Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Friday, September 16, 2016

How am I not Myself? - INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956, 1978, 1993)





Very few stories are so Piscean in nature that their subtext can either be pro-or-anti nearly any social or cultural system, side or issue: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS first appeared in the mid-50s, the height of red scares (and red propaganda), conformity (and fear of conformity), and atomic fear (and fear of pacifism), fear of fear, and fear of fear of fear itself. The story of an invading race of placid, docile space pods with the ability to replace their barbarous human hosts, SNATCHERS touched a nerve and entered straight into the popular mythos where it's been since. Even people who haven't seen either of the three versions know what it means to be a 'pod person' even if they've forgotten why . There have been four films based on the original novel, a book celebrating the original film with essays by its devoted fan-authors, and countless dissertations such as this one. But this one is the best, the rest are imitations and some don't even get the irony. Think of it... no pain, no fear, no irony... superior in every way... everything old is new again, and no one says anything about the Emperor's New Clothes, or anything really at all. It's not that we're afraid, but we're afraid of the people who told him he had clothes on, we're just afraid he'll catch a draft.

In BODY SNATCHERS the aliens come to us in the form of ourselves, exact duplicates, only without the intangible qualities of the "real." Like Prada knock-offs, they're alike in almost every way, but by not being "real" they are enemies. Allegedly, these aliens are here to “save us from ourselves” and thus presumably to save us money, both in therapy and expensive brand awareness costs, or perhaps to rescue the money itself, to deliver it from our evil clutches. In this sense they are definitely communists, as they speak of total equality among the workers, and by extension the end of advertising. The humans who catch wind of the conspiracy and resist the pod people are the ones with prestige, highly educated positions of authority (doctors, EPA agents, etc.) and money-- they seek to hold onto the upper middle class status they studied so hard in expensive schools to earn. To keep the Prada motif rolling, they are the ones who can afford expensive designer bags, and they react to the pods flooding the market with escalating violence. Their fear and fury, the very emotions which the pods speak of eradicating, increases exponentially as the number of human survivors dwindles, until all that's left is one hysterical man, a blazing fire sale of human desperation.


If we take what the pods say at face value, then what they are doing will ultimately benefit mankind. That spiritual seeker Abel Ferrara, director of the third BODY SNATCHER version discussed here, even went so far as to compare the pods to Zen Buddhists. (p. 150). So what's not to like? Why run into traffic just to avoid a nice, quieting mental haircut?

This Roscharch ink blot of a story has also been interpreted as anti-communist, anti-anti-communist, anti-establishment, and anti-nonconformist. Horror icon Stephen King sees it expressing the middle American fear of neighbors not cleaning up their lawns; French theorist Jean Baudrillard would no doubt love the story as emblematic of the implementation of the pop culture "simulacrum." Andy Warhol based his soup cans on the “pod principle.” The list goes on and on, myriad theoretical tentacles that slither in all directions from Finney's original story. Ultimately, what they reveal in their infinitude is the fluctuating nature of man’s position in relation to the social order, how the individual is continually subsumed and expelled from the collective body of his current cultural zeitgeist in a tide as regular and merciless as the ocean.

Einstein’s pod law of physics goes as thus: For every action there is a reaction, which duplicates the original action and then takes its place, only with less verve’. Imagine it in terms of food: Imagine there's a rumor that the new world order will be getting rid of steak in favor of more potatoes for the hungry; everyone would a potato, no matter how poor or alienated they are. The money for this would come from the budget for steak which now only the middle class and higher can afford, potatoes on the side, while the poor have no steak and no potato at all

So that’s the new order proposed by the NWO: No fear, no hope, no sour cream --just eat your potato and forget your troubles. No need to worry that if you worked harder or pushed for it more, you too could have a steak. You, a voracious eater of steak, hear of this potato plan, and you fear for the future. You start guarding your plate of steak obsessively at dinner. At the block party picnic that weekend you notice your neighbors are all guarding their steaks, too. No one is sharing.

1993 version
Then one day, a stranger sits down at the picnic table with a plate full of potatoes and broccoli; no steak, he’s a vegetarian. In unison, you all jump up from your plates and lynch him. That night you sleep soundly, dreaming of a land where steak runs free, but the next evening at dinner your wife tells you she’s out of steak. Your plate shows only spinach and a potato, like a bad hand of cards. If you’re neighbors see this, you will be next on the lynch list. You eat hurriedly, draw the shades, sit down in your old rocking chair and start planning your next move. But something new is happening; you are feeling relaxed. Without red meat you’re less violent; you think maybe it’s wrong to lynch vegetarians. Weeks pass and some intellectuals start coming to your house at night to sip carrot juice and talk about the dangers of red meat conformity. You grow in number until you can't fit in the living room and so rent out the town hall; the next election is split between the green (vegetarian) and red (meat) parties. Green wins. The last steak eater in town runs down the street screaming “You’re next,” and around the track it goes. Thus the mob and the outsider are always changing roles. Eventually, even Frankenstein’s monster is handed a torch and asked to join in hunting down some newer threat. I remember this personally as a kid in elementary school - we'd pick on the new kid until a newer kid came along - then the kid we had been picking on joined us in picking on the newer one and so on.

This merry loop of conflict/resolution undergoes a major change however, with the advent of the high speed cable modem. The faceless mass that used to love targeting (and being targeted by) the outcast individual now finds itself dissolved. Everyone goes wandering along their private web thread into oblivion. Without the communists to threaten the borders, the iconoclastic “individualism” of rugged drunks like ('56 version script writer Sam Peckinpah), Don Siegel and Samuel Fuller grows suddenly outré, moldy with retro kitsch. Only Abel Ferrara (barely) survives with cool intact, and even his BODY SNATCHERS have to hang out at a military base to find any trace of conformity. Even there the pods have to wear identical sunglasses so they’ll “pass” as different.


I. THE BOOK

There was a time when America was a great utopia, when the still unpaved streets shone like asphalt jewels, and the iconoclast was revered for settling the country with such mercenary thoroughness. It is this appreciation for pre pre-fab small town American life that motivated Jack Finney to write INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, which appeared as a serial installment in Colliers Magazine in 1954. In Finney’s original story, the alien pods reveal truths about themselves that the movies never mention. For one, they confess they have no higher purposes other than to replicate and reproduce their pods all over the universe. Two, they are truly cheap knock-offs of the real thing, doomed to decompose rapidly and die within five years. Another difference is that Becky Driscoll doesn’t get turned into a pod at the end. She and Miles even ultimately triumph over the invaders by burning a pod crop, which almost makes them angry, which would be an admittance of true defeat, i.e. if you piss them off they're mad at themselves not you), so the remaining, un-hatched pods head back up to space. Miles rejoices in this victory: “We shall fight them in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” (Dell, p. 217). Wait, isn't that Churchill?

With or without the happy ending and weird Buddhist morality, independent producer Walter Wanger optioned the movie rights ere he read it and soon he and Finney were scouting locations. Don Siegel was hired to direct and Daniel Mainwaring wrote the adaptation. A writer of paperback westerns and hardboiled detective fiction, Mainwaring was the tough guy who wrote OUT OF THE PAST (1947), a classic of film noir, adapted from a novel he wrote under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes. Siegel was a hardboiled character himself—he later directed DIRTY HARRY (1977). As if these two guys weren’t tough and iconoclastic enough on their own, Siegel brought his friend Sam Peckinpah on board as co-writer. The stage was  being set for a different sort of SNATCHERS; these guys weren't so big on victorious rejoicing and with their low budget preventing them signing marquee names they took a chance and cast the film with "real" actors: Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynters. These are adults, each with wit, intelligence, and energy. This was important, for in order to show the loss of emotion, they would have to be able to convey they had some in the first place. Most sci fi characters didn't have to show they weren't pods.

Befitting the noir edge they wanted, Wynters' character Becky was to become a pod--as cold eyed as Rita Hayworth in THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI—for the bleak, noir-nightmarish climax. The characters' emotions—and their lack of—are conveyed in lots of tight close-ups; lips quiver with unsubstantiated anxiety, wicked licentiousness darts across otherwise mannered and sophisticated smiles. Later their faces get pale and puffy from lack of sleep, red and irritated from amphetamines. What a far cry all this face change business is from the bland visage of the typical 1950's sci fi hero and heroine!

This attention to depth, despair and transformation will probably make this 1956 adaptation forever cutting edge. In his autobiography, Siegel wrote: “Danny (Mainwaring) and I knew that many of our associates, acquaintances and family were already pods. How many of them woke up in the morning, ate breakfast (but never read the newspaper), went to work, returned home to eat again and sleep?" It's these pod-person associates in the film industry that have made this film so eternally current, that blinders-on attitude that spells the death of original thinking and the birth of the play-it-safe box office brain-cooler; TAXI DRIVER is dead, long live TAXI DRIVER IV: SPORT’S REVENGE.

