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BODY SNATCHERS (1993)

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"They’re out there! They’re everywhere! They get you when you sleep! They get you when you sleep!"
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Body SnatchersDirector: Abel Ferrara

Starring: Gabrielle Anwar, Terry Kinney, Meg Tilly, Reilly Murphy, Billy Wirth, Christine Elise, R. Lee Ermey, Forest Whitaker, G. Elvis Phillips

Screenplay: Raymond Cistheri, Larry Cohen, Stuart Gordon, Dennis Paoli and Nicholas St. John, based upon the novel by Jack Finney

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Synopsis: Marti Malone (Gabrielle Anwar), her father, Steve (Terry Kinney), step-mother, Carol (Meg Tilly), and six-year-old half-brother, Andrew (Reilly Murphy), travel towards a military base in the southern United States, where Steve, who is with the EPA, has been sent to inspect the storage of chemical weapons. Entering a gas station restroom, Marti is terrified when a man in army fatigues suddenly grabs her, whispering frantically that "they" are out there, that "they" get you when you sleep. Tearing herself away, Marti screams for help, but by the time the others reach her, the soldier has gone. At the base, Marti is horrified to discover that the family’s house has only two bedrooms, and she will have to share a room with Andy. Storming out, Marti explores the base, but suddenly finds herself surrounded by MPs, who warn her that she is on restricted premises. Jenn Platt (Christine Elise), the rebellious daughter of the base’s commanding officer, rescues Marti and drives her away. Late that night, Andy wakes from a nightmare and runs to his parents. As Carol puts him back to bed, Steve looks out the window and sees a man being dragged from his house and forced into a jeep by two soldiers. After an interview with the hostile General Platt (R. Lee Ermey), Steve begins taking water samples for analysis. He is approached by Major Collins (Forest Whitaker), head of the base’s Medical Corp, who asks Steve if the chemicals he is investigating could have psychological effects, as he has been inundated with patients suffering from extreme paranoia and a fear of going to sleep. Steve says not, but Collins asks to be kept up to date on his research anyway. Soldiers deliver boxes of equipment to the Malone house, putting them all over the place, even in the bedrooms. At Andy’s day care, the boy becomes distressed when he realises that everyone in the class has done exactly the same painting but him. Deciding to run away, the boy is caught by Tim Young (Billy Wirth), a helicopter pilot, who delivers him back into Marti’s care. When Marti asks Andy what was wrong, he tells her about the paintings, and that "They tried to make me go to sleep." That night, Marti goes with Jenn to a nearby bar, where the girls meet Tim and his friend, Pete (G. Elvis Phillips). Marti suddenly sees the soldier who terrorised her at the gas station. Tim confronts the man, but he denies knowing her. Tim and the distressed girl leave, walking together and talking for some time before kissing passionately. Nearby, soldiers remove seed-like objects from a swamp and load them into trucks. Hearing a strange noise, Andy enters Carol’s bedroom where, to his horror, he sees her disintegrate. A moment later, a naked replica of Carol enters the room. Shrieking in terror, Andy flees. At the same time, Marti arrives home, later than she promised. Andy runs to her, and she puts him to bed, trying to convince him that he just had a nightmare; but the boy insists that his mother is dead. Steve and Marti argue violently over her behaviour. The next day, while Steve is working, there is an accident with a drum of chemicals, with a soldier having his protective clothing ripped open. Steve is horrified when he sees what lies beneath it. He obtains a sample of the soldier’s damaged clothing, stained with the fluid that came from his wound, and sends it for analysis. Andy makes another attempt to convince Marti of the truth about Carol, telling her that "It happens when you go to sleep", but Carol interrupts them. Marti takes a hot bath, dozing in the tub. A strange object in the ceiling above her puts out long, probing tentacles that crawl across her face; while the object begins to take on Marti’s shape. Meanwhile, Carol watches, unperturbed, as her sleeping husband undergoes the same process….

