The remake? Is there a more dreaded word in Hollywood (other than perhaps the more desperate “reimagining”)? Too many films — from classics to near-forgotten B-movie fare — have been put through the remake wringer, less because of any sort of artistic merit and more because a known entity is going to make a quick buck from audiences with short-attention-spans faster than a new intellectual property that isn’t immediately familiar to them. Not all are bad, but for every underrated Willard, there’s a half-dozen misbegotten failures like Rob Zombie’s Halloween or Texas Chainsaw 3D (and let’s not bring up Gus Van Sant’s woeful shot-for-shot 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho). I’m glad John Carpenter has been able to pay for his retirement through the various remakes of his body of work, but I'd rather see one new balls-to-the-wall Carpenter classic than a hundred uninspired remakes like the 2005 version of The Fog (fingers crossed that long-in-development versions of Escape From New York and Big Trouble In Little China die on the vine).
Ironically, however, one of Carpenter’s sharpest and scariest movies is just that— a remake that is the rarest of all cinematic gems, one that’s better than the original. Carpenter’s 1982 reworking of The Thing may share a frigid Antarctic setting with the 1951 original produced by Howard Hawks and directed by Christian Nyby, but