It's interesting to note that sleep is key to podliness. "They get you when you sleep," is the first thing Gabrielle Anwar is told in Ferrara's remake.  Siegel too notes (above) specific pod traits as "waking up in the morning, and sleeping at night." We all know what it’s like to have to sleep when we want to stay up all night writing or talking with friends. It’s 5 AM, we’re full of a weird kind of magical life, but we know when we wake up the next day all that magic will be gone. With this in mind, we can connect INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS not only with other films made by its creative team: WILD BUNCH (1969) or DIRTY HARRY (1970) but also to films about artists who employ dangerous sleep-deprivation/drug abuse tactics to help them break the pod-lock on their creative genius: POLLOCK, BASQUIAT, ALL THAT JAZZ, and CHAPLIN, to name a few. In westerns it’s about the lone scorpion gunman being slammed Gulliver-like down via the swarming ant masses of by-the-book law enforcement tedium. In artist bios, it’s the limits of the artist’s physical limitations (bad heart, alcoholism, cancer), buckling underneath the tireless spurs of innovative genius. With artists and writers it’s not evolve or die, but evolve AND die. All writers, including Jack Finney, have to fall asleep. Dreams may come, but the art may not come back.


Maybe there are some folks who don’t want it to. Maybe the era of the sexless marriage--when TV parents slept in separate beds--seems a pretty oatmeal-ish time through the HAPPY DAYS rerun looking glass; maybe that gray flannel honky who once fought so bravely to keep his steak is as gone as the laserdisc, and good riddance. But maybe he should have fought a little harder; maybe he should have said yes to drugs and fought hippie LSD explosion fire with fire. Now his once nice clean suburb’s been overrun by foreigners who don’t clean up after their dogs or repair their broken windows. A Wal-Mart ate up Pop’s grocery store; it also ate the newsstand, candy store, soda shop, bowling alley, shoeshine shop, Owlin Howlin's arm, and several fruit carts. Indians outsourced his modem. Ugh. Now him out on Lazy Boy recliner reservation--living room called "man cave" now. Him got heap big drinking problem. Wife took his six figure job, confiscated his Lucky Strikes. No you die of COPD, she says.


Perhaps things are better as they are now-- “integrated,” with many cultures, sexual orientations, races, colors, and creeds inhabiting the same block, workplace, power position. But does this create a rainbow community or just merely alter the basic composition of paranoia so that it can no longer be “solved” via vigilante violence? People are almost blind from pretending their neighbor isn't different than themselves. Small talk over the picket fence must be sanded down until it's free of all cultural specifics, gender norms, biases, and inside jokes. Rumors literally don’t get around anymore; there is no longer a “townsfolk” to form a lynch mob with, there's no common language or common cultural property, so there can be no lone hero to try and stop them at the jailhouse door (or vice versa, if you are DIRTY HARRY). The 1950’s American value system stood for something and thus rebels had something to stand against. Since all the dads wore suits and ties--from morning until long after dinner--just wearing a turtleneck instead made you a beatnik. Nowadays, even if you get a tongue piercing and neck tattoo you’re just catching a trend that already left the station. When there are no pods in Santa Mira, all Santa Mira will be pods. You got that piercing at the mall- so it doesn't count, unless it's meant ironically, or--even more ironic--not meant as ironic at all. When parents try to emulate the teens, the teens are in deep trouble; the one-eyed child leads the blind-panicked cultural herbivores off a cliff, and by the time they land it's gone viral and sparked a backlash.

THE MOVIE (1956 original) 
I. The Peak of the Pyramid vs. the Sane Simulacrum

Siegel’s film opens with the mighty Straight White Male of 1950’s America, the city-educated doctor, Miles Bennell (McCarthy) riding into Santa Mira on his iron horse (the train). He’s been called back early from a medical conference because of a mysterious outbreak in town. People think their loved ones aren’t their loved ones and they need Miles to come fix things, but no idea how. He’s like Matt Dillon in TV’s GUNSMOKE, only Dodge City isn’t Dodge City anymore. It still looks like Dodge, just not the emotional, fun-loving, rowdy Dodge City it was before it fell asleep. We know in advance Miles won't fix a thing though, because in the studio-enforced prologue he comes crying in to FBI headquarters all dirty and hysterical. You think Sheriff Matt J. Dillon would ever get hysterical, no matter how many pods there were? He'd just shrug and reckon that as long as they're peaceable and ain't no corpus delecti, ain't nothing he can do, but poor Miles has to sob on the shoulder of Whit Bissell until his panting stops. The tone of Miles’ ensuing voiceover then grows calm and reassuring under Bissell’s authoritative blanket. We’re almost tempted to believe old Miles might be able to save Santa Mira after all, but no, the age of Matt Dillon is gone and we can only watch in horror as the what man grip on small town America tightens in panic, then gives way.


But what could have made this happen? There is no external force so violent and menacing that the forces of good cannot conquer it, whether by American ingenuity or the common cold. But the pod is an enemy so nonviolent and banal that good’s own “force” becomes the new menacing violence. This passive victor is so generous it even forgives, forgets and incorporates cantankerous iconoclasts like Fuller and Peckinpah into its tedious realms, processing them and radiating them back out, edited for content and re-formatted to fit your TV. It recruits the forces of Zenith, the local dope farmer, to plant pod-tatoes on every couch.

Media studies writer Michael Parkes sees this as a metaphor for post-modern simulacra, particularly in the scene were Becky and Miles drive to eat dinner at a nearby tavern, which is empty, presumably due to the pods lack of interest in a candle-lit dining environment. He notes that “Television’s effect on the service industry of America was immediate and harsh. The leisure sectors were the worst struck – bars and cafes slumped into decline.”
The only person they meet in the parking lot of the tavern is another medical professional, psychiatrist Danny Kaufman (Larry Gates) who is on his way out with another VIP --speaking to the resilience of the cultural elite at evading TV's magnetic draw. At the tavern, Becky and Miles ask about the live band that is usually on hand. The saloonkeeper indicates the new jukebox in the corner, which fills half the screen with an unworldly glow. Not enough interest in live music, he says, and the juke box is cheaper (another knock-off): “Humans," notes Parkes, "deemed redundant, are being replaced in this bar by a technological simulacrum. The artistry and individuality of the original band has been ‘snatched’ and replaced by an inferior technological substitute.”

Miles and Becky still attach import to the human connection, (a habit that prevents them from being so easily replaced), so they want to hear a band, and they want to eat out instead of in. Remember that the reason Miles was out of town for several days was to attend a medical conference—a practice of higher learning wherein information is relayed by live speaking voice directly to a present audience (as opposed to online classes of today). In college, attendance is part of your grade, part of your escape from pod-purgatory, as is staying awake in class. Blow off class to stay in bed (cuz you partied so hard the night before) and you’re a sitting duck for the pods; you’ll fail out of med school and wind up working at the fruit stand with Uncle Ira. You need to stay awake in a room with other humans; the TV doesn't count as contact, and if humans don’t touch you directly, the tendrils of the pods will.

This human touch is a big thing for doctors in general. They want you to "come in and see them," to let them touch you, without your clothes on, and this is supposedly for your own good. They can detect things in you just be listening to your heart, or tapping your because the great unwashed masses roll through the offices in the Professional Building where Miles pops them a pill and assures them that--by the power invested in him by the God and the Medical Community—their loved ones are not peaceful Buddhist knock-offs of their former, loving, abusive, intolerant Christian selves. Over the phone this would have no authority; they have to be in the same room, in the same frame, on the same movie screen at the same time. Anyone who is not present and swearing allegiance 24 hours a day could be a traitor. Move out of the frame, and the devil's got you.


The arrival of Becky into Miles’ office is a whole different matter. She comes not as a patient but as an old friend from college. She has returned to Santa Mira for a few months, from the city, to recover from a divorce. Like Miles she is cosmopolitan, she has been outside of Santa Mira and seen the wonders of the world. She has been divorced, a signifier meaning she places her individuality above the constrictions of the social order. Also, she enters his office wearing a stunning summer dress, form-fitted, with a bouquet of white frills spilling out of her chest (no knock-off this). Compared to the other women in the movie, she stands apart; a chosen goddess of the species. Her coming back amongst the “little people” to recover from a divorce implies that Santa Mira is relatively small potatoes, easy to conquer. A resident here wouldn’t be able to handle the rigors of life outside the town limits. Her beauty, dress and marital status are as valid a badge of superiority as the stethoscope is around Miles’ neck.


Actually, Becky has come to see Miles on behalf of her hick cousin Wilma (Virginia Christine -Princess Ananka in THE MUMMY'S CURSE) who is upset because their Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) isn’t Uncle Ira (he seems like PA KETTLE). Before that, Little Jimmy Grimaldi (Bobby Clark) is almost hit by Miles’ car while he runs away from his mom (Eileen Stevens), a fruit-stand worker straight of central casting for THE GRAPES OF WRATH. In each case a hick prototype is being “taken over” (recruited to the party) as the pods move up from the cellar of the social order towards the roost of Becky and Miles. 