Comments: Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers is an excellent illustration of the law of diminishing returns. This third version of Jack Finney’s classic story of paranoia is not a bad film, but it lacks the power and the capacity to disturb that make its predecessors so effective. In Don Siegel’s definitive version of the tale, the film’s focus is upon its carefully drawn and likeable characters and their beautifully sketched small-town lives; the audience is made to care, and the horror, when it strikes, is all the more potent. Re-making the story in 1978, Philip Kaufman chose to shift the tale to the big city, putting the pre-existing disaffection of its urbanised characters to scathing use in a clever and sometimes scary film that nevertheless lacks the emotional resonance of the original. Updating the story once more, director Ferrara and his team (squad? platoon?) of screenwriters made the bold decision to invert Jack Finney’s parable, setting their tale in a society of strangers, and making the crux of their story not the loss of humanity, but the re-discovery of it. The result is a flawed, frustrating film, sometimes intriguing, most often annoyingly heavy-handed. Body Snatchers’ most obvious failure is on the level of character, precisely where its predecessors succeeded best. As is the case with so many modern genre films, there simply isn’t anyone here that the audience really cares about (with one exception, perhaps; more on that later). Consequently, when the pods start taking over, it is a totally unmoving experience; effective on a visceral level, yes; but that’s all. We don’t know or like much about these people, so why should we care whether the pods get them or not? The situation isn’t helped by having so much of the story centred upon a sulky teenager – a fair indication of what audience this was intended for. (Note to studios: adults like horror films too; or at least, they would, if….) Marti Malone is, in many ways, an entirely typical teenager. She hates her life, she hates her family, she hates being told what to do – in fact, she hates pretty much everything. Now, this may be realistic, but it doesn’t exactly make her attractive company. While there a couple of moments when you can’t help sympathising with her – her dismayed recoil at discovering she has to share a bedroom with her kid brother; her fight with her father, in which she tells him she uses obscene language because "That’s the only time you listen to me!" – mostly you just want to slap her around the head and tell her to grow up. (Yup – I am definitely getting old and cranky!) Marti’s "alienation" is made the focus of this version of the story, her recognition of her real feelings for her family coinciding with the discovery that self-knowledge may have come too late. Unfortunately, since the audience doesn’t really care about Marti’s problems, this storyline has little real impact.

Nor does Body Snatchers gain much from the decision to set the story on a military base. Given the fact that Larry Cohen and Stuart Gordon were among the people who worked on the screenplay, the lack of subtlety and imagination shown here is doubly disappointing. Having chosen to take a blatantly anti-militaristic stance, it would have been nice if the screenwriters had actually done something with it, but as it stands this aspect of the story feels like nothing more than a lazy and rather ill-natured jibe. Instead of exploring the ways in which the soldiers’ training might make them vulnerable in a situation that calls for individual decision-making and action, or prevent them from speaking out upon sensing that something was wrong (it is very noticeable, by the way, that the men who evade takeover are the "non-regular" army guys: Major Collins, the Medical Officer, and Tim Young, the helicopter pilot; in contrast, the grunts in khaki fall like nine-pins), Ferrara & Co. simply take the soft option: "Military Life = Mindless Conformity". The lost possibilities here are quite frustrating. We never know, for instance, whether the aliens deliberately chose the military base as a clever invasion tactic, or whether it was just a coincidence. Nor is what I assume was the point of all this – the cover provided for the invasion by the strict regulation of army life – given much emphasis. Instead, the only real profit made out of the film’s setting comes via the exploitation of civilian nervousness – and ignorance - about military procedure. When the Malone family arrives at the base, the alien takeover is well underway, but neither they nor the audience immediately recognises that anything is wrong. Even when Steve Malone sees a man being rather forcibly "escorted" from his quarters in the middle of the night, his only response is a look of concern and distaste. The Malones, of course, have problems of their own – and sadly, this aspect of the story isn’t any better developed than the army/pods one. In trying to have things both ways, Ferrara and his writers overreach themselves. On one hand, they are eager to have as big a contrast as possible between EPA scientist Steve Malone and the base’s almost pathologically militaristic C.O., Colonel Platt. To this end – and not inaccurately – they make Steve the casually dressed, easygoing type, dedicated to his work but laid back the rest of the time. Unfortunately, this works against all of the script’s attempts to demonstrate the increasing distance between Steve and Marti. He never for an instance seems the hard-nosed parent that Marti accuses him of being, but rather just a man rightly exasperated by his daughter’s bratty behaviour. This does nothing to increase our sympathy for Marti, and nor does her attitude to her half-brother and her step-mother, the latter of whom she refers to as "the woman who replaced my mother". Here the film really runs into difficulties, with the casting of Meg Tilly as Carol Malone. I don’t want to be rude or anything, but no, there really isn’t any way of saying this without being rude, is there? Meg Tilly is a pod; or at the very least, an alien; and having her play a normal, loving wife and mother makes about as much sense as having John Wayne play Genghis Khan. The biggest shock in the film comes when we see Carol being taken over – to that point, I imagine you could have gotten healthy odds on her being behind the whole invasion. (I’ll be quite honest: I kept waiting to discover that she was somehow responsible for the Malones’ presence on the base.) None of this is intended as a criticism of Tilly’s performance; she’s simply miscast, at least as "Carol Malone"; once "podified", however, she is quite unnerving. In a genuinely chilling scene, "Carol" reveals herself to Steve, trying to convince him to give in to the invaders. When the panicked Steve insists repeatedly that, "We’ve gotta go!", her response is a simple, "Go where?" As Steve stares at her, comprehension finally dawning, she adds softly, "Where are you gunna go? Where are you gunna run? Where are you gunna hide? Nowhere – because there’s no-one like you left." This speech is made all the more frightening by the fact that at this stage, the audience does not know how far or how fast the alien infiltration is spreading. However, effective as this pivotal scene is, it ultimately works against the overall purpose of the story. By replacing the real Carol with an alien, the script seems to be inferring that Marti’s attitude to her step-mother was right all along. Still more bizarre, although on the surface the story is about Marti coming to terms with her emotions, the progressive takeover of the Malones, and Marti’s increasingly violent response to this situation, makes Body Snatchers seem less like an allegory of the value of humanity, and more like a rather nasty wish-fulfillment fantasy. How else are we to take Marti’s triumphant separation of her father and step-mother; or her later attack upon Steve - who may or may not be "one of them"? And then there’s what happens to Andy....

