Sunday, October 23, 2016

What That Reason Is

Sometimes films get forgotten. Who knows why, that’s just the way things go. Abel Ferrara’s BODY SNATCHERS never had much of a chance apparently since it never got much of a release. After playing in competition at Cannes in ’93 it slipped into a few theaters in early ’94, as if Warner Bros. was trying to hide it, to at least a few good reviews (including four stars from Roger Ebert) and some positive response. I still remember seeing it in Westwood Village, back when people went to the movies in Westwood Village, and the sheer rush of the film’s most powerful moment (if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about) caused the audience to burst into spontaneous applause. Partly because of its style, partly because I was the sort of guy to champion films that it seemed like the studio was hiding, I talked the film up a lot back then. Now all these years later it’s become something I haven’t revisited in over a decade at least. Maybe this remake that follows the ’56 and ’78 versions of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS isn’t as good as those two but there are far worse things you could say about any film than that it doesn’t quite live up to a pair of classics. Returning to it again after however many years, if this BODY SNATCHERS has any problem it’s that the very best moments and ideas don’t necessarily make up a completely satisfying narrative in the end and maybe that’s one reason why I sort of forgot about it. But considering the onslaught of thematically empty remakes/reboots/whatevers that we’ve had to deal with in recent years this one is pretty damn near daring in what it even attempts to accomplish. The film is still flawed and either lacks the necessary ‘big idea’ or the one it has is a little too obscured but what’s there is still effective which, especially these days, is better than nothing.
Teenage Marti Malone (Gabrielle Anwar) is traveling through the country with her father, EPA chemist Steve Malone (Terry Kinney), stepmother Carol (Meg Tilly) and half-brother Andy (Reilly Murphy) as Steve investigates possible contamination involving the chemicals used on military bases. When they arrive Steve gets to work in spite of a hostile reception from base commander General Platt (R. Lee Ermey) but is soon consulted by Major Collins (Forest Whitaker) the base medical officer who appears extremely worried about the possible effects these chemicals are having on the people who live at the base. Although Marti quickly makes friends with Jenn Platt (Christine Elise) daughter of the General and helicopter pilot Tim Young (Billy Wirth) they at first are unaware of the changes taking place but quickly start to believe that maybe certain people around them aren’t who they claim to be.
Maybe connected in my mind to how it barely opened, the film feels like some sort of aberration both for Ferrara and the ‘Body Snatchers’ concept in general. Truth be told, I haven’t even seen a new Abel Ferrara film in a long time and by now just the idea of such a thing seems lost to another era, whether grainy videotapes of MS. 45 or half remembered viewings of THE ADDICTION or THE FUNERAL. BODY SNATCHERS came out right around the same time as Ferrara’s other foray into big studio filmmaking, the Madonna-Harvey Kietel team-up DANGEROUS GAME which I also saw (at the Beverly Center; there was a healthy walkout ratio) and have pretty dim recall of. Hey, it was the 90s and odd digressions were actually being made at the studios even if they all didn’t open wide. BODY SNATCHERS (screen story by Raymond Cistheri and Larry Cohen, screenplay by Stuart Gordon & Dennis Paoli and Nicholas St. John, based on the novel by Jack Finney) makes a point to pay homage to the previous films but wastes very little time in taking its own path, not at all a strict redo of what had come before.
Following the earlier two films which took place in a small town and the big city, the setting of a military base lends it a different feel on its own, an enclosed community unfamiliar to the leads and one where you really can’t tell what certain people are thinking. It’s a film with characters who are already withdrawn from each other, led by a teenage girl who refers to her stepmother as the woman who ‘replaced’ her mom as if for her the family she’s a part of has already dissolved into dust and the pod people don’t have to do very much to get their job done. It’s bluntly directed with a spare sense of dread that adds to each scene, containing lots of dead space in the widescreen frame where almost anything could be going on yet in spite of a certain arty nature still maintains as a genre piece that could have easily opened wide and I doubt there would have been rioting in the streets. Elements do feel dropped in from various drafts as if they’re more like pieces which don’t quite make up a complete whole and the myriad writing credits (with a few intriguingly familiar names in there) indicate a project that may have gone through numerous changes but some of those pieces still work in letting that dread seep in, like a particularly sly daycare sequence where every child’s artwork is creepily the same except for one. As it is, the narrative feels sliced to the bone anyway which manages to add to the tension while also providing a certain amount of speed to each event as if the film itself is fully aware that we already know some of these story beats so there’s no reason to dwell on them.