Their youth, beauty, education and childless marital status are all clearly adding up to make Becky and Miles the tip of the Santa Mira social pyramid, but everyone is connected - and since they are the top they are expected to share the benefits of their vantage point. But they are benevolent royalty, and thus their carriage doesn’t callously trample Jimmy Grimaldi when he runs out in front of it, though it certainly seems like the aristocratic thing to do. Rather, Miles slams on the brake and leaps out of the car—dusting up his fine city shoes--to try and calm poor Jimmy down. And when spinster cousin Wilma needs help, Miles and Becky put their flirting on hold to hang out in her dull suburban backyard and give her Uncle Ira the once over as he haphazardly mows the lawn. Seems fine from here... what could possibly be 'weird' about such a yokel? Moreover, who would want to horn in on such a hardscrabble existence, like robbing someone's compost heap or leaf pile. And moreover still, what exactly can Becky and Miles do about it, about any of it, top of the pyramid or no?


Their flirting also is put further on hold when Miles is called over to the home of his friends, Jack Bellicec (King Donovan) and Teddy (Carolyn “Morticia Addams” Jones). Jack is a "writer" and thus not quite in Miles’ doctoral league, but rather part of the emerging intellectual middle class, which is established by the “rec room” in his house. This locale is where a partially developed pod body has been discovered, growing on the pool table. (this is my parents' class, so I'm most comfortable with these people, EK). The Bellicecs are the middle of the pyramid types and the choice of the pool table as the first “exposed to the public” pod bed is very telling. Green and felt-covered, it represents the crossroads between the juke joint dirt fields and the cigar-scented parlors of the old rich. It is the field of play where colored balls of narrative bounce from surface into holes, or bedroom down to basement, flower down to roots, upper middle class artist down to proletariat pod. Miles is quick to rack up the various balls of evidence and realize that this is corpse is the future Jack Bellicec (who is now moving towards the side pocket for a deep rest) and that as Becky is already asleep at her house she must also be in danger. Before he goes racing to the rescue though, he tells Jack to call Dr. Kaufman.

But why?

How is a shrink going to be able to handle the pod situation better than a doctor like Miles? Will Kaufman diagnose the pod as manic-depressive?

II. Dr. Kaufman - Reality Repairman 

Miles wasn’t really expected to fix Uncle Ira or Mrs. Grimaldi, to hit them on the head with his little reflex testing hammer and restore them to sanity. He was called in as a "reality repairman," as an authority figure ordained with the power to redefine social reality when it no longer fulfills its function. When Miles’ own reality slips its gears (i.e. he begins to see and touch the pods) he has to defer to Dr. Kaufman, the ultimate reality specialist. If Kaufman sees and touches them, then they are real, they are there--because he will know the difference between the real and the  vividly imagined and whether the pod thing is an actual unknown alien plant or a pile of clothes overgrown with some basement fungus. Thus Kaufman--and by extension psychiatry—are the keepers of the gates of Hell, gently labeling each new demon that tumbles out of their patient's minds. Only they--the doctor of doctors so to speak-- can validate (and thus incorporate into social reality) an external phenomenon such as people not being themselves for real (rather than just symptoms of some schizophrenic break--the sort of thing for which electro-shock actually does work wonders).

Note also that while Miles fears for Becky’s safety since she’s asleep already, it never even occurs to him that as Dr. Kaufman’s already asleep, he too may be already taken over, or be harboring a half-formed Dr. Kaufman in his wine cellar. Miles sees Kaufman as his intellectual superior—therefore he trusts that Kaufman is still Kaufman, and that Kaufman can repair any crack in reality that Miles himself cannot. When a doctor cannot handle a situation, he calls in "a specialist" who would then call in another specialist and so on, there can never be a "specialist endpoint" lest the whole system collapse. And since the vines are creeping up the pyramid from the base (in Miles' direct experience) Kaufman will be among the last to go.


At any rate, Kaufman can’t help them. The phones are in the hands of the pods, as are the cops. It’s well known that Siegel’s original ending was of Miles screaming “And you’re next!” right into the camera, his blurry, sweaty, bleary face taking up the whole screen. This was a very gloomy finale. It's so traumatic that even Manger’s enforced FBI epilogue doesn't fully lay the anxiety it causes. In the novel, Miles’ violent tantrums finally try the pod people’s patience to the point where they let him have his world/steak/control back. But the sad fact is, Siegel’s pessimistic ending was the more realistic. There is simply no way humanity can triumph in the face of such unstoppable non-violence. This Gandhi knew, and this is also known by anyone who's had to watch as his hip downtown block is overrun by families and investors looking to get in on 'the hot new neighborhood' until all the cool stores are priced out and all that remains are banks and chain stores (i.e. like every other 'dead' place).


FRIENDLY ENEMIES 
or the GI Bill don't mean your co-pay at the gastroenterologist's (cue laugh track)

A common enemy is the glue of all social fabric; abortion bonds the Christians, Saddam bonds the rednecks, Bush bonds the hippies; Israel bonds the Arabs. Jason Vorhees bonds the screaming teenage audience. When your group runs out of enemies, they may need to look internally for the next one, and this means YOU! YOU’RE NEXT! Thus revolutions turn to dictatorships, and the closeted gay kid in high school bullies the the out one in his misguided bid for straight acceptance.

But there’s no such thing as a gay pod, for that would imply there is a straight pod to be different from. The pods refuse to play fair; they won’t come after Miles with lawyers, pitchforks, and picket signs no matter how many times he assaults their lack of values. Instead they come bearing lovely tranquilizers, and soft words about nonviolence and the soothing benefits of shut-eye. No more wondering if the 1950's was closer to the giddy freedom of George Lucas' AMERICAN GRAFFITI, or the soul crushing conformity of Todd Hayne's FAR FROM HEAVEN. That heads-or-tales coin humanity’s been flipping since the game began will be melted down into a nice, plain silver blob.


Whether it be gravity, royalty, religious oppression, or a bossy in-law, the American pursuit of freedom means not just ducking its authority, but incinerating it. Thus, the cheap tract home, and the ideal of nonstop after-work barbecues with beer and tikki jazz music spilling from the window. Finally and forever free of their parents (who are still using lamp oil lights and pshawing exposed ankles), these youngsters--he fresh from the war; she tired of mom’s antiquated curfew--ditch the old world and blast off into the 'no money down' tract home GI bill mortgage of the future.

Ah but what price freedom? As their own old age sets in, the “greatest generation” sees the effect that growing up in a more permissive, modern era has on their children. The sugared version of austere discipline their visiting grandparents present these tykes by contrast is refreshing and habit-forming, a worthy weapon to rebel with against parental permissiveness. When an issue like Vietnam finally comes along, these kids use grandmas’ pre-war piety (the 20s pacifism following the disasters of trench warfare) as a tool of liberalism, thus uniting the worst of both worlds. Thus the 70s parent groovy wife swapping spawns the barbarian hordes trampling Thulsa Doom's orgy.


That is where the family values vanished in the nuclear schemata: the mini van and the soccer team, the computer game and the basement rec room, it’s all there and it looks like a family and it acts like a family but it’s just not a family. If they think about, no one is even sure what the nuclear family values are. If they did, they’d buy that big Victorian house back, get both sets of old folks out of their rest homes and start back at square one. Not interested? What a shocker.

If we have the choice between being a free pod in Paris, or part of a close-knit “family” with rigid dogmatic rules and devotion to outdated codes of conduct and the wearing of scratchy linens, we will naturally choose the pod option, unless we are masochists. The trouble is, when we are all pods there will  be nothing to hide, so the dark secrets will be all out in the open, dirtying the street.


In this context, Miles proves to be an agitator on the level of William Shatner’s hatemonger in 1962's THE INTRUDER. When a society becomes totally non-conformist then there is no sense of belonging, thus rendering the outsider experience worthless. There is no one to hear Miles screams, because everyone is busy screaming about their own damn pod problems. Someone shouts “You’re next!” and the response is “Is that a threat? You talkin’ to me? I don’t see anybody else here....”
---
THE REMAKE (1978) 

By which I mean, man, the urban paranoia of the 1970’s, or: “Life in a world where everyone is a pod but you, and even the you in the mirror looks suspiciously like a pod but what are you going to do, shoot the mirror with a .357 magnum?” Maybe the mirror's the pod.

Michael Chapman, the director of photography for TAXI DRIVER (1976), FINGERS (1978), HARDCORE (1979), THE WANDERERS (1979), was clearly on an urban alienation roll during the period he worked on the 1978 Phillip Kaufman remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Whatever else you may say about them, these films are all poems of grime, desolation and evil inherent in decaying urban architecture. It’s as if Chapman somehow imprinted the archaic patterns of sidewalk soot, the black flat blobs that once were chewing gum, the million overlapping stains, onto the Ektachrome like a narrative version of Brakhage.

By this time, the 70s, the American “small town value” that Finney had so much confidence in--for it found a use for stubborn iconoclasm in the same way, say, Fuller finds use for it via Gene Evans--was long gone; but maybe San Francisco --with its pop psychology and expanded consciousness, could present a viable contender? As was the style of the time, Kaufman’s plan was to make the whole urban environment seethe with menace. A slowly rolling office chair, an unbilled Robert Duvall as a priest on a swing set, even a pair of stereo headphones could be, with the right soundtrack and cinematography, something alien and hostile.

