Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean the pod people aren’t after you

Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean the pod people aren’t after you

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: As part of the A.V. Club’s 10 Days Of Horror, we recommend the movies that frighten us the most.

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978)

With apologies to Don Siegel and Abel Ferrara, the best adaptation of Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers is still the 1978 version, which unleashes the allegorical bogeymen-from-above on an unsuspecting metropolis. Whereas the 1956 original is either anti-Communist or anti-anti-Communist, depending on whom you ask, Philip Kaufman’s Invasion takes on the Me Generation—the way hippies transformed into yuppies, basically overnight. Of course, to attribute just one agenda to the film is to deny the whole spectrum of anxieties it probes; Kaufman taps into fears of biological contamination, government surveillance, urban alienation, and waking up one day to discover that the people you know and love are not who you thought they were. More so than The Conversation or All The President’s Men or any of those Watergate-era milestones, this is the great paranoid thriller of the 1970s.

Over the course of a few days, health department colleagues Matthew (Donald Sutherland, in one of his finest performances) and Elizabeth (Brooke Adams) discover that most of San Francisco has been replaced by soulless alien clones. By moving the action from a (fake) California town to a (real) California city, Kaufman implicitly suggests that the pod people are winning. His Invasion is part remake and part sequel, an impression the director furthers by allowing Kevin McCarthy to briefly, memorably reprise his role from the original. Once left to the imagination, the actual body snatching is depicted in disgusting detail, thanks to some truly incredible effects work. The most unnerving change to pod lore may be the addition of a distress call, that awful, inhuman shriek the replaced now make when they’ve spotted a member of the human resistance.

Because Kaufman is a master at juggling tones, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers doubles as a cultural comedy, poking fun at the New Age psychobabble of Leonard Nemoy’s shrink guru. It’s also a surprisingly resonant love story. (Is there a stranger expression of affection that being unable to destroy a slumbering, near-perfect doppelgänger of the woman you love?) First and foremost, however, the film is a plummet into paranoid dread, grotesquely exaggerating the feeling of being alone in a city of millions, of seeing conspiracies in every sidelong glance from a stranger. The rare horror film that gets scarier and scarier as it goes, Invasion culminates in what may be the single most blood-chilling final beat in all of cinema. They’re here already. And you’re next.