Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

One of the best remakes you’ll ever see.

It’s rare that a remake can not only equal the original but become wholly iconic in itself, but Philip Kaufman’s supremely creepy version has become just as enduring an example of science-fiction. Don Siegel’s 1956 original was and still is a classic of the genre, but Version 2.0 is up there with the very best remakes, up there with John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Ominousness and uncertainty is everywhere in this film – Kaufman and cinematographer Michael Chapman have an absolute ball milking paranoia and uncertainty from every potential moment.

Just like last time, mysterious plant life from outer space is slowly replacing humankind with sentient, emotionless duplicates. Right from the eerie opening credits, where unidentified alien life floats across the screen and towards Earth, the sense of icky, sticky foreboding is utterly tangible. It only gets worse/better from then on. In fact, the alien takeover happens more or less immediately, as Public Health Department worker Elizabeth (Brooke Adams) wakes up to discover that her lively, excitable husband has got out of bed with a seemingly different personality. Other people in the streets seem a little off too. Something’s not right. She confides in her work colleague Matthew (Donald Sutherland) and though he’s initially sceptical, there’s too much unprovable but uncanny evidence to suggest that San Francisco (although it’s unknown if any of this is happening elsewhere in the world, most likely methinks) really is being taken over…

Sutherland, an obviously well-known and well-loved yet fasinatingly unique leading actors, has a quietly authoratitive presence, and his chemistry with the warm and sympathetic Adams is wonderfully natural. You really feel the friendship and romantic tension between the two. Leonard Nimoy, as a psychiatrist whose calm, efficient demenaour means it’s difficult to tell if he’s already been turned, is weirdly unnerving – and that’s not just to do with the prospect of seeing Spock smile! Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright give great support as a couple caught up in the paranoia. In the pantheon of great cinematic cameos, the appearance of original star Kevin McCarthy, reprising his frenzied howls of ‘You’re next!!!’ has to be one of the all-time best. Keep an eye out fora genuine blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance from Robert Duvall. A more noticable mini-appearance comes from original Invasion director Don Siegel as a cab driver.

The now-famous pointing-and-screaming conceit is still wonderfully spooky (so much that the latest Blu-Ray artwork in the UK shows a certain character perform it, which is a bit a spoiler for those yet to watch the film), while the insane dog with a human face shock is still wildly weird (and a genuine reason for any character to break their phoney pod-person cover in surprised horror) and the plant effects are gloriously icky and freaky. Violence is sparse but when it comes it’s gooily effective, and the sight of a dispensed-with victim’s face caving in on itself is genuinely disturbing. One sequence as Sutherland is asleep in the garden and the surrounding greenery forms pods and human duplicates in a matter of minutes is absolutely gripping. Also, at times this film resembles a prototypical ‘running zombie’ movie, with effective scenes of the pod people relentlessly pursuing our heroes through the dead streets. The ending remains one of the most jolting and scary in SF/horror cinema – no music follows over the end credits. Sometimes silence is all that’s appropriate after a finale like that.

Two more versions would follow – the next in 1993, surprisingly directed by Abel Ferrara, was effectively creepy but not as well made as the first two. The last to date, simply titled The Invasion (2007) and starring Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman, is something I’ve not dared approach given how ‘meh’ it’s meant to be.

PS: Just like the last film I reviewed here, Race with the Devil, this was a PG when it came out in the US! Considering the extremely creepy tone, occasional gore and nudity, it just goes to show how crazy the ratings board was back then. Crazy in a good way, obviously. We were a lot more sensible/wimpy here in the UK – the film got an X.

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Film Review: Race with the Devil (1975)

Back in the days of ace late-night film season show Moviedrome (in this case the era of the show hosted by Alex Cox), Race with the Devil was the kind of exploitation feature that would get a comfy screening after 10pm on a Sunday, the kind of piece that might not have necessarily been a cult film, but with showings like this, probably developed a cult following as a result. When I was maybe 10-12 years old, I caught Race with the Devil with my sister and my mum. We loved it. Now before I get literally thousands of e-mails bemoaning the lack of TV censorship in the Fletch household, I must emphasise that in the US Race with the Devil was, astonishingly, rated PG. Seriously, you wouldn’t believe the films that got PG certificates in the US back then. The most insane example still has to be Poltergeist, a film which contains a bit where a guy rips his own face to pieces over a sink, got a PG. A PG! Over here, Race we got a seemingly more sensible AA (the equivalent of today’s 15, which Poltergeist obviously got back in 1982).