To find out why everything was so alien and hostile, let’s compare 1956, year of the Siegel film, with 1978, year of Kaufman’s. The late 1950’s was when that greatest generation—the young men of the war and their Riveting Rosies—were aging their way into position as political leaders. By 1978 their kids—the Vietnam Protestors and their flower girls—were similarly growing into middle aged governmental positions. This was certainly true in San Francisco, land of Harvey Milk, Gateway to the East, refuge for Chinese immigrants, gay sailors and drag queen dance hall dames. If the pod people were going to settle in a land where they might be accepted despite their lack of difference, it would surely be here (or New York City). One can almost see them carrying "Pod" Party banners and shouting "Legitimize Pods!" But without the requisite self-righteous anger to add inflection, no one would notice them.

The character of Miles Bennett is now called Mark Bennett—and is not a doctor but a restaurant inspector from the Board of Health. Played by Donald Sutherland in his heavy corduroy sports jacket, thick curly hair and droopy mustache phase, Mark is--in sharp contrast to the mature divorcee played by Kevin McCarthy in the original--a bit of a bozo. Though the city of San Francisco has granted him some authority, Mark clearly lacks the respect of the citizenry; he misuses his power, and has only limited ability to “create” reality in the same reassuring way the old Miles or Dr. Kaufman could. We see him intimidating the chef of a five-star restaurant for no apparent reason, poking through the kitchen getting in everyone’s way as he searches for health violations with the glee of a kid about to watch his little brother get yelled at. What the cook defends as a caper in his simmering sauce, Mark fishes out with a tweezer and labels a rat turd. When the cook disagrees Mark dares him to eat it, again evoking the schadenfreude of the little brother. While Miles in the original could dispel entire pod invasions in the minds of his people by labeling it rampant hysteria, the territory of which Mark is a master could hardly get much smaller or more repellant.

We see his pettiness and immaturity further when he makes a late night call to his assistant Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), urging her to come in early to work the next day. There is no apparent reason for this off-hour request, other than his excremental enthusiasm. Maybe this was okay in the 1970’s but in a modern context this behavior would be considered sexual harassment; it’s clear he's trying to force a pissing contest between him and Elizabeth’s current boyfriend, Geoffrey (Art Hindle), an alleged dentist who wont even take off his super size 1970's headphones when he and Elizabeth are coupling. It seems almost a relief the next day to see Geoffrey wandering around in a glassy-eyed robotic haze.

On their car-pooling way to work, Elizabeth complains to Mark about Geoffrey’s odd behavior. As they drive, evidence accrues, VERTIGO-like, through Mark’s cracked windshield (via a disgruntled cook no doubt): businessmen, old ladies, and construction workers conspire in low tones on street corners, and if that weren’t enough, there’s Kevin McCarthy jumping in front of their car screaming “You’re next!” Mark seems determined to think it can all be explained away by his shrink friend. The reality restorer they're driving to see. When Kevin's hit by a car around the corner, MIles spends several scenes trying to report it to the cops even forcing his way onto the phone at the crowded book signing they're attending, the cops could give a shit - what is he going to report anyway, that he heard a thump? It makes no sense, but it illuminates a key difference between himself and Miles in the original, which is even more tellingly borne out in the rather juvenile romantic situations of Elizabeth and Mark vs. Becky and Miles in the original version. 
In 1956, the institution of marriage--that golden bedrock of “family values”--had yet to be shattered by free love, only chipped at here and there.  Newly divorced (as is Becky), Miles ruminates (in Finney’s novel): “It was wonderful to be free, but just the same, the breakup of something that wasn’t intended to turn out that way leaves you a little shaken…but we’d each been through the same mill.” This mill that the two of them have gone through has left them both in rather good shape, maybe because that mill is still pretty clean, seldom used, not indicative of system-wide failure. By 1978 that mill is more like a slaughterhouse assembly line, spitting out stoop-shouldered singles like Mark and Elizabeth, who don’t get a snazzy convertible but rather a dirty sedan with cracked windshield. Where Miles and Becky could enjoy the thrill of rekindling a romance with no prior commitments to worry about, here Mark sublimates his attraction for Elizabeth via ordering her around at work. Meanwhile she lives with her boyfriend but doesn’t make it clear to Mark she is unavailable, sublimating the coldness of her handsome affluent lover Geoffrey is a dentist (she lives in his house and it's fairly nice - there's a housekeeper). She’s not that committed to Geoffrey, but in no mood to leave him either. In 1956 if you loved a woman, you knew it; looked her in the eyes and told her so, and you got married the next day. In 1978 if you love a woman, you look at your watch, shuffle your shoes, and hang around her kitchen until her boyfriend leaves, or the situation gets to intense and scary that making a move on her seems easier, you have no fear left with which to self-sabotage or stutter.

DR. KIBNER - REALITY ERADICATOR

So Mark and Elizabeth drive over to Mark’s psychiatrist friend, Dr. Kibner’s (Leonard Nimoy) book signing party to report seeing Kevin McCarthy being chased by pods and presumably killed. Kibner, with his short black bangs and dark crimson turtleneck is clearly a figurehead for the new “post-conformity.” This was the time--the 1970s--when national fads would burn through the cultural landscape like wildfire: EST, Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics, the Guyana Kool Aid Acid Test. The hippies had knocked one out of the park as far as seizing the reigns of American culture, but Manson turned out to be an Apache and slaughtered the innocent, and no one could find a bugle to sound revelry, cuzza weed, man. And even with cult danger on everyone's mind, the spiritual pillars of contemporary society were suddenly up for grabs; Christian priests were loosening up to connect with the rudderless younger generation; the face of God was melting into your lap at the Church of the Higher Consciousness. Jesus was alive and playing banjo (dubbed in by Jerry Garcia) in the park outside your office. Your old lady neighbor could have you pregnant by Satan or pimping the Baghavhad Gita in airports before you even had time to thank her for the strange tasting coffee. Thus, just by writing a book, Dr. Kibner becomes an authority on "what's happening."

For me the most uncomfortable part of the whole film is when Elizabeth, hearing a woman complain to Kibner that her husband is not her husband, tries to rush up assure the woman she’s not crazy. But Kibner--ever the showman--blocks her path. He turns his back to Elizabeth, keeps his eyes focused on the woman with the problem, and reassures her that her husband is indeed her husband in a groovy, gravelly, Spock-the-hypnotist voice. When Elizabeth tries to interrupt he holds her at bay with an outstretched hand, and says “Please.” This repeats over and over: anything Elizabeth tries to say, Kibner interrupts with “Please, Please!” and continues to spout his platitudes to the doomed woman. She’s powerless to resist; Kibner’s ego is so huge it will not allow any other outcome than for her to be soothed by his commanding aura, and see things his way.

It’s a scary scene because unlike Kaufman and Miles in the original, who were fighting to maintain the democratically elected illusion of social reality, here in the remake’s post-modern San Francisco there is no longer any such thing. The doors of perception have been kicked open; the demons are out; it's the wild west all over again--only on an intra-psychic level--and Kibner has elected himself sheriff. In telephone terms, Miles and Kaufman were Bell Telephone repair people. Kibner is an MCI representative in a post-monopoly era, using his most authoritative Spock voice to preach the gospel of the lowest bidder.

Reading Finney’s book now, when a character expresses concern that her uncle has “no emotion—none—only the pretense of it” (p. 21), it seems almost quaint. The prognosis would merely be to cut his Xanax prescription to half, or otherwise adjust his meds. Even by 1956 and Siegel’s film, emotion was already draining—like cheap dye—out of the human fabric. By the time Antonioni’s BLOW UP came around in 1967, sincerity was synonymous with square. By 1978 even the squares knew better than to act sincere, so sincerity was almost cool again. Thus, Kibner’s question about the pod panic isn’t whether people are faking being themselves—that’s a given--but why is everyone suddenly so aware of it? Has detachment gone too far? Is this some new trend he should be aware of? He didn't get to ride the cultural zeitgeist by not chasing every new spontaneously occurring group mind schizmatic rhizome like some gonzo wack-a-mole barber.

POST-MODERNIST REFRACTION 
(or 'That San Francisco Sound might be the Echo of a Dead Can')

Like so many post-modern films, Kaufman’s remake ends up going literally “nowhere.” This is the same root of the urban paranoia in Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION, or the films of De Palma and Antonioni. In these vortexes of the real, not just the plot, but the hero of the story himself, is likely to disappear halfway through (also in fiction, as in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow). One of Mark’s many boneheaded attributes in the 1978 film is how he is utterly unable to "wake up" out of the haze of reliance on illusory authority. He can't stop calling up governmental agencies even after he knows they're pods; it's an addiction. Even after the almighty Kibner has decided to believe Matthew about the pods and to do all he can, Mark still insists on calling reporters, FBI agents, and governmental watchdogs for help. He’s dying to tattle on the pods and can’t let go that there is no one to tattle to. He hits the streets, the payphones, so they "can't trace him." Voices begin to reach out to him from passing pay phones as he staggers down the street. Chapman's handheld camera follows him through a wobbly series of shots that mix POV angles of various San Francisco streets --downtown to the Tenderloin, until we get the impression Mark is chasing himself, or has eaten his own tail. In a post-modern touch, Matthew/Sutherland becomes aware of, and scared of, the camera/viewer, which in turn mirrors his paranoia via crazy angles as it captures his image. Thus the passers by in the fish eye lens look over at him as if to say “Hey, that’s Donald Sutherland, is this some kind of a movie?” and he reacts to them as if they are pods who figured out he’s not human, and his shocked look right out of the screen into the viewer's eyes makes you realize he knows you know, and it's a trip, man, if I may use the vernacular of the locals.