Like the previous two versions, there’s a certain Rosencrantz & Guildenstern approach to the story in how everything has already kicked off by the time the opening credits have rolled and the main characters are separated from the action even more this time so we only get to hear about some of what’s going on at the base. Along with that is a strain of verrrry dark, deadpan humor that the film does a good job in knowing when to undercut with another chill. This is especially evident in the portrayal of Marti’s uncomprehending half-brother, so young that he barely understands anything going on except that his mom has died and if he goes to sleep he’ll die too. The shot of him barely comprehending the nudity of his new ‘mother’ as she approaches him in its perfect form is one of the film’s best moments, a queasy eroticism in a way that few films ever seem to go for. One real problem with the film is that there’s so little happening around the central narrative that there’s only so many places to take it before everything is revealed and it all turns into a third act chase/escape—certainly with the myriad intellectuals of Philip Kaufman’s San Francisco debating things in the ’78 version there was more ‘stuff’ going on. Here there’s a left-right conflict of the EPA chemist representing ‘hippies saving the planet’ with the (then) post-cold war military that clearly wants to be left alone but the conflict never becomes very substantial, much of the EPA angle pretty much leading nowhere plotwise. The real impact comes from the teenage lead character who feels isolated from the entire world already, not feeling at all part of a family that has already broken apart. She doesn’t even know what personality she is yet, let alone what she’s going to become, in contrast with her new friend who rebels against her surroundings yet fully expects to turn into her parents eventually.
It’s also a case of a film building to its fever pitch too soon, but it’s still one hell of a fever pitch, a certain speech by Meg Tilly’s pod person in which she decries the futility of running away since there’s ‘no one like you…left.”. The moment of the big reveal that immediately follows is where the audience applauded long ago and even now the sequence is so effective, so powerful, that it deserves to be ranked among the great moments in horror of the past thirty years. The only problem is there’s nowhere BODY SNATCHERS can go afterwards to top it and part of me wishes it didn’t have to try—if the film ended here I’d be perfectly satisfied although I can understand why a studio wouldn’t want to release a 50-odd minute film where nothing gets resolved. But there is a certain maverick confidence to the film as if it was actually made under the radar during such an alien invasion while it was occurring and at its very best, there’s something seeping underneath each scene that you can feel, something unpleasant which almost matters more than any of the plot. Maybe the film is too underpopulated but the unique approach to the material does offer a new look at how individuality gets stripped away and Ferrara knows where to find the visuals that underline this; one shot dwelling on an American flag being taken down as the sun sets seems to be saying the real invasion is starting now, the idea of that country and its people no longer matters (naming the empty bar the ‘Top Gun’ also has certain connotations and there’s no flashy 80s patriotism to be found here).
That sameness forces us to pay attention to the people, the nervousness that a few of them don’t know how to hide just as he brings an individual feel to this film that’s about it being taken away. In the intimate scene between Marti and her potential love interest played by Billy Wirth where he confesses to killing someone while in Kuwait the film makes the military base setting into something meaningful, as if it’s the regrets which make us who we are more than anything. Just like it’s the music we listen to while hiding away from the world or the crazy persona we put on when we’re behind closed doors with our loved ones or even how much we try to drink away that pain and how no one can take that away from us…or at least shouldn’t. The film is at its best when it veers off course into those digressions, particularly during Forest Whitaker’s two scenes which, isolated from everything else, feel like they could be excerpts from an Abel Ferrara arthouse take on the ‘Body Snatchers’ concept and I’d like to see that film. It’s those moments where I almost can’t explain why they’re so unnerving which cause the movie to stick. Even that tiny little camera move during Meg Tilly’s big speech gives me a chill when I see it all these years later.
Part of it may be how Ferrara’s direction seems to pay less attention to spatial awareness or even daylight continuity than in isolating the actors in the frame and how it’s all presented as if out of a living nightmare, just as he quietly observes the insidious physical process of how bodies are taken over. The physicality of it adds to the dread that continually hangs in the air and even some subtly recurring dialogue turns the casual into almost unaccountably unnerving in a way that can’t quite be pinned down. There’s something unpleasant seeping under the film and even the tiny house where the family stays is framed in ways that make it look like being woken up at 3AM into the most nightmarish situation imaginable. It’s the lack of a real second half which makes it all feel not quite fully formed, like the state of the half-formed bodies of the pod people which get discarded.
