Screen Story by Larry Cohen
How many film adaptations of Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers are needed? By the time Body Snatchers was released in 1993 (after sitting on the shelf for roughly two years), there had been two official adaptations and numerous films that had taken inspiration (ripped off) from Finney’s yarn about alien pod people taking over the human race. But surely, you ask, can’t a film that combines the cult sensibilities of Larry Cohen, Stuart Gordon, and Abel Ferrara put a new spin on this old tale? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
Steve (Terry Kinney) is a chemist for the EPA who is sent to a Southern military base to investigate the containment methods of toxic chemicals being stored there. Planning to be on the base for a full summer, he drags along his family: Carol (Meg Tilly) is the slightly kooky wife; Marti (Gabrielle Anwar) is the sullen teenager still nursing a grudge with Steve for marrying Carol after the death of her mother; and Andy (Reilly Murphy) is the cute little kid.
Once settled in on the base, Steve finds a distrustful commander (R. Lee Ermey) who is operating under the impression that the government wants to remove the chemicals and a paranoid doctor (Forest Whitaker) who is noticing odd changes in behavior from the soldiers. In the meantime, Marti finds romance with Tim (Billy Wirth), a cocky, yet sensitive (Are there any other kind?) helicopter pilot. With everything considered, for a film directed by a man known for his intense portrayals of paranoia and moral corruption, the first act is very low-key.
But then Andy finds Carol’s dried-out husk of a corpse in bed before her naked alien double walks out of the closet. It’s a fair description to say that all hell breaks loose after this point.
Since this is an entry in the Cohen Case Files, I suppose I should tackle the subject of how much of Cohen’s personality exists in the finished film. Among the labyrinthine writing credits on the film, Cohen is given a co-screen story credit along with Raymond Cistheri. Finney’s novel is credited as the source material and the final screenwriting credits go to Stuart Gordon, his frequent collaborator, Dennis Paoli, and Ferrara’s frequent writing partner, Nicholas St. John. It’s no wonder that among this collision of strong styles that pull in opposite directions, the only portion of the film that bears Cohen’s touch is the red herring of whether or not the toxic chemicals on the base have anything to do with the strange behavior. But this idea is quickly disposed of once alien pods are shown being harvested from a swamp.
Sadly, there’s not much to Body Snatchers that hasn’t been done before. It’s not a bad film, just a very familiar one. Ferrara stages a few very effective sequences that evoke the paranoia of being a survivor of the initial takeover, but the story beats never feel original. This is less a fault of the script and more to do with the fact that the story is so well-known.
Aside from some grotesque sequences that show the gestation of the doubles inside their giant pods, nothing about the story is new or fresh. Even the idea of grafting the story on to a military setting, equating the military mindset with a hive-mind mentality, feels cheap and perfunctory.
Despite my complaints about the rehashed feel of the material, the film stays watchable. This is mainly due to Ferrara’s ability to ratchet up tension with not much more than some moody lighting by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli and uniformly good work by the cast.
Speaking of the performances, while they are are all solid, Tilly deserves special recognition for pulling off the best alien point and scream from any movie based on Finney’s novel. Even though I knew it was coming, it was still a horrifying moment that raised goosebumps.
Clocking in at just over 85 minutes, Body Snatchers is just as long as it needs to be. It even manages to end on a high note with a ridiculous third act that finds Ferrara indulging in some excessive pyrotechnics as he takes advantage of the biggest budget he ever got his hands on. It’s just too bad the rest of the movie wasn’t this loopy. At least it would have been something different instead of just a decent version of the usual plot.
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