Forgoing any attempt to connect to the more exploding color aspects of the Haight or anything, Chapman’s camera makes San Francisco throb like some giant alien embryo in these scenes. The recently completed Transamerica Pyramid Building looms in the background, an immobile Martian automaton waiting for Nimoy to activate it with a Klaatu Barado Nikto type command. Chapman’s camera leaps forward and devours Sutherland’s image for a few minutes and we see things from his eyes, hearing him hear phone calls overlap into each other, hearing his own voice played back at him, things happening, but then not happening. A meeting is arranged with a deep throat-style mole in the park who gives him a packet of info, but then the packet is gone. Each new payphone rings louder than the last; a Washington official urges him to keep vigilant. Automated voices overlap until they form the sounds of a crowd. The lights of the city flash like saucer landing strips from the furnace-like doorways of peep shows. First Mark, then Chapman’s camera, then the viewer, all slowly drown in a sea of urban information.

You are Totally There, But There is No "There" There
 Abel Ferrara's 1993 re-remake. 

SO.... the military family hurtles all around the country, blowing like the seed of space to whatever corner of the continent offers dad the best salary. Ask the kid in the back of car how he feels about losing his hard-won friends every few years, and he'll tell you it's alienating. This is especially noticeable by 1993 and Abel Ferrara's remake, the third version of SNATCHERS film, with its most traumatized of all the alienated space fliers, the military brats. In this version the good guys are the aliens, drifting onto the uptight military base like a bunch of pre-Reagan hotties. The dad is an aging but still full hair-headed hippie named Steve Mallone (Terry SAVE THE LAST DANCE Kinney), his daughter from a first marriage, Marti (sizzlin' Gabrielle SCENT OF A WOMAN Anwar), his second wife Carol (lovely PSYCHO 2 star Meg Tilly) and their cuddly, tow-headed six year old son, Andy (Reilly Murphy).

It's not really fair to give Abel Ferrara's remake the bad rap it has, if for no other reason than the amazing cinematography of Bojan Bazelli. The man behind the unique look of Ferrara's KING OF NEW YORK, and such films as THE RAPTURE (1991) and DEEP COVER (1992), and lately, RING 2. His work radiated through even in the days of VHS but on HD widescreen it bumps anything it touches up a star. With the action framed through window slats, fences, window panes, blinds, curtains, dissolves of window reflections into other window reflections which then pull back to the other interior, and so on, the shots are bathed in haunting hues and even the pods glisten with complex beauty. More than almost anything else in the film, his cinematography unveils the "meaning" of this rendition of the snatchers. 

Unfortunately, while it ably conveys the dissolution of the American mental fiber (constantly affirming the sense of split personality) it doesn't really help us get involved with the horror element and Ferrara --taking this job on for the cash and restricted as to improvisation and all his other favorite approaches--isn't able to really show off a knack for narrative suspense beyond the merely 'above average' competence. Aside from Anwar's ability as an actress to draw us in and make us worry she'll be bored, dumped unceremoniously on the lame-o back streets of the makeshift suburban world inside the prefab suburban military base (a behind-the-fences neighborhood that's probably equal parts families of the military, and witness protection), there's not much going on. The pods seem to have taken over long before--or right as--the Mallone family arrives. Thus their arrival seems to trigger the menace; they bring the menace with them in some abstract sense, like Tippi brought THE BIRDS to Bodega Bay.


This whole aspect of strangers in a strange land steady getting stranger makes for an interesting comparison when measured against the other two films. Siegel's 1956 version takes place in small town where everyone knows your name; Kaufman's in the swinging 1970s where names don't matter, cause we're all the same soul (but really everyone's alienated and alone); Ferrara's is in the glum early 90's on a suburban military base in the Deep South, where no one even has a name to know, or a soul that hasn't been warped in basic training. Though setting the film at a military base wasn't Ferrara's idea, it nonetheless works, at least as a basis for an interesting comparison, a yardstick with which to measure the pod's progress in real life, a halfway point between the 50s rise of the suburban prefab tract home picket fence and our modern alienation where all cultures are right next to each other as strangers but united via earbuds that cut their hearing off as if alien face hugger coils feeding them any chosen sensory stimuli.

Marti narrates the events of the film, in a convention borrowed from the 1956 version, one that automatically allows for a certain measure of security in the viewer (we know she will survive from the outset). She intones gravely about fate, as if she was "chosen" to encounter and--presumably--survive, her inevitable run-in with the pods. "I guess things happen for a reason," she says, and adds "In the end it had to happen." The feel of all this is reminiscent of TERMINATOR 2, which came out two years earlier, and the images of the family on the road to EPA dad's new post possess an eerie post-apocalyptic feel. Nothing bad has happened yet, but the family is already alienated from each other and the landscape is desolate and scarcely seems to know itself. Marti and her sexy young step-mom are locked in an unspoken stand-off over dad's affections. The kids are obviously pissed off at having to go live on another military base just as they were "beginning to make some friends" at the last one.


While at a rest stop en route, Marti is accosted in the bathroom by a crazed soldier who tells her "They get you when you sleep" before he vanishes. Later, Marti hears the same thing from a terrified Andy. The poor boy has just had a weird day in class where the teacher kept trying to get him to take a nap, and all the kids made the exact same finger painting (cool touch!). Meanwhile the adults go about their business, resolutely oblivious to the kids' suspicions and worries.

The idea of "who makes reality" takes an interesting downturn here as well. R. Lee Emery (FULL METAL JACKET) plays base leader General Platt, and he's far less intimidating than he thinks and is unable to make the bespectacled hippie dad, Steve Mallone, cringe and want to be out of there post haste, but Steve just challenges him with the smug self-righteous assurance of Sutherland at the restaurant in the beginning that if there are any leaky drums of toxins floating around, oh yes, he will find them. While standing around in a ditch taking samples Steve gets accosted by the third reality steerer, Major Collins (Forrest Whitaker, even more over the top than he was in SPECIES), the camp shrink. Obviously hip to the alien spore takeover, Whitaker stutters and struts and frets his minutes upon the stage with his paranoia. He and Kinney gets into intense dialogue about what's happening; people could be thinking their family members are not their family members due to some sort of toxicity in the water. "It's not part of the systemology," says Steve, like he knows what that means; and another intriguing spin on Finney's concept, that this time around the takeover might be a result of neurotoxins in the ground water--a sentient neurochemical!--is shortly shot to shit.  And which came first - the toxin that changes people or the toxin that makes people think other people have changed.


That's the thing really --all the pods would have to do if they wanted to avoid all the hassle would be to just instantly and pre-emptively accuse the remaining humans of not being themselves - of trying to imply they're the ones having the nervous  breakdown and so forth. It's the kind of reverse mirror gaslight logic that sends even sane minds around the bend.

Meanwhile Marti is almost abducted by some weird soldiers who inform her she's trespassing as she walks home along a fence, but the general's daughter, Jenn (Christine Elise) rescues her in her shiny new convertible (that symbol of individuality and freedom from the 1956 film) and spirits her away to cool kid places, like off to the one cool bar in town, where she meets her spur-of-the-minute boyfriend, Captain Tim Young (Billy Wirth). This bar scene is interesting in how well Ferrara captures the stifling deadness of a mostly empty bar, the jukebox is here from the first film, but also another drunk raving about how they get you when you sleep. At this point the movie still seems like it could be really good, especially when Tim and Marti take a romantic walk through some woods that are lit by Bajelli in an almost storybook manner.


Alas, such moments are a sort of false alarm as this is the last 'clean' landed beat of the film. Any further character exposition is quickly shunted to the rear in favor of cramming the film--which barely makes it to the 90 minute mark--with unrelenting action. We don't get much chance to even unpack Marti's things before pods are dropping from the ceiling like maggots in SUSPIRIA. No time to go check whether Uncle Ira is really Uncle Ira now; aint no Uncle Ira anyway, hell there ain't even a half-formed Jack Bellicec for the family pool table. No time, as if Ferrara's checked his watch and realized the invasion is behind schedule. Schnell! Schnell!


As all the invasion stuff unfurls there are plenty of twists to the old formula to make it toothsome for fans. Best of all is probably the doses of Ferrara-brand, Catholic-sin tax-stamped sex. Steve discovers his wife's dusty corpse right as the very nude Meg Tilly pod emerges from the closet in a sort of coming out party wherein she discards the role of mother and becomes a cunning, ambivalent, highly sexual figure. Hell yeah we'd have a hard time getting our bearings too.

