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AUGUST 3, 1998: 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

D: Don Siegel (1956)
with Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Carolyn Jones, Larry Gates

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

D: Philip Kaufman (1978)
with Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright

Body Snatchers

D: Abel Ferrara (1994)
with Gabrielle Anwar, Meg Tilly, Forest Whitaker, Billy Wirth, R. Lee Ermey.

It's useless to resist the three distinct versions of this unsettling tale, not to mention its messages about conformity and lack of feeling. As people sleep, alien beings are taking over their bodies, assuming their exact likenesses while gestating in strange-looking pods. These "pod people" possess no emotions -- they simply exist to survive.

Four decades ago when the late Don (Dirty Harry) Siegel shot his ominous version of Jack Finney's story, he had no way of knowing it would become a cult classic. According to an interview Siegel gave Peter Bogdanovich in Who the Devil Made It?, the terror of the movie is in its absolute reality. "So many people have no feeling about culture, no pain or sorrow," Siegel said. The inevitable pod people takeover is as normal as can be, yet it produces "an epidemic of mass hysteria" that turns blood relatives against one another. Shot in 19 days for $300,000, Siegel's film suffered when the studio asked him to add a sappy prologue and epilogue. Subtract those tacked-on moments when town doctor Miles (Kevin McCarthy) obtains the help of authorities in a neighboring city, and the movie gets a whole lot darker -- closing with an hysterical Miles staggering through traffic, shrieking "You're next!" Chilling stuff, coming as it did during the era of Communism paranoia.

The first update of the story was directed by Phil (The Right Stuff) Kaufman. Set in San Francisco, the 1978 film establishes a frightening atmosphere using weird shadows and light, jarring camera angles and an effective sound trick -- a persistent pulse, or throb, underneath the dialogue. Donald Sutherland works for the Department of Health, while Brooke Adams is a lab technician who notices her husband has changed. Leonard Nimoy is well-cast as a celebrity psychologist who is as ice cold as the logical Mr. Spock. In a spooky cameo, Kevin McCarthy reprises his panicky-guy-in-the-street role. (Watch the first two Body Snatchers back-to-back and you'll swear the now-graying McCarthy has never stopped running.) As the bleary-eyed Sutherland and Adams flee, nice plot touches abound. The movie implicates the government -- referencing several late-20th century conspiracies -- and adds an omnipresent fleet of garbage trucks that picks up human remains for disposal. Best of all is the story's conclusion, which ought to jolt viewers wide awake.

"When all things conform, there will be no conflicts." This quote is central to director Abel (Bad Lieutenant) Ferrara's 1994 film, Body Snatchers. A very Nineties update, the story is told from the point of view of teenage military brat Gabrielle Anwar. Bored, subjugated, and forced to look after her much younger half-brother, Anwar's character might have the most incentive to go to sleep of any of the Body Snatchers movies' protagonists. She's at odds with her stepmother (Meg Tilly). Her father's transient career contributes even more family tension. Luckily for her, she befriends a hunky JFK Jr. clone who flies helicopters. The plot, however, is spare. A foreshadowed conflict never fully develops between Dad and the base commander, the always intimidating R. Lee Ermey. He doesn't make skin crawl here quite as convincingly as in Full Metal Jacket. Forest Whitaker, as a soldier M.D., is all but overlooked, appearing in just two scenes.

Although Ferrara's Body Snatchers might not be the preferred among the three versions, it is nevertheless a clever reading of the story. The decision to start the "pod plot" within the military is a great one, and there's a disconcerting lack of privacy for the Anwar character. As long as "they get you when you sleep," a bad version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers will never be made.

-- Stuart Wade

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