The film was made in 1975, and inbetween that and the night we first watched it, there had been that whole thing called the eighties, where horror, to us at least, had become more modern, gross and full-on, and as such the 1970s stuff was likely to have been regarded with more trusting eyes. As long as it wasn’t The Exorcist. Of course, the 1970s is where the best horror ever still comes from, but in th early nineties, a film like Race with the Devil was likely to have been considered far more harmless that Freddy or Jason and whatnot. And you know what? It’s kind of a perfect horror film for a pre-teen, in that it’s proper flippin’ scary, but mostly free of explicit violence (there’s no sex and only good ol’ ‘son of a bitches’ and ‘shits’ on the profanity front). It’s likely to inspire nightmares and the serious late-night chills in any ten-or-so year old, as it did with me, but it’s a horror film, what do you expect? I totally endorse the presence of scariness in children’s films, and Race with the Devil is kind of the next step before becoming a teenager and working your war towards the really scary stuff.

The film’s an effective blend of tyre-burning chase thriller and Satanic horror – two best buddies (Peter Fonda and Warren Oates) take their wives for a journey in their top-of-the-line RV to Aspen, but long before they get there (if they ever get there….) they secretly witness a dancing-naked-round-the-fire spectacle in front of the scariest tree ever which ends horribly when one of the party seems to willingly allow themselves to be stabbed to death by the group’s leader. The guys, properly freaked out, have their cover blown by one of the wives who’s shouting loudly at them to ask what’s going on. Now this bit really, really infuriated my mum and sister back on that night – they were both like ‘SHUT UP! IDIOT!’, but even though in the context of the horror they have pretty much sown the seeds of their own destruction, the film does make it clear that she couldn’t have had the slightest clue as to what was going on. Yeah, I said one of the wives – I think it was Hot Lips from the TV version of M.A.S.H, it could have been the other one.

The wives are pretty standard characters – they are exceptionally tolerant of their husbands’ recklessness, adopting a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude, only proving their independent worth when they investigate the bizarre witches’ rune that has been left as a warning on the back of the RV. This bit’s pretty funny because they visit the small local library in Nowherestown and actually manage to find the right kind of book that translates the heirogyphics. Weirdly, despite not being members of the library, they try and check the book out! They’re on the road, when were they thinking of returning it? Told that it’s a reference copy, they steal the book (tut, tut and TUT) and promise to each other that they’ll mail it back some time. Given the context of the horror, this is understanable as they are desperate people in a desperate situation, but this bit annoys me more than the bit earlier when Hot Lips can’t keep her mouth shut. Don’t steal from libraries! Don’t steal from charity shops, either.

Anyway, paranoia sets in and it seems like everyone on the road doesn’t like our happy campers, who decide to toy with them just long enough to sustain the length of an hour-and-a-half film – the police don’t seem to be taking any of the guys protestations seriously, there’s a creepy bit where the other wife, during a public swim, is ogled at by every ugly, dodgily toothed and leery old man in the vicinity (the film’s not every subtle in its insistence that anyone outside the big city is a wrong ‘un), and yes, the family dog is killed. Oh, come on, that’s not a spoiler – back in the day, if there was a cat or a dog in a thriller, it was dead. It’s true, and we expect it. Even today this seems to be the case – David Fincher knows this and knows we know this, which is why watching Gone Girl after The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is particularly satisfying. Pity, because the dog in this one is ridiculously, heartbreakingly cute. The tension mounts and mounts as we move on – there’s a really good bit with a couple of unwelcome rattlesnakes which hasn’t dated because it looks real (I suppose that’s why the BBFC doesn’t like it) and everything builds to a terrific action sequence where the bad guys just go for it and try to drive our heroes off the road.

Then there’s the ending.

I won’t reveal it, but it’s the kind that will linger in the mind of a naive ten year old viewer. All I’ll add is that the directorial/editorial decision to freeze the frame and let the credits roll over the final image is a surefire way to give the younger version of me the proper midnight terrors. Well done.

Race with the Devil contains casual references to feline slaughter, what passed as a state-of-the-art mobile home back in the mid-seventies, a properly chilling opening credits sequence and the kind of normal, everyday filming locations that make the outrageous horrors that take place there all the more freaky.

Fantastic Four (2015)

Breaking News: ‘Worst Blockbuster Ever‘ is Not Bad at All.