Meg Tilly really shines in these scenes, as if her character didn't really even exist before becoming a pod, as if in becoming a pod she has found herself--which is perhaps intended. Tilly is very sexy and at ease in roles that require her to be emotionless; she packs more allure into unfeeling zombiedom than almost any actress this side of Sean Young. Her body is slammin' (her sister Jennifer was an unbilled body double) and she gets off the film's most memorable lines as well. She woos Steve up to the bed to give him a massage in order to put him to sleep and when he says "I love you," in a dorky way as thanks for the rub down, she answers, "I love you too, yeah." In a way that suggests that yes, the pod formerly known as Carol does love Steve, why not? It’s not that big a deal to summon the sort of low-res love Steve is capable of.

Steve proves his limited capabilities, his emotional stunting, when Marti comes home late from her evening out and he races out to the front lawn to make a big scene over her being "three hours late" when she is no more than an hour. As this is going on, the camera tracks from the bitter, pointless battle between daughter and dad over to Meg, staring placidly across the yard, over at a black woman with a crying baby who is looking out the window back at her. The deep but emotionless sense of connection between strangers that contrasts wonderfully with the infantile attempt at concerned parenting that is Steve's yelling at Marti, a kind of guilty stalling.

Marti goes to take a bath, and Carol Pod lures Steve back to bed to put him out and let him get taken over. Up in the attic, Marti's pod is forming and about to drip on her as she dozes off in the tub. Steve's is forming under the marital bed. In this version the pods attach long tendrils to your nose and mouth and sort of suck up your saliva, presumably to run a full DNA screen. There are some amusing burbling sounds as if the pod is drinking the bodily fluid, burping and so forth. The pod body then gets too big for the cheap ceiling insulation and it goes crashing through the ceiling into the bath with Marti. Her subsequent screams wake up Steve, who's got pod tendril problems of his own.

Thus the shit hits the fan, and never lets up for the rest of the picture. The highlight moment of the film comes with Meg/Carol/Pod trying to talk the hysterical (crying like a little girl) Steve down, so he'll relax and accept the situation, by telling him there's nowhere to run, nowhere to go to:

"Go where? That's right, go where? What happened in your room...Are you listening? What happened in your room is not an isolated incident. It is something that is happening everywhere to everyone. So where you gonna go? Where you gonna run? Where you gonna hide? Nowhere, because there's no one like you left."--

Then she adds, "we'll be connected, we'll be close" as if to seal the deal.

I'd write about this shrink as arbiter of reality but look at him, he's crazy as a bedbug
As if to contrast this, he's soon trying to become an action hero, hiding Marti and Andy in a storing area and sneaking into Major Collin's office while all around people are dragged out of their homes and forced to sleep by the pod soldiers in scenes clearly echoing Guyana. Whitaker has acted himself up into a fine old frenzy: "We got to fight 'em! We'll show 'em what the human race is really made of!!!" His hysteria makes an interesting contrast with the calm of Meg Tilly in the other scene, and when Collins is visited by R. Lee Emry's General Platt we see the general is suddenly all mellow, even calmer and more hippy-ish than Steve was in the earlier scene when they squared off in his office. "Relax major," Platt says. "Look what your fear has done for you…" There can be no doubt about it, the pod takeover is a very effective tool for combating anxiety, an invasion of psycho-pharma.

Genius - especially considering the relative newness of SSRIs and Xanax. Sweet Xanax.


An interesting new plot device this time around is that the pods have to use mind games to tell whether other people are pods or not. Tom tries to go steal the surviving humans a helicopter to escape with, a task which involves acting unemotional before the guards, as if he's already been taken over. To test to make sure, one of the pod people, his buddy before the takeover says, "I fucked your girlfriend." When Marti and Tom are sneaking through the confusion trying to find her missing brother they run into Jenn who gets Marti to react by whispering, "I saw Andy." The "are they or aren't they" anxiety is played up as high as it can, but with such a truncated first act it's hard to tell or care.

Of all three films this is also the only one with a clear climax of explosions (beyond Donald's petty sabotage climax of the 78 version) as the pod menace is supposedly legitimately halted by our intrepid heroes; for the audience of the late 1980's and early 1990's really demanded no less from their horror action cinema --or so the filmmakers seem to think. But the three-way split of the film's diegetic reality, personified by Platt, Collins and Malone, never coheres, and with all three gone, the reality producing mechanism lies somewhere over the rainbow. Tim and Marti, the sole survivors, who have blown up tons of military equipment on their escape are believed over the radio that these things were pods, and are given clearance to land at a "friendly" base. With all the authority figures destroyed, the film enters the land of dream. The sunglasses of the signalman on the base implies he might be one too, but implying is okay, no nightmare take-home.

Again a TAXI DRIVER comparison is apt; the ending of that film found Travis somehow completely exonerated and a hero after his mission of slaughter. Pauline Kael famously theorized that TAXI's ending didn't make sense compared to the rest of the film if taken literally, that it should be read as a dream of Travis's; a fantasia. In real life there would be no Cybil Shepherd crawling into his cab begging forgiveness, no letter from Iris's parents proclaiming him a hero; he would be in jail. That final, startled look he gives the rear view mirror is an indication that he has suddenly realized this happy ending is all a dream, as if he sees the electric chair warming up for him through the bars of his cell, his iron barred taxi, or the way Jimmy Stewart suddenly sees the drop of the building face outside Midge’s window in Vertigo, or the soldier on the gallows in Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.

CONCLUSION

The iconoclast, the lone gunman, the man against the machine, is always in danger of vanishing, of falling asleep, of facing the comfortable blandness of a life spent nodded off at the wheel of darkness. "I'll drive anytime, anywhere," Travis says at the start of the Scorsese's film. He's afraid to sleep; an insomniac, afraid to wake up a pod. But Marti and Travis each have to face the realization that the films they are starring in have ended in the place they've been fearing all through their respective stories; the illogical realm of dream--the last breadcrumb on the trail is gone. Somewhere along the line of the narrative, their worst fears (and perhaps by extension most secret desires) have come true; they’ve fallen asleep. Now everything is suddenly calm and rosy; when they land at the "friendly" airport, it will be as pods that they are welcomed; or if not, how are they to ever tell they're themselves? Is raw terror and alienation the only way to tell if you are an awake artist in this sea of sheep? In this world in which we live, heaven and hell have long since been boiled together to form one big cloud of ashes. We're all breathing in the same smog, all waiting for the alarm clock to ring so we can get out of this insane dream, all longing to escape this tale of sound and fury and ease ourselves back into the empty, emotionless droning of a brand new medicated day... mmmmm, meds... (3-23-05)

PS - This essay was finished before the recent Kidman vehicle, which from what I've seen of it (the last hour) is pretty terrible and tries to tack on some child-will-lead-them resolution, so for all porpoises, I'm deeming it a variation not a remake
PPS - Also, I lost the bibliography - sue me. It was originally intended to be published by Scarlet Street, right before the editor and chief Richard Valley passed away, RIP

Thursday, September 08, 2016

The Shrouds of Soavi: CEMETERY MAN, THE DEVIL'S DAUGHTER


Once upon a time in swingin' Italy there was such a deep merging of art with blood and beauty that a beautiful blonde in a fashionable dress could stand on a corner, petulantly smoking, against a futuristic glass skyscraper reflecting the ancient bombed-out cathedral across the street and the socketless eyes of demonic workmen and a yellow sky --and just that, in and of itself, could knock you off your Guccis. The blood was there in the beauty; you could feel her pulse in the operatic contrapuntal score. But then the same reflected image with just a sun-browned hairy little gnome in an ugly peasant dress (Jeanne Moreau as Marcello's drag of a wife in LA NOTTE) could make your hand reach for a razor or noose on instinct, anything to escape her gravitic buzzkill aura. Even gorgeous raven-eyed Yvonne Furneaux (below) could seem like an evil clutching graveyard drag, pulling us out of the DOLCE VITA and down into domestic tedium. Run, Marcello! She's calling you with suicide threats again and you're just naive enough to believe her, to presume yourself at fault, yourself responsible. If you do the math however you realize (as I did), that sort of thing is a prime example of emotional terrorism, and you don't negotiate with terrorists. (I only figured that out thanks to shrooms, which armored me like Zarkov's memories when my old college ex tried it back in '87, and then a different girl in '91, and one in '95).


But everyone's an emotional terrorist in mid-60s Rome, and there ain't a mushroom to be found. This was Rome as a land of the lost, the adrift, where distant emptily decadent future and ancient demonic past are literally on the same block. Rome, when you couldn't tell the women from the men if they wore big black raincoats and gloves and lurked in shadows and all you could see was an outline and a flickering knife blade showing your screaming face reflected like that cathedral reflected in the windows of the modernist high rise. Was the victim fighting to defend herself or was he fighting to defend himself? And are those really their DNA-ascribed genders?

But... is it art
Watching this kind of existential modernist ripping noise, hearing this vision of Dante's Hell wedded to bourgeois book launchings ("The Season" --yeah, right), and routine romantic break-ups, like a clock stuck on repeat of the same second over and over, the last second of her life, and she's you, the you inside, and now she's ripped like the seam of time that connects the gladiator movies and the science fiction, both being shot by the same crew with the same actors deep inside adjoining Cinecittà sound stages. Yeah right - if I have to hear the dreary candy-colored inventory of Bardot's body parts in Les Mepris again I swear I shall scream!!