So it’s a little bit of a shame that it doesn’t lead somewhere except for the chase with all subtext pretty much done away with, as well as how what happens means discarding some of the best elements for much of the second half. I wish there was a good solution for this aside from rewriting the third act entirely--as it is, one beat implies the possibility of more complications during the final third, then the movie oddly disregards it. It’s all still well executed, if anything, and the look of blackness is expertly achieved by DP Bojan Bazelli with a propulsive score by Joe Delia which adds immeasurably to the atmosphere that almost wafts out of the frame. Put together it feels a little like Ferrara was able to make half of the film he wanted then treated the rest of it as work-for-hire and went along with the compromise. But even a few moments during the final third stand out, particularly one moment where a recently born pod person suddenly rises into frame, the sound work combined with the movement of the actor creating a frisson of the sort that can only be found when a film is even attempting to approach greatness.
Still, there’s that feeling of dread and you can tell that Ferrara never forgets that this is, for all intents and purposes, a horror movie, in moments like when an alien body that isn’t fully formed pops out from under a bed like a monster in a haunted house. There’s also a fair amount of elements taken from the ’78 version, particularly that iconic shriek, as well as a few touches which harken back to the original like how the local bar is oddly empty. It also has an ending that I suppose falls somewhere between the framing device wrap up of the original and the bleakness of the ’78 denouement as much as it’s barely an ending at all. The final sequence manages to be shot in a way that implies a science fiction ZABRISKIE POINT but still feels a little too patchwork to have the full effect. The last half hour is at least cinematic, I’ll give it that much, with at least one plot turn that I’m still surprised made it into a major studio film so what’s there are the pieces of a potential classic but still just pieces. I don’t love the film like I did back then and a few of these flaws stick out to me, but revisiting it now while it still plays like an aberration it feels like one in a few of the best ways possible. It’s made by someone willing to let it be slick like a studio film usually is but also knows to give it enough quirks that you can tell the pod people haven’t fully taken over. Maybe it’s all summed up in the early line where someone says, “You’re scared. Good.” You still have those emotions and that’s the way the film wants it to be.
Part of that reminder of humanity comes from the main cast, particularly Gabrielle Anwar who brings a wounded innocence to Marti, not knowing where she is in life and forced to deal with that even when she doesn’t fully understand what’s going on. And one memory coming back to me now is how I had a crush on her way back then. Terry Kinney seems too young to be her father but that almost seems part of the point with the actor playing much of his part as willingly disconnected from whoever he’s talking to, unable to relate to just about anyone. Christine Elise’s undeniable energy plays well off Anwar as Marti’s new best friend just as Billy Wirth’s aloofness does, lending a distinct vibe to the chemistry each of the actors have with each other while Forest Whitaker nails his two scenes, not letting the full extent of the sheer dread he feels show right away—Ferrara holds on him for a long moment early on to let us grasp this and his line “I’m worried about these…people” is drawn out as if he desperately wants to believe they still are. But Meg Tilly easily gets some of the film’s most powerful moments including her big speech but there’s also a completely wordless moment where she exchanges glances with another woman, presumably a pod person, dealing with a baby crying, which doesn’t even need the science fiction context to be unnerving. It could be anything, whether its two women trapped in this place or two alien beings. It doesn’t really matter. Even one early moment of Tilly in her bedroom when she’s still human feels like a touch that only Abel Ferrara would have encouraged an actor to do, another reminder of how human we can be, unencumbered by inhibitions when we’re in private and how that makes us human as much as anything.
And of course there was yet another remake in 2007 called THE INVASION (directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, partly reshot by others) which even with Nicole Kidman starring already seems to have forgotten by everyone, including by me and probably you, with no sign of even a semi-interested cult around it. There’ll be another remake eventually, you know there will. What Abel Ferrara has had to say about the lack of release of his BODY SNATCHERS in some interviews leads to more questions but still isn’t the ‘Ferrara pissed off the Warner execs’ anecdote that I was expecting, apparently having more to do with skullduggery within the studio at the time than any maverick behavior on his part. But the recent release of a Blu-ray from the Warner Archive means that hopefully this film will still be out there. “You always remember the good things about people,” says Marti at one point, just as I need to remember seeing this film in Westwood long ago, and in some ways the film is about how we need to remember whether it’s the good things about other people or the bad things about ourselves. Like it or not, it’s part of what we hold on to, it’s part of what makes us who we are, even if those other people never know this and even if they never remember the way we feel about them.

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