Aliens Among Us: “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “They Live”

Aliens and alien invasions are usually considered the exclusive dominion of the science-fiction genre. In fact, aliens, good or bad, are, by necessity, “creature features,” and thus should be also considered horror movies. Still, the usual alien feature films are looked at and reviewed as science fiction simply because, although no concrete proof exists of the presence of aliens (Erich Von Däniken‘s Chariots of the Gods notwithstanding), they are considered scientifically feasible or, according to some renowned scientists like Carl Sagan, probable compared to ghosts, vampires, werewolves and other creatures of legend which are the usual monsters of horror movies, and which no rational scientist would even hint might be real or possible.

Some might balk at classifying The Day the Earth Stood Still, Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial as horror films, and I would whole-heartedly agree. On the other hand, you would almost HAVE to agree with me that any of the Alien series, The Thing from Another World, The Blob, and Predator, all have elements of horror running through them despite the fact that they are essentially about alien life forms. More so than any of these is any of the multiple versions of Jack Finney’s book The Body Snatchers. Each of the directors of the four (so far) adaptations has had their own slant on the story, but it is essentially at its core a horror story. John Carpenter‘s They Live! also plays out as a pure horror movie (but no surprise there since Carpenter’s main milieu is the horror genre: Christine, Halloween, The Fog, his remake of The Thing, etc.)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Unlike the original 1956 version, which involves the aliens taking over a small town, the 1978 Phillip Kaufman directed film takes place in San Francisco. Whether or not the first one outdoes the second one in terror, or vice versa, is a matter of how you personally feel about society in general. Both have their pluses and minuses.

The 1978 version benefits greatly from the phenomenal musical score, by a guy named Denny Zeitlin, a jazz musician and a pioneer in electronic music. The music Zeitlin created heightens the terror and suspense of the movie, and it seems a shame, but he never scored another movie. He has had several offers over the years, but he claims it was too taxing and far too much work, so this film remains his only endeavor into movie soundtracks.

Opening sequences show the pods on another planet, lifting themselves off the planet and floating in space to land on Earth. Pay close attention to the opening sequences, because an interesting note is that all of that was done for about $50. The “planet ” is just a 2 x4 stick of wood, and the “pods” are just a jar of art department gelatin. This movie was made for about $3.5 million, and a lot of the special effects were far cheaper than they appear to be on screen.

Opening sequences on Earth have brief glimpses of the pod people already in progress of taking over the Earth. In one scene a priest (played by Robert Duvall) is swinging on a swing set in a playground. You can see the blank stare in his face and you just know there is something odd about him (although it doesn’t really click until you have seen others that have been assimilated).

Matthew (Donald Sutherland) is a health inspector. He is friends with a fellow health department employee, Elizabeth (Brooke Adams). When Elizabeth confides to Matthew that her boyfriend, Geoffrey (Art Hindle), has begun acting strangely, and intimates that she thinks it’s not really Geoffrey, Matthew suggests that she talk with a friend of his, Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), who is a pop culture psychologist. Remember this is the late 70’s — a time of self help books like Thomas Harris’ I’m OK, You’re OK, and the me generation. This whole movie brims with the 70’s feel, including some of the most humorous, in retrospect, clothing: polyester suits, sweaters instead of vests on suits, open (wide) collars without ties. Also, some of the language is so 70’s you may be tempted to snicker…

While at a Kibner book signing, Elizabeth and Matthew encounter a woman who claims her husband is not her husband. (Earlier, Matthew had had words with his dry cleaner who claimed his wife is not his wife). Kibner does his best to resolve that situation and then tries to calm Elizabeth’s fears. At the book signing is also a struggling writer friend of Matthew’s, Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum). Jack despises Kibner, mostly because Kibner is a successful author and he, Jack, is not, but he claims that Kibner’s psychology is just so much crap.

Jack and his wife, Nancy (Veronica Cartright), operate a mud baths health spa (there’s that overwhelming 70’s feel again). Nancy discovers a half-formed body in one of the stalls and freaks out. Jack calls Matthew, and together they come to a half-formed conclusion that it is a duplicate of Jack. Matthew tells Jack to call Kibner, then goes to Elizabeth’s house, where he finds her asleep, and another half-formed body that is beginning to look like her.