Body Snatchers works best when it takes the risk of ignoring one of the golden rules of American horror film-making: a child must never be put in any situation of genuine danger. This is, frankly, a convention I find intensely irritating. This is not to say that I want films built around terrible things happening to kids. I just want a stop put to the dishonest practice of using children for false sentiment and scares, when the viewer knows perfectly well all along that nothing really bad is going to happen to them. (Daylight was on TV here the other night, which reminds me that this rule also applies to dogs.) The scenes in Body Snatchers that are the most effective are nearly all built around the six-year-old Andy Malone, who is the first to discover what’s going on, but cannot get anyone to listen to him. In an increasingly unsettling chain of events, we first see Andy at day-care, realising that every child in the class has drawn exactly the same picture – all except him. Sensibly enough, he responds by trying to run away. Cut off and returned "home" by helicopter pilot Tim Young, Andy is witness to the pods’ takeover of his mother, first watching in horror as her body disintegrates, then confronted by her naked replica. His shrieking terror is, of course, dismissed as the result of a nightmare. This sequence of escalating horror climaxes, oddly enough, with a single line of dialogue at the breakfast table, when Steve Malone asks his son: "Do you want to go back to day-care, or stay home with Mommy?" For all the shock scenes and gruesome special effects in this film, nothing else in it comes close to equaling the disturbing power of that brief moment. And the screenplay has not done with poor Andy. By the time the truth of the boy’s story has become evident, it is far too late. He, Marti and Tim, perhaps the only remaining humans, must flee for their lives. The three are separated, however, and Andy’s fate is decided - offscreen.

Unfortunately, this is about the only aspect of the film that is handled with any subtlety. In contrast to the previous versions of the story, Body Snatchers depicts the process of alien takeover quite explicitly. The reasons for this decision were, I imagine, twofold: firstly, because they could; and secondly - well, what horror film-maker these days dares leave anything up to the audience’s imagination? We do not see the entire alien takeover of Carol Malone, merely its endpoint, when the shell of her body crumbles to sludge before the eyes of her terror-stricken son. It is through the first attack upon Marti, initiated when the girl lies dozing in a warm bath, that we are shown how it’s done. A pod in the ceiling above her extrudes long, sticky, tentacle-like protrusions that grow down to her and – in a scene guaranteed to make an audience go "Eeewww!!!!" – wrap themselves about her face and begin to penetrate her nose and mouth. Marti wakes in time to save herself, only to have her not-quite-finished replica drop from the ceiling and land upon her. Fleeing in terror to her father (and wrapped in one of those amazing movie towels that stay in place no matter how much stress is put upon them), Marti finds that Steve, too, is under attack. As she strips the tentacles from his face, we learn that Abel Ferrara is neither too proud nor too modern to go with the classics: a hand reaches out from beneath the bed and grabs her ankle. As Marti shrieks and struggles, Steve revives, and his replica dissolves into a puddle of bloody goo. The aliens haven’t done with the Malone family, however. Each of the remaining humans comes under attack again later in the film, although only Marti is attacked onscreen. This scene, it must be said, feels like the film-makers’ attempt to meet some kind of nudity quota. After a brief glimpse of replica Carol (check out this end credit: Meg’s body double….Jennifer), and then Marti and her double wrestling in her bubble bath, here we have a second replica Marti, breathing, moving, talking – and nekkid. Despite the apparent success of the takeover, Tim manages to revive the real Marti, and the replica collapses, shrieking and writhing in pain – and all the while managing to keep its breasts in the shot. Remarkable.

