August 24, 2013

Cornetto Week: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) Headlines The "Alternate Universe Cornetto Trilogy"


"Well why not a space flower?  Why do we always expect metal ships?"
Alright, so this one is a bit of a cheat in that I watched it over a month ago, but it was part of the Brattle's Cornetto festivities so I'm counting it anyway.  You see, not only did the Brattle program the Cornetto Trilogy triple feature, but they also took it upon themselves to select an "Alternate Universe Cornetto Trilogy" on the preceding day - three films that acted as spiritual companions to Edgar Wright's three part comedic genre opus.  So yes, I spent back-to-back days at the Brattle watching a double triple feature.

Two of the films I was already very familiar with, but I'd yet to see either of them in a theater.  First up was the one I was most excited about, Peter Jackson's Dead Alive.  If you're unfamiliar with this absurdly quotable New Zealand zombie gore-fest, man are you missing out.  Dead Alive was a favorite of my high school A/V Crew, a movie that we had in our library of VHS tapes and played frequently after school or between classes.  It's the tale of Lionel, a wimpy guy whose wealthy and overbearing mother gets bitten by a Sumatran rat monkey (rendered in grotesque stop-motion animation) and quickly morphs into a sort of zombified demon corpse.  However, feeling guilty because she was attacked while he was on a date with the local shopkeeper, Lionel decides to hide her and an increasing number of victims in his basement while attempting to care for them so word doesn't get out around town.  The film is equal parts disgusting and hysterical, utilizing buckets of blood and viscera splattered every which way until every inch of the frame is dripping red.  The practical effects work is cartoonishly charming and by the time there's a demonic infant on the loose that is clearly a little person running around in baby pajamas and a rubber mask, I defy you not to have fallen in love with Dead Alive while simultaneously marveling that this is the same Oscar winning Peter Jackson who gave us the Lord Of The Rings trilogy.

In lieu of Hot Fuzz, we were treated to one of Danny Butterman's favorites, Michael Bay's Bad Boys II.  It's hardly what I would call a "good movie" and I probably would have preferred Danny's other action classic Point Break (directed by fellow Oscar winner Katherine Bigelow) but I understand the choice.  While the tale of an FBI agent undercover with a gang of surfing bank robbers in U.S. President masks is easily the better flick, it lacks that buddy cop dynamic that's such a crucial component of Hot Fuzz.  Still, if you're a fan of utterly mindless shoot outs and vehicular destruction on a massive scale, it's hard to top Bad Boys II.

Finally, our World's End surrogate was the 1978 version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers starring Donald Sutherland and Donald Sutherland's giant hair as a health inspector who discovers that people are becoming replaced with vacant, dead-eyed alien replicas.  I remember reading Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters as a kid and hearing numerous comparisons between the two - there was even a film version of that book that also featured a much older Sutherland.  In Puppet Masters the aliens are actually parasitic creatures that use humans as hosts, so I was somehow under the impression that Body Snatchers was the same, but the truth is far creepier.  The film's fantastic opening depicts the alien organisms traveling through space "on solar winds," entering our atmosphere and blanketing the earth through condensation.  The world's plant life is covered in alien tendrils that soon sprout flowers capable of duplicating sleeping humans through giant pods.  The whole thing is actually played fairly subtle for a while, with omnipresent webs of wispy tendrils often visible in the background even before we start discovering the pod people.  And the actual pods themselves are really fun to watch; at one point Sutherland falls asleep in a rooftop garden and we see a Sutherland-faced flower fetus taking shape next to him.

Jeff Goldblum is there doing Jeff Goldblum things, as is familiar "that lady" Veronica Cartwright, probably best known as "Not Sigourney Weaver" from Alien.  But the one who really threw me for a loop was Leonard Fucking Nimoy as a famous psychiatrist.  I have big love for Nimoy (a fellow Boston native) due to my many years as a Trekkie, but I'll admit that I'm largely unfamiliar with his work outside the context of the U.S.S. Enterprise.  I know that after Star Trek went off the air in 1969 he had some trouble shaking off the image of Mr. Spock in the public consciousness, despite experiencing some moderate success with two seasons of Mission: Impossible.  He even wrote a book called "I Am Not Spock", a title which helped foster the misconception that he actually hated Star Trek despite the fame it gave him.  I understand that impulse as an actor, as success in Hollywood can often be a double edged sword.  Once you gain notoriety for a role as iconic as Spock it becomes hard for audiences to accept you as anything else - they're just sitting there watching you in another movie thinking, "Hey look, that's Spock!"  Within that in mind, Body Snatchers was kind of a brilliant move for Nimoy at the time.  The heavy sci-fi subject matter and the fact that he's playing a largely cerebral psychoanalyst actually makes those Spock associations work in his favor, and when his character makes a dark turn late in the film it gets even better - now he's Evil Spock!  Body Snatchers is the last film Nimoy made before returning to Starfleet in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and in a way that's kind of a shame.  I'm curious where his career might have gone and what kind of movies Nimoy would have made without Star Trek to fall back on.  He eventually got into directing (Three Men And A Baby!) but that stemmed largely from his success helming Star Trek III and IV, the latter of which was the most successful Star Trek movie of all time until J.J. Abrams showed up.

Body Snatchers obviously had a huge influence on The World's End.  The idea of aliens who show up and replace/imitate humans is hardly special to Philip Kaufman's 1978 film, which is itself a remake of a 1956 film starring the great Kevin McCarthy, who also appears in this version.  But the specific imagery of Kaufman's iteration is unmistakable in the third Cornetto film.  The last shot of Body Snatchers is probably the single most memorable image of the whole film (I won't spoil it for you if you haven't seen it, because it really is pretty great) and it's something that Wright utilizes throughout the film as the robots' signature attack move.

The Alternate Universe Cornetto Trilogy was a perfect warm up act to the main attraction, and part of what inspired me to ask Wright, Pegg and Frost for more viewing suggestions at their Q&A the following day.  Looking back, I'm really glad that I did, as a week of movies that so clearly helped shape the minds of those three talented Brits really gave me a whole new appreciation for The World's End on my second viewing.  None of these movies are requirements in order to enjoy the final flavor of Cornetto, but if you have the time and the opportunity to give some of them a look, I promise it will only enhance your experience.

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Title: Invasion Of The Body Snatchers
Director: Philip Kaufman
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy, Kevin McCarthy
Year Of Release: 1978
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Brattle Theater