He carries Elizabeth out, avoiding Geoffrey, who is one of the pod people. When he gets back to Jack’s place Kibner is there. The doc convinces (or tries to) them it was all just their imagination. But when Kibner leaves, he gets in a car where Geoffrey and another pod person is, and we are let on to the fact that Kibner has been converted.

Gradually it becomes evident that the flowers which have recently cropped up and which Elizabeth has been trying to identify are the source of pods, which take over the memories and substance of the original human bodies. Two things distinguish this version from the original. First, in the original, it is never really revealed what happens to the original human bodies. In this one, a series of dramatic scenes reveal that the bodies dry up and decay. Also the bodies of the pod creatures as they are forming are much more solid and disgusting looking.

Special effects do play a bigger part in this version. Once again, however, there is no alien spaceship landing on the White house lawn, or futuristic death ray guns shot by bug-eyed monsters. But Kaufman and company did take advantage of a better budget to create some pretty decent special effects.

I won’t reveal how this one ends. You have to see it for yourself.

They Live (1988)

John Carpenter, as I have intimated before, is my absolute favorite director. My favorite Carpenter movie of all time is Big Trouble in Little China, which I will get around to reviewing, just waiting for the right blogathon or at least the right time to do so. I’m also a big fan of his other Kurt Russell collaborations (see Waiting for the Snake for a review of the two Snake Plissken features). ut Carpenter’s main ouevre is primarily in the horror genre.

One that really gets me as a lot of fun is one he made during the late-Reagan Presidency. It is also a sort of condemnation of the commercialization of America. It could be and probably should be viewed on a secondary level as a political diatribe.

“Rowdy” Roddy Piper plays a character called John Nada. (Nada is Spanish for nothing, which basically makes Piper’s character a fictional “nobody”). John is a drifter, out of work but just looking for an honest day’s pay, any job to pay the bills. He finds work on a construction site and is offered a place to stay in a shantytown by a fellow worker, Frank (Keith David).

John helps out with some repairs needed in the shantytown and meets the leader of the group, Gilbert (Peter Jason, a familiar face if you watch a lot of these kinds of movies — you may recognize Jason as the bartender in the cowboy bar from 48 Hours, or any one of some 200 roles he has played over the years). John observes Gilbert suspiciously hanging around a church, and when he goes to investigate hears a choir practicing. Meanwhile, back at the camp the regular TV program being watched by some of the residents is getting interference from some hijacked broadcast in which the broadcaster claims that some evil hidden force is “controlling us.”

Our antihero continues to nose around and finds out that there is no choir in the church. It is a recording to cover up some secret activity which involves Gilbert and some others from the shantytown. John also discovers a box of sunglasses, curious about them, but halfway dismissively puts a pair in his pocket. he next day, while walking outside he puts on the sunglasses he found and immediately the whole world goes black and white. Signs which are advertisements without the glasses become one word commands like “OBEY” and “SLEEP”.

He is, of course, confused, and begins alternately taking off and putting on the sunglasses. But the real shock is when he sees an obviously rich person who, when he puts on the glasses is revealed to be a very ugly alien. It becomes obvious that the sunglasses have some special power, but he is unsure what that is or what it might mean. When he confronts an old woman who is in fact one of the aliens and tells her she’s as ugly as sin, she speaks “we have one that can see” into her wristwatch and promptly disappears.

When he goes outside he is confronted by cops, which with the benefit of the glasses, he can now see are aliens. He overpowers them and takes their guns, then goes on a shooting spree, but only killing the aliens. At a bank he utters one of my favorite movie lines of all time:

“I have come here to kick ass and chew bubblegum….and I’m all out of bubblegum.”

John tries to connect up with Frank and after a ridiculous looking wrestling match in which John tells Frank to put on he glasses and Frank refuses, he finally gets Frank to put them on and now Frank can see the alien influences, too.

The last part of the movie has John kidnapping a pretty TV assistant director, Holly (Meg Foster, a woman who has the most mesmerizing eyes I have ever seen). He tries to convince her of what’s going on, but she of course, thinks he’s nuts.

It turns out that is a contingent of humans who do know about the alien invasion and are helping them. If you can hang on until the end, you’ll get a few good scenes that will make watching this one extremely well worth it, especially if you have a sardonic sense of humor like I do.

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.

This article originally ran this past summer and is being reprinted as part of our 31 Days of Halloween celebrations.