A few days ago, reviewing the TCM schedule for the week, I observed that, as a rule, movie remakes suck.
I was writing at the time of two pairs of movies and remakes – classic comedies that were remade as musicals: Ninotchka (1939) remade as Silk Stockings (1957); and Philadelphia Story (1940) remade as High Society (1956). Coincidentally, only a day or so earlier, I’d made a point of mentioning a remake that didn’t suck: John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of the 1951 sci fi/horror classic, The Thing.
I also mentioned, in that post, another classic science fiction film from the 1950s, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). In another instance of a remake that didn’t suck, that movie was remade by Philip Kaufman in 1978, with Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams and Jeff Goldblum, and in supporting roles Leonard Nimoy – Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock – and Veronica Cartwright – from both Lost in Space and Alien. (The incestuousness of science fiction movies and television, in which the same actors pop up over and over, often as homage and/or intertextual reference, might be a topic for another time.)
In the Kaufman remake, the action is shifted from a small town to San Francisco and the events and incidentals of the plot are very different, but the gist of the thing remains the same: one day, people you’ve known for ages seem different, and menacing somehow; more and more people change – replaced by exact duplicates it seems; you discover they’re grown from pods – pod people – strangely affectless but having the memories and abilities of the people they replace, and they are all linked together, playing at the lives of the people they’ve replaced while secretly going about some master plan.
The neutron bomb was designed to kill people while leaving buildings and infrastructure largely undamaged. The “pod people” are a sort of neutron bomb alien invasion in which even the people are preserved – apparently – but somehow the soul, the meaning is destroyed, replaced by some sinister inhuman motive. A nightmare vision of social conformity and loss of individuality acted out as a horror/science fiction movie – one of the scariest ever.
Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers benefitted immensely for its scariness from a terrific, unusual score by Denny Zeitlin. Zeitlin is a fascinating figure in his own right – a professor of clinical psychiatry at the prestigious UC San Francisco medical school, also working as a psychiatrist in private practice, who furthered a burgeoning career as a jazz musician even while going to medical school, getting signed to Columbia Records. Jazz critic Leonard Feather called Zeitlin “the most versatile young pianist to come to prominence in the early 1960s” (Wikipedia).
In the 1970s, he began experimenting with synthesizers and electronic devices in his music, and he deploys them to great effect in his soundtrack for Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The soundtrack draws on both of Zeitlin’s careers, as jazz musician and psychiatrist – he used what he knew about mental processes to craft music that is particularly gifted at evoking emotional states, such as dread. Reportedly, Zeitlin contributed psychological insights to other aspects of the movie – such as having certain shadows artificially lengthened and deepened to make them more ominous.
Zeitlin discussing his work on the film:
And one of the songs from the soundtrack, “The Reckoning”:
Kaufman’s 1978 version is not the only remake of Invasion of Body Snatchers. It was remade again in 1993 by Abel Ferrara as Body Snatchers and then again a few years back as The Invasion (2007) starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. The latter two sequels cannot really be considered exceptions to the rule that remakes suck, but the Ferrara version does have its fans.
In a subsequent post, I hope to explore the issue of remakes, and sequels – ones that suck and ones that don’t – at more length. Quite coincidentally, as I started writing this note/post/piece, word came via the ever excellent sci fi website io9 of a PREQUEL to The Thing – specifically to Carpenter’s 1982 version. In that movie, the team of American scientists stumbles on the titular monster when investigating the ruins of nearby Norwegian research station. The prequel is apparently set there, and shows how the Norwegian team originally discovered the “thing” – and what happened next. And io9 says it “may be awesome.”
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) (DVD) – Amazon.com
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) (DVD) – Amazon.com
- Scenes We Love: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) – The Moviefone Blog
- Kevin McCarthy, Actor in ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’ Dies at 96 – Obituary (Obit) – NYTimes.com
- The Thing from Another World (1951) (DVD) – Amazon.com
- The Thing (1982) (DVD) – Amazon.com
- Denny Zeitlin – official website
- Denny Zeitlin – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Recent Listening: Denny Zeitlin – Rifftides
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Soundtrack) – Amazon.com
- Denny Zeitlin – Invasion of the Body Snatchers
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Soundtrack) by Denny Zeitlin on iTunes
- io9: First inside look at The Thing prequel shows why it may be awesome after all
- io9: First Thing prequel footage cracks open the alien ice block