I refer of course to the bloody sexually perverse neo-giallo, a knife wound begun with Bava's ill-received Blood and Black Lace and finding box office influence fruit only after Antonioni's Blow-Up helped obliterate the distinction between high fashion, signification chain-disrupting ambiguity and kinky sex murder. Argento took it all to a giddy new extreme that felt genuinely dangerous and launched a whole new genre and suddenly he had 'a team' - a production organization centered around his two mentees, Lamberto Bava and Michele Soavi. The difference between these two disciples was like hacksaw and hawk, like comparing Ennio Morricone with Ermine N. Goborra, but they all worked on each other's things and years later, thanks to greater technological advances undreamed of in their era, we can appreciate their films as good as they could in their screening rooms, more or less, and savor every scream and color. Far better looking than films made today which rely on HD cameras which give everything a wan, washed out look, they pulse with restored giddy colors that intoxicate even when nothing's happening onscreen.

The diff again: Lamberto directs like a fifteen year-old burnout who won't admit he's deaf and blind,saved only by his stoner shop class graffiti touches as if passive-aggressively trying to prove to his father, Italian horror maestro Mario Bava that he should have been allowed to be a veterinarian or heavy metal bassist instead of a filmmaker. Soavi is a true artist who goes to the root source of Argento's work-- the subconscious--and picks the doors to the tiger still untried, while savvily referencing all the film masters that have come before, to find the zone where Antonioni meets Bunuel and Lynch dances in a papier mache Bosch Wicker Man mask to fool Godard into thinking it's a safe spot for deadpan absurdist dissertations, only to then escape his dry socialism and run amok in the fields of cinema fantastique like an amok dragon.  And there he finds the fissures in modern society and widens them to let the madness seep in like nitrous from an amok dentist.


DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE
("Cemetery Man" - 1994)
****
The idea of being trapped in love's absence, a big empty hole in the ground where a coffin goes, only a fat dumb little brother or neighborhood dork for company, has never been so palpably felt as in Michele Soavi's great opus, DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE, one of the best 80s horror comedies to ever come out in mid-90s. I remember when this came to NYC screens because I was freshly moved to midtown and remember reading about it and thinking yeesh, just what the world needs, yet another  Pulp Fiction / Living Dead first person shooter game with an Italian narcissist hipster pretty boy shooting zombies all day in slow-mo, probably with a shrine to Elvis by his black tie collection and terrible dubbing. But this was years before DVD, back when I dismissed Argento as misogynistic and felt that Italian movies had to be in Italian (for dubbing was a sign of xenophobia and subtitle illiteracy) and so forth.

What a fool I was! DVD has so many taught things to us... to me... multiple language tracks let us know the Italian language track often looks even less synced than the English; and the restoration and beautiful transfers of widescreen HD help us to better appreciate the jet black dry subtle cineaste termite wit of horror auteur Michele Soavi, and the rich textures and muted sunless palette of his mise en scene. 

Based on the Italian comic book, Soavi's masterpiece is a sensitive, droll, and dead-on jet black satire on death, desire, and adolescent obsession all wrapped up in horror comic trappings. A kind of hipster Alessio nel Paese delle Meraviglie, it's protagonist can stand proudly any decade next to Kyle MacLachlan's Jeffrey in Blue Velvet as far as fearless intrepid truth-seekers uncovering the rocks in his backyard to see what worms, pill bugs, and centipedes he can catch napping. (Not sure if kids still do that --in my day it was a major icky past time, now I imagine the bugs are all long gone) charging into any mystery or romance that grabs him, even if it takes him over the edge deep into his own psychosexual dysfunctional core. Presented in a kind a tumble down overflow of macabre black humor romantic episodes, the film speeds so merrily along from event to event it could easily have been fleshed out into a full season of its own TV show. The overarching theme is how hot young things stay loyal to their rotting cannibal corpse lovers even as they're eaten of beheaded (and vice versa). Young Rupert Everett is our Cemetery Man, the funeral groundskeeper, trapped in his two-car Italian town by cliffs broken bridges, a cemetery groundskeeper and a return of the repressed, with zombies weirdness way ahead of the deluge of Romero-rip offs thats mired the zombie market today. All told, while episodic and hard to pin down it's a sublimely dream-like odyssey into how death never dies and desire never was never born.



And as a sublime anima, playing many roles, returning again and again like Liz Taylor in Doctor Faustus (1967) or Isabelle Adjani in Possession, or like Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway, Anna Falchi dies and comes back in numerous guises, so gorgeous and sexy she could melt a giant 'thing' out of the Arctic all by herself, her own thermite bomb, and Soavi makes full use of how such hotness has an uncanny frisson, a mind-melting combination of shifting anima roles and the way in a young man's dreams a beautiful woman is always almost having sex with him, only for there to be some distraction or calling away before it starts or ends, leaving the man in a kind of exquisite frustration, loping after her as the backgrounds shift and envelop so that circumstance seems to use her allure as some horrifically just-out-of-reach carrot; her absence as the whip. So at first she's a grieving young widow, seen in the corner of his eye, who comes alone every day to the cemetery to mourn her much older, goofy-looking husband (his picture's on the tombstone, but it could easily be on a spaghetti sauce can), whose love-making skills is constantly mentioned like a dagger in our heart for reasons we refuse to fathom. Everett's Dellamorte is smitten of course; and soon they have some great death-evoking moments, kissing with full protection (their lips and full heads wrapped in burial shrouds), having sex on top of the husband's grave (prompting the old man to reach up through the soil and take a bite out of her), and little spirit ghosts fly around them while mating as disembodied souls seeking moments of conception the way hermit crabs seek the right empty shell. That poor Everett never seems to reach full 'completion' of the mating cycle adds to his and our frustration and sense of loss and makes her an ideal anima, especially when she keeps appearing, first as what he thinks is a zombie (so he shoots her in the head) next as a real zombie (making him realize he was wrong the first time --oops), and so forth. Agonizing? Yes. And anyone who's ever been sexually frustrated while pining with romantic longing while trapped in some summer job in their shitty suburban town will probably--as I did--whimper in sympathetic agony.

Like his same-initialed Donnie Darko, Dellamorte doesn't deign to separate fact from fantasy so why should we? Certainly the town's chief detective would never suspect him, and later even outright refuses, ass when he stumbles on the mayor's daughter's severed head keeping house with Dellamorte's dummkopf assistant. That episode, and  a hilarious bit between an undead biker and his young deb ("I shall be eaten by whomever I choose!") are folded in between the many guises of Falchi, and her tragic death/s and Dellamorte's visits with the cryptic and strangely tolerant local detective.

Cross-addicted
Falchi is so gorgeous that after she's dead - and she goes early on- you feel the ache for her, a real sense of loss perfectly summed up in DD's rote distraction performing his dead killing duty, so that when Falchi comes back all wreathed in vines he can no longer just shoot her and move on, and we don't even care if she rips him to shreds, just so....

So what? We can see those breasts again? They are the most gorgeous perfect breasts in all of Italian cinema, but it goes way deeper than that, man. Don't be so shallow! You know this blog is never so sophomoric, and neither is the film. So why is she so cool and haunting an anima figure, then, in fact why is she the definitive undead love interest for all time? It's more than beauty or her surprising gift for balancing dark dry deadpan drollery with a constantly shifting array of personae--from melancholy depth to necrophiliac ecstasy, from undead vindictive succubus to suicidal prostitute in the girl student apartments in town, etc-- Falchi genuinely seems like an array of different people, all cursed as they may be by the kind of impossible beauty that makes normalized relationships with men almost impossible.

Funny, profound, surrealistic, deeply sad and subversive, its weird cool touches, like Death appearing in broad daylight out of burned phone book ashes (the sort of thing Terry Gilliam's tried all his life to achieve with the same nonchalant virtuosity; or that Michel Gondry does with too much twee and not enough dark), are all done in a very clever analog style and kind of tossed off like riffs that always lead back to the graveyard, capturing that lonesome isolation we feel as teens living with our idiot little brother and clueless parents, all blind to the dead coming back everywhere. It's hard to believe this came out after CGI and Jurassic Park as it could easily be from the 70s or 80s, its knowing winks to Evil Dead 2, Clockwork Orange, Polanski's The Tenant, Zulawski's Possession meanwhile put it in that category of insider cinema packed with references made for no reason other than to termite-like bore through the walls to reach across nations to fans of outre cinema of all stripes and nationalities. Wry deadpan cine-surrealist in-jokes: the universal language!

