Imagine a science fiction parable ‒ one for Communism, paranoia, conformity, or whatever ‒ where, should you fall asleep, you will be replaced by an unemotional clone grown from a pod. Sound familiar? Well, of course it does: we’ve been seeing such shenanigans on-screen since the mid ’50s, when the first official adaptation of Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers hit theaters and sent chills up our spines. Since then, we have witnessed a number of bad imitations and three big-screen remakes ‒ the last of which, 2007’s big-budgeted dud The Invasion starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, failed to garner anyone’s interest in the well-worn (but still completely relevant) premise.
Fourteen years earlier, another version of the story came and went without much notice: Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers. Now, if you’re only familiar with the NYC filmmaker’s more controversial works, such as The Driller Killer or Ms. 45, seeing his name attached to a version of The Body Snatchers might seem like asking an orangutan to drive you home in your Porsche because you’ve had one cocktail too many. On the other hand, if you only know Ferrara’ via his more “mainstream” work, such as King of New York or Bad Lieutenant, seeing his name attached to a version of The Body Snatchers will probably seem more like driving a drunk orangutan around in a Porsche.
Mind you, I am not attempting to imply Ferrara is either incompetent or inept to craft a science fiction flick. But it is an odd choice. I can recall picking up the VHS of Body Snatchers from the shelf way back when it first (silently) landed on home video shortly after it received a very limited theatrical release, seeing his name as director, and scratching my head as I wondered if this was the same guy who had just wowed me the previous year with the gritty corrupt cop tale Bad Lieutenant. It was. Naturally, I was intrigued. Then I noticed The Stuff‘s Larry Cohen and Re-Animator‘s Stuart Gordon were listed in the film’s writing department, which almost made my head explode.
Three different rebels, each with their own legacy, all attached to the same remake? This was surely a dream!
Alas, even my limited indie B sci-fi/horror movie expectations were left unfulfilled: only a few days after watching Ferrara’s Body Snatchers for the first time, I forgot almost everything about it. The only thing that lingered in my head ‒ for years to come, in fact ‒ was the sight of the one and only Forest Whitaker popping amphetamines into his mouth like they were candy as he did his best to resist the natural human need to sleep. Oh, and there was some nudity, too, but even my teenage self wasn’t blind to the fact Meg Tilly’s full frontal was done by an anonymous double (which has since lead to much speculation on the behalf of a select few who believe her body double, billed only as “Jennifer” in the end credits, was actually Meg’s famous sister).
Ditching the rural and urban settings found in the previous two incarnations, Ferrara’s film instead confines its action to a well-populated military base in Alabama ‒ a location prime for conformism and corruption, without much need for subtlety. Entering this impeccably controlled environment are our main protagonists, the Malone clan: father Steve (Terry Kinney), sent by his employers, the EPA, to assess there is no toxic risk from the base; Carol (Meg Tilly, who later declared the film “second-rate” when everyone asked if her body double was her sister), Steve’s second wife; Marti (Gabrielle Anwar), Steve’s daughter from his first marriage; and little Andy (Reilly Murphy), the most recent addition to the newly-(re)formed nuclear family.
From the get-go, Marti (who also narrates) senses something is amiss ‒ quite the understatement considering the first person she meets is a seemingly psychotic soldier hiding in a gas station bathroom, who lunges out at her with a knife before vanishing. From there, things only grow stranger. As does the general population of the base, led by the great R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket), who, as you’d expect, is quite the grump. Then again, there’s nary a soul to be found within this particular filmic universe who is suffering from what could only be classified as terminal joy: everyone is miserable, be it due to their placement on a insufferably suppressed army base, or because their agent said “Hey, I got this part lined up for you…”
Even now, 23 years and a few days after watching Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers again for the second time, I find myself hard-pressed to remember anything substantial other than Forest Whitaker’s maniacally subdued performance, the aforementioned nudity, and some “special defects” which would only classify the film today as being that of “sigh-fi.” In short, Body Snatchers is an uneven and uncalled-for film. But I daren’t describe it as being unnecessary overall Sure, it’s a very slow clone of the previous two adaptations, but it somehow emerges from the pod as being something more, something less, and yet something else all at the same time. It is almost as if the film’s sedated formula, which initially appears to crawl, soon begins to creep right under your skin.
Body Snatchers makes its Blu-ray debut courtesy the Warner Archive Collection, who have recently dusted this one off from the vault and given it a beautiful 1080p transfer, which preserves the film’s 2.40:1 widescreen aspect ratio. It’s a far cry from the old analog pan-and-scan tape I saw the first time ’round, though the detail of this presentation is so fine now, you can literally see every plastic tube representing a wandering plant tentacle for what it really is. Aurally, the feature film boasts a superb DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix of the original Dolby Surround audio track, which is accompanied by English (SDH) subtitles. In terms of special features, the WAC only had an original theatrical trailer to replicate in HD for Ferrara’s flick.
While the movie only chills in passing, and it’s just as likely you too won’t remember anything about it immediately after the fact, Body Snatchers still has just enough going for it to recommend it. That said, I should specify said recommendation is solely for curious fans of the other, more popular versions of the film and/or followers of any of the indie names associated with the production.
Just so long as it doesn’t put you to sleep, right?