perfect matches yet are devoid of feeling. Matthew and Elizabeth, along with their friends Jack (Jeff Goldblum) and Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) realize that the new flowers around the city are at the heart of the phenomenon. Now the four must find a way to stop an invasion that is nearly impossible to detect and combat an enemy that can get them while they sleep.
It’s difficult to know where to start when talking about what makes Invasion of the Body Snatchers work so well, even more than 30 years after it was first released. Probably the best place to start though is with the cast. True to the cinematic sensibilities of the time the stars were cast more for their acting skills than because they of some glamorous appearance. The bond between the found leads feels very true, not only due to friendship chemistry but because in the ways they don’t always agree as well. The way in which the characters differ from each other makes them function as an even better cohesive whole. Also while there is wonderful affection between Sutherland and Adams there is not a traditional romantic subplot between the characters of Matthew and Elizabeth. This is a great relief as such forced and unnecessary romance puts a damper on so many otherwise great films. Leonard Nemoy is also worth bring attention to. It’s true that he will always be thought of as Spock, but in a way that actually works to the film’s advantage in this case. The character of Dr. Kibner, being a man of science, is close enough to Spock that the casting is believable. At the same time it’s just off kilter enough from the character so associated with Nemoy that it makes him slightly disconcerting, which plays perfectly into the paranoia of the movie.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers plays on universal fears absolutely perfectly. First there’s that creeping sense that we all get when somebody who we know and care about is just behaving differently for no apparent reason. In real world scenarios they may be depressed, or hiding some personal secret or loss. However regardless of the reason it’s something that we can all detect in our loved ones, when something is just slightly off. The film taps into this universal experience and amplifies it to horrific levels, with the idea that there isn’t just something slightly off about the person we care about but instead they are fundamentally not the same person anymore. Then there is the fear of losing ones self. The one thing we should always be able to take comfort in is that we are our own person, to have that forcibly removed is something that all people fear on some level. Most films would play on this fear with an oppressive government, something akin to Orwell. Taking a science-fiction route in which once we lose our self it’s not possible to get it back again amplifies familiar fears. Finally and perhaps most terrifyingly there is the vulnerability of sleep. We all sleep and that’s not an option, it is a fact. Sleep is supposed to be the time that we are safe, when we recuperate. Yet in reality it is the time that we are the most vulnerable, this is a thought most of put out of our minds but the film forces to the forefront. Sleep cannot be delayed forever, everybody must sleep, and that is when they will get you.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers builds up it’s tension gradually but there is never a part of it that could really be called boring. During the more subdued moments at the beginning the charisma of the leads keep the film moving along. However once people start being replaced the tension and fear ratchets up at regular intervals as the severity and scope of the invasion becomes clear. There’s a certain terror to the bods and the actual process of the duplication itself that is unnerving. Tendrils from the flower pods creep over the victim’s sleeping body and seem to simply sap away everything about them to create the double. Not only is it a frightening visual but the sound scape of the film is brilliantly constructed. Throughout the movie ambient sounds such as birds and crickets gradually die away until by the end of the film the only background noises are all mechanical. This sort of subtle audio manipulation along with the increased desperation of the heroes all will latch onto the viewer and make them feel the same terror of the leads.
The question must be asked: what makes this version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers the scariest compared to the others out there? The 1956 black and white original still holds up and captures the paranoia of the situation quite perfectly. Unfortunately the science fiction aspects of it haven’t aged particularly well and have that certain element of cheesiness inherent if sci-fi movies of the era. 1993’s Body Snatchers is certainly under-appreciated and was unfairly dumped with little promotion by Warner Brothers. However the true creeping sense of terror is not quite as well executed in that version. Frankly the less said about 2007’s The Invasion the better, as the film was simply a mess and seemed to completely miss the point of what works about the story in the first place.
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers offers the kind of horror that sticks with viewers long after the credits run. It’s not about a things happening suddenly to make the audience jump. It’s not about grossing out the viewer with gore or monster effects. It’s about a creeping persistent fear that it hard to fully justify and harder still to shake off. It’s about the vulnerability of sleep and the worst possible paranoia being completely justified. The film ends in a way that will leave any viewer shaken and prepared to load up on Red Bull and espresso to stay awake through the night. Perfectly frightening and in a way that can’t be brushed off as just “a good scare,” truly the scariest movie ever made.