LA SETTA
(Aka THE DEVIL'S DAUGHTER -1991)
***1/2

Among the other things that marks the quality difference between Lamberto Bava and Soavi is the dubbing, the voices match perfectly and the soundtrack pumps. To compare this as just a third Demons film is like calling Raiders of the Lost Ark a sequel to Treasure of the Four Crowns (1). As with so many of its ilk, good or bad, La Setta draws liberally from the Italian devil movie pool of "influences" and influenced - i.e. Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, ExorcistThe Sentinel, the (real life) Manson murders, even Argento's own Phenomena and it even works as a sort of quasi-prequel to The Visitor. There's a Manson-esque desert canyon drifter named 'Damon' (Tomas Arana) who opens the film by freeloading a meal off a pair of traveling hippie families, and then sacrificing them all (kids included) to feed the need of a slowly gathering Satanic overthrow, but not before introducing himself via lyrics (spoken) from "Sympathy for the Devil" and assuring the blissfully unaware brood that the Stones' lyrics are profound and meant for "only a chosen few" as if angry one of the hippie dads would dare recognize his plagiarizing.


Forward ahead a bit and into Frankfurt (like Dellamorte this was filmed in Germany) and a killing or two and then we see old man Herbert Lom leave his Frankfurt hovel and take to the road with his mysterious package (you'll never in a million years guess what's in it). Soon he's standing in the small town in the heart of Black Forest road and nearly hit by Miriam (Kelly Curtis --Jamie Lee's sister), a sweet guileless young (single) elementary school teacher who ill-advisedly takes him and his strange package home to her cluttered little apartment, one of those little German townhouses split down the middle so she has an upstairs, basement access, and an attic but each floor is small and Soavi gets lots of cool shots bearing down the stairs at each floor like some guest taking the only seat left at party, giving it all some terrarium look, mirrored--hilariously--in the POV of her white rabbit. In grand late-80s style she's kooky and single with no husbandly prospects (her wedding couple snow globe lets you know she's wishing for one) and a nagging best friend who's trying to set her up on dates. For awhile it seems like she's following in the footsteps of Anita Skinner's character Dee-Dee in one of my favorite discoveries of the last few years, Sole Survivor (1983) in that she hooks up with a young doctor who helps her even if he doesn't quite believe her crazy story... etc. And in Terminator echoes (which as I've said has Halloween echoes), she has a strange pet (like the iguana of Sarah Connor). And her slutty friend ends up dead (like Sarah's bouncy roommate with the headphones, or Dee-Dee's strip poker-playing neighbor, or Halloween's PJ Soles). And there's the Curtis sister connection.... Dude, it's all connected.

At this point I'd say if you haven't seen it, stop reading and see it first. As it's got so many great WTF moments I don't want to spoil them for you. It's on youtube (for now) in a decent print (where I saw it) and so while we wait on a region 1 Blu-ray, maybe you can enjoy it now - it's manna,... for the chosen few, the type who geek out when they recognize one of the sleazy truck drivers (Richard Sammel) as the Wermacht soldat who gets his head beaten in by ze Bear Jew in Tarantino's Basterds (not to mention 'crushing it' as the lead heavy in The Strain).



Okay, whacked-out film, right? WRONG! It's grounded like a deep well, even the Satanic impregnation aspect has roots in ancient Greek myth: instead of bedding the devil (as in his previous film, 1989's THE CHURCH), we have an updating of Leda and the Swan, though instead of Zeus as a rapist swan, Curtis is impregnated by a Satanic (dig that malevolently intelligent black eye) pelican-ish creature at the bottom of a deep well underneath her house, but instead of sex it just pecks out the brain eating bug larvae nesting in her neck. If taken alongside the Leda myth it's suddenly as if we're realizing Satanism is just the ancient Greek pantheon gone hopelessly shady from the lack of sun (after hiding out from Christian zealots for centuries).


What makes all the weird bug-up-nose strangeness work of course is that--and this is especially true as far as the score is concerned--this shit is serious. Composer Pino Donaggio merges sustained vocoder, funky bass underwriting great Satanic chanting, and abstract drumming as if summoning some ancient evil Lovecraftian behemoth. Little details accrue alongside the dark comedy--the main evil cult member brings his face ripping tools, but won't let anyone touch them; the cult use of the reflected full moon in vanity mirrors to light facial surgery down by the creek. How or why a new (woman's) face would reanimate Herbert Lom. no sane person guess, the mundanity of the ceremony (if the placement in the flow of the river isn't aligned they'll be at it all night, notes the doctor), the rabbit's final declaration of Satanic mischief, it's all absolutely deadpan termite. Once the bug goes up into her brain we get an interior view, into her dreams, as if the bugs POV includes access to her third eye subconscious like a two way radio. Bits of Antonioni-style alienation affect include the doctor risking his job leading her down into the morgue corridors deep in the antique hospital basements, a long hallway, the come to a doorway - he mentions the guards and then tries to kiss her against the wall so a passerby would think they're just down there for privacy and oblivious to the world.

That kind of set-up cover moment occurs a lot in cinema, as if danger itself is the key to busting the first move, but this time there's no security guard and she rears back from his ill-timed attempt. In true termite fashion it's just another knowing deadpan inside toss-away joke. Earlier the doctor mentions he's allergic to Miriam's rabbit and jokes about it being the devil, kinda ("There's nothing wrong with my rabbit," / "That's what he wants you to think!") but it turns out he's right, since it knows how to work a TV remote, and later nibbles his fingers at a key moment causing him to fall down the well; and when he opens the seal on the coffin, under the lid, it's sealed, like a sardine can, and in poking it open the doctor gets squirted in the eye. Looking up into a mysterious pipe--and we get the water's journey from the well up through all the arcane old German Schwarzwald pipes to her sink in a style way prefiguring Fincher's in Panic Room--Miriam barely misses getting squirted in the same way when she turns away at the last possible second.


Meanwhile old Herbert Lom stays totally inscrutable - is he good or bad? We don't know for half the film--he could be either the Castavet in ROSEMARY or the Merrin in EXORCIST. But either way, we worry about Miriam's boundaries. Avoiding bringing Herbert Lom home is the first thing parents teach children, so she's definitely an orphan and definitely missed a lot of key survival tips most kids glean before they graduate the sixth grade. Mockeries of things like the Shroud of Turin (a dirty hanky on his face later kills people through suffocation)--and mirrors Lom being brought back to life when a sacrificial woman has hers ripped off in a truly bizarre ceremony that would make Joe D'Amato proud). A girl crucified, one frightened by a snake, more Soavi toying with our cinematic expectations in high Antonioni style, the kids wearing weird WICKER MAN-style pagan masks, a mysterious Asian lady in red trying to steal the dirty shroud hankie and Curtis fighting to keep it with all her might, though she can't possibly want it, all proving if nothing else that like Argento, Soavi has seen BLOW-UP a dozen times, if one can really be said to have seen it, or anything, really....

As in ROSEMARY'S BABY there's a weird disconnect as it turns out this apartment has whole vast chambers Miriam never dreamed were there. Characters have cool names like Moebius and Martin Romero ("Martin" being that lesser known--and recommended if you can find it--Romero vampire flick); it's the kind of oblique in-jokes that someone like Joe Dante or John Landis would need to underline, but Soavi just buries them under everything... not unlike the elaborate ironwork that's clearly (presumably) merely found basement pre-war janitorial relics, though who the fuck knows?


The Scharzwald atmosphere is sublime (is this where they did Suspiria too?) and Donaggio's moody score brings in everything Argento's films were totally lacking by then--laden as they were with Heavy Metal and ill-choosing prog guys like Rick Wakeman. Even Donaggio could be the wrong choice, totally missing the tone of some American movies he worked on (like Tourist Trap- which he scored as if some childhood carnival whimsy) but maybe his not knowing English was part of that.

Soavi: it's stole many a man's soul and faith, not face!
Meanwhile, what of Argento? He co-wrote this, one wonders if he was just spreading himself thin. He'd lost by '91 his most important collaborator, the Debra Hill to his Carpenter, the Gale Ann Hurd to his Cameron, wife Daria Nicolodi (and Asia's mother) and seemed to perk up only for the chases and hardcore misogynist killings and snoozed through the rest, like Joe D'Amato or some other all-gore hack-robate he'd apprenticed under.

It's 1991 when this came out and it's hard to believe -- since American horror movies had given up trying to be stylish and riffing on tropes and capturing that dusty gray sky, muted colors and strange textures (as opposed to Argento's preference for bold colors and slick modernism) and his wickedly subversive sense of deadpan humor. What makes it so very Soavi is the... whoa.. made myself dizzy.

Hope you guess his name
That's OK, by me anyway, as there's always THE CHURCH, which I don't absolutely love like these others, but it's certainly OK. And then there's DEMONS IV; Soavi had nothing to do with that - and went onto Italian TV shows with unpromising names like "Anti-Drug Squad"- easier to finance and finish, he says, and no distribution headaches, I'm sure, but they'll never STAGEFRIGHT: AQUARIUS. This is the dawning of something all right, but it's not the age of anything but looking down the rabbit hole spiral into the infinite(ly recorded) past.... For the chosen few, this Stones at you. 
Curtis family (L->R) Tony, Jamie Lee, Kelly, Janet Leigh
Kelly and Jamie Lee at father's funeral, a fraction of a millennia later
the before and after.....


NOTES:
1. no offense to the Demons, they're plenty meta, I just shy away from endless static camera gross outs, watching the pustules appear, swell up one after the other and drool fizzy food coloring leak from fanged mouths, it's like 7th grade lunch period all over again. 
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