I first watched the 1978, Philip Kaufman directed, remake of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers when I was about 17. At this time in my life I knew that I perhaps loved movies more than the average person might, but was yet to find my feet as someone who knew the difference between something that I merely liked and something that was truly great (at this time, subtext and symbolism was easier for me to spot in books than in movies, something that is ridiculous to think about now). Part of my education in loving and watching films did not come from doing GCSE Media studies (which seemed to focus more on the different lighting of different scenes in The Bill) or from a formal Film Studies academic qualification (never made it to university at that age), but from being an insomniac who often watched Mark Kermode’s Shooting Gallery on Channel 4 in the middle of the night. It was a great thing to be watching at that age. The artsy short films mixed with Kermode’s informative introduction allowed me to get the most out of each of them, and I was rewarded with seeing some of the greatest films that I have ever seen. But the main thing that Mark Kermode and Shooting Gallery taught me was how to watch a movie – how to pay attention to what the camera is doing, how certain characters are lit, what sounds can be heard off camera, the importance and significance of costume design and colour, and so on.
It was after an episode of The Shooting Gallery that I first saw Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. To me, it was a Smorgasbord of things to feast my eyes on and tax my brain with using my new found knowledge. The sound was incredible and unsettling, the camera work and editing are jumpy and jarring and the overall look is washed out and sterile. The plot is a basic sci-fi/horror mashup of aliens assimilating humans and taking over the Earth, but where its strength lies is in the absolute lack of monsters and beasties. Instead the horror lies in the distrust that the characters have of one another and of the outside world. There are many moments where characters complain that their loved or otherwise close ones are different or not themselves, but specific examples are never given as to how. The only cues to something being seriously amiss do not come from things that are in the foreground of the movie, but in the background. Things seen in the distance show a world gone seriously wrong, but those focusing purely on performances of principal characters will miss these. It is within these moments that the movie launches itself into the realms of greatness. As everything is just out of reach and yet very much there, it leads to a hugely disturbing watch that makes you the viewer become both scared and, more importantly, paranoid.
I say paranoid because I do not think of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers as being a horror movie so much as an sticky, uncomfortable piece of cinema that makes you jumpy without realising why. To me, there is something very powerful about the distrust that people have with those around them and find it much more unsettling than scary aliens or even the unseen noise of something like the Blair Witch. And, for my money, nothing does it better than Kaufman’s movie. John Carpenter’s The Thing comes close, but cheapens itself by visual effects and crappy characters. Perhaps it’s my Englishness seeping out of my pores, but I react to things being unspoken much more to things being shouted. As it turns out, I am quite a big fan of unspoken paranoia in movies. I’m not sure what part of the me this appeals to me, but it’s something that I often crave. I think that it’s because there is simply more reward in finding meaning and twists in things that are not overt; paranoid movies tend to layer themselves like onions with the full story only being revealed after multiple viewings. True horror or suspense comes not from malevolent third parties but from things within ourselves, perhaps simply the fear of fear itself. All I know is that I will take a faceless threat inhabiting the people of San Francisco over Jigsaw any day of the week.
5 other great paranoid films
1. The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
2. All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976)
3. JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)
4. Glorious 39 (Stephen Poliakoff, 2009)
5. Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010)
North By Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)
The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984)
Any thoughts or suggestions? I would dearly love some recommendations for other paranoid movies.
(NB: I did want to post a trailer or a clip from the movie to accompany this post, but there was nothing available. The trailer really does a disservice to this incredible movie.)