Fantastic Four 2015 poster.jpg

First of all, I must mention that for the screening of the new Fantastic Four movie I was sitting in row F in Screen 4. My ticket almost read ‘F4’, which felt like an omen. A good omen? Are any omens good? Well, the first one was amazing, and I quite like Damien: Omen II for its sheer uncompromising bleakness. The third one was shite though, wasn’t it? Anyway, forget that turkey, we’ve got a new one on the block. That’s right, Josh Trank’s long-awaited follow-up to Chronicle is apparently such a re-shot, re-edited compromise of his original vision that he even tweeted a quickly deleted warning that the film that was currently out in cinemas was not the one he wanted to make. Reviews have ranged from mediocre to savage, cast interviews have been reportedly awkward and there have been estimates suggesting that it will be the most notorious blockbuster flop since Catwoman.

Right, first things first. Fantastic Four is not rubbish. It’s good. Some of it is brilliant. It is, however, a clearly messed-with film. Something’s just not right here. It feels incomplete. The tone is akin to a great joke awkwardly told. You know, how the timing’s just a little off? The brief 100-or-so minute running time actually is something of a relief given the fatty over-length of most blockbusters, but there’s no doubt that the final act is disappointing. The first two-thirds however, are pretty successful. I particularly liked the flashback scenes to future Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic’s childhood as a prodigious scientist getting shouted down by his stupid teacher (Dan Castellanata, a.k.a Homer J. Simpson!) for daring to suggest that teleportation was possible. Scenes between him and new friend Ben as they escape the reality of their home lives and work on their invention felt like a darker take on Joe Dante’s Explorers.

Then we move forward to the two as teens (Miles Teller and Jamie Bell) as their progress has caught the attention of the Storms – chief scientist Franklin (a wonderfully voiced Reg E. Cathy from The Wire, who also played the homeless guy in American Psycho, you know – ‘Get a godamned job Al! You’ve got a negative attitude!‘) and his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara). However, since Ben isn’t a genius and more of a hired-muscle, he’s not required to join Reed at the new fancy laboratory to create a super-sized version of the teleporter, which has proved so far to have sent its inanimate subjects into another dimension… what lies on the other side? Something… fantastic? Er, no. Something pretty horrifying it turns out, as a reunited Reed and Ben, as well as Franklin’s tearaway son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and loose-cannon/forebodingly monikered genius Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell, Koba from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) break on through only to encounter a decidedly hostile environment.

I suppose when a film is called Fantastic Four, you could be forgiven for expecting something bright, magical…fantastic, even. However, we don’t really get that and yet the criticised darker approach is the film’s greatest success. Forget the usual approach of ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, Fantastic Four is clearly of the mind that with great power comes great horror. The moment when the new world’s intense energy source is unleashed onto the unsuspecting scientists is gripping, while the aftermath of the journey, as each member discovers what has happened to them is almost audacious in its ominous mood. This is definitely the finest stretch (pun intended) of the film, full of drama.

Then we suddenly jump a year, and things start to feel a little patchy, if nevertheless still entertaining. Character motivations feel unexplored and random. Still, when a brief but spectacular action sequence arrives, it’s only then that I realised the film had been getting by very well without relying on much of the genre’s usual use of outrageous special effects and giddying set-pieces. Unfortunately, a massive end-of-the-world crisis comes out of nowhere and all of a sudden we’re thrown into regular big-bang blockbuster spectacle that feels strangely unsatisfying. It’s like the film was getting darker and darker and then wanted to go all crowd-pleasing. Then there’s the presence of a newly-evil Von Doom, a nemesis whose ridiculous name made sense in the gaudy Technicolor Noughties versions but just feels wrong here. His attempts to conjure a supermassive black hole in order to destroy Earth just feels too by-the-numbers/beat-the-clock in a film that was threatening to go into some dark places of its own. Contrived moments like including The Thing’s trademark ‘It’s clobbering time!’ and the bit in the final scene when the team finally try and decide on a name don’t feel right. There’s an clumsy tension between the off-kilter, horror-tinged drama Trank seems to have been trying to make and the reassuring Marvel movie the studios want instead. Still, this is a noble failure of a film, hopefully one that will see Trank’s original vision restored one day. As for a sequel, well that’s very unlikely, and that’s a shame, because there is promise here.

PS: This is better than the Tim Story-directed Fantastic Four, which I quite liked.