While the film as a whole never quite comes together, there are enough clever touches scattered throughout Body Snatchers to maintain viewer interest. For example, early on we see the rebellious Jenn Platt reacting with cynical indifference to the discovery of her mother in an alcoholic stupor. It is only when Mrs Platt suddenly stops drinking that Jenn becomes uneasy, her unease growing to fear when her mother - quelle horreur! - joins the local bridge club. Better still, and quite delicately handled, is the scene where Marti and Tim get to know each other by playing a game called "Never"; a game which ends abruptly with Marti backing away from Tim in dismay when she learns that he has "killed someone" (in Kuwait). The payoff for this comes when Tim and Marti are later confronted by Steve, about whom neither the characters nor the audience is entirely sure any more. Tim draws his gun but is unable to pull the trigger. It is Marti who shrieks, "Shoot him! Shoot him!" and then, as Tim still hesitates, seizes his hand and forces him to fire. Moreover, in one of the few examples of genuine complexity in the film, it is made clear that even as their military training has made most of the soldiers vulnerable to takeover, in Tim’s case the same training enables him both to elude his attackers and strike back against them. Finally - perhaps the most thoughtful moment of all - Marti’s humanity nearly costs her her life when Jenn - is she human? is she not? - whispers to her, "I know where Andy is." Marti walks on for three or four gallant paces before stopping, turning, and betraying herself with the word, "Where?" It is ironic that this scene is so effective, since its inverse - the aliens’ attempt to make Tim betray himself - is without doubt the most idiotic moment in the entire film. As Tim - suppressing all emotion to mimic being "one of them" - tries to steal a helicopter, he is confronted by the no-longer-human Pete, who tries to trick him into revealing himself with the line: "By the way - I fucked your girlfriend!" I mean, really - ! Given that Tim has known his "girlfriend" about twenty-four hours, and as far as we know as done nothing more than kiss her, you’d hope that this wouldn’t get a reaction even if the fate of the human race didn’t depend upon it. But apparently this "test" is regarded as definitive. Since Tim doesn’t immediately start bellowing, "I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!" he is accepted as an alien and allowed to swipe all the helicopters he wants. Up to this point, the humans have behaved so stupidly that you feel a certain empathy with the aliens; but after this, it becomes clear that the aliens are just as dumb as the people they’re taking over, and ultimately you don’t much care who wins. It is fitting, then, that the ending of Body Snatchers is rather ambiguous - although not necessarily in a good way. There are a great many explosions in the final stretch of this film, but rather than striving for a particular conclusion, the climactic sequence seems more like an invocation of the Jabootuian Last Scene Rule: if you don’t know how to end a film, blow something up. And finally, I can’t close this review without commenting upon the "performance" delivered by Billy Wirth as Tim Young. Although not alone in the bad acting stakes - for one thing, R. Lee Ermey’s performance suggests he’s been watching too many movies with R. Lee Ermey in them - Wirth’s one-note, one expression contribution grows funnier as the film progresses (he has to pretend to be emotionless!?). It’s as if the only direction given the actor throughout was, "Okay, Billy - smoulder." Nor is the situation helped by the fact that Wirth look more like OOT Baldwins than OOT Baldwins. What’s really worrying about this, however, is that you can’t help feeling that, even as Ms Anwar’s "talents" are deployed so as to keep the boys interested, Wirth is there purely as a sop to the teenage girls in the audience. If this is what girls are finding attractive these days, I’d say that the human race has a lot more to worry about than alien invasions.

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