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Body Snatchers

(Directed by Abel Ferrara)

When you think of sci-fi horror, the filmmaker who gave us The Driller Killer (1979) and Bad Lieutenant (1992) isn't the first person you'd think of to helm a new version of a classic story. But Jack Finney's great 1955 novel (The Body Snatchers) had already inspired two superlative movies: Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1956 and the identically titled chiller in 1978. Both had great success with their differing outlooks on paranoia and dehumanisation. In comparison, the 50's version focuses on the fears of the McCarthy era and small-town isolation, the 70s locks in on big-city loneliness and the loss of individualism. And the concept also led to other evil doppelganger stories like The Man who Haunted Himself (1970) and even I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), not to mention John Carpenter's nightmarish take on The Thing (1982). The 70s version also proved that a fresh update on the story could be just as unsettling as the original. So, a new version in the 90s with a fresh visionary needn't be another failed horror "remake". Originally the director chosen to helm this update was Stuart Gordon, who was one of the co-writers along with four (!?) others, which also included the great Larry Cohen. The number of writers is a possible indication of this film's troubled journey to the big screen, which would affect the distribution of the project once it wrapped. Nevertheless, the intriguing appointment of the edgy Ferrara as director was an interesting choice. There was also some promising names in the cast, including Gabrielle Anwar (in her first appearance after Scent of a Woman), Meg Tilly (Psycho II, Forest Whitaker (just after The Crying Game) and shouty R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket).

Rather than taking place in a small town or a big city, the plot is based in a remote US military base in Alabama. That might seem initially strange and (perhaps) a decision to cut down the location budget, but it's actually a brilliant idea that heavily incorporates the concept of loss of identity and the pressure to conform (whether it's in the US Army, or society itself). The story sees Steve Malone (Terry Kinney) and his family travel to the base, as his environmental knowledge is needed to explore possible ecological damage caused by the Army. Ironically, this is seen as being the likely cause for strange behaviour as witnessed by worried Medical Officer Major Collins (Whitaker). Of course, it isn't; it's bloody big alien pods that have drifted into the nearby swampland from outer space. These are now being harvested by the multiplying "pod people", that have been duplicated from the Army staff, via tendrils to the body as they slumber. You get the picture. What follows is a surprisingly thrilling ride that sees Steve and (more prominently) his daughter Marti (Anwar), attempt to either escape or alert others to the invasion. That bare outline enables a lean and mean experience to take place onscreen. It also allows for some fantastic scenes to take place, which have since gone on to become genre favourites.

The best sequence sees a (*slight spoiler*) pod version of Carol Malone (Tilly) infiltrate the family and confront the patriarch. In a spine-tingling moment, Carol launches into a monologue explaining that there is no use trying to escape ("Where you gonna go, where you gonna run, where you gonna hide? Nowhere... 'cause there's no one like you left."). It's a brilliant moment, highlighted by Tilly's calm and intentionally emotionless performance (with some alleged improvisation). Then the cherry on top of the scare-cake comes with THAT pod-person scream, directly lifted from the 70s film. Breath-taking. There are a few choice moments like this; little Andy realising that all the kids in his class have drawn the same picture apart from him, a nude pod version of a lead character attempting seduction to survive, and the duplicitous attempts by pod people to force emotional responses from the protagonists. It works as a straight thriller but also layers plenty of metaphors in there as well. One character is brazenly told that humanity's best choice is to embrace the invasion, as conformity will save it from destruction. The character chooses to shoot himself instead, of course. It's a good deal more commercial than practically all of Ferrara's other work, but it's no less interesting. The ending is a bit of a cop-out, being ambiguous and non-committal. But it does at least suggest that a person may have to sacrifice humanitarianism to keep their social identity. Or maybe we're over-thinking it. Bar that, and one very sub-par FX shot showing a character falling from a height, this is simply great and highly recommended.

Which makes it such a shame that it never got its day at the cinema. Despite a stellar review from Roger Ebert and a successful showing at the London Film Festival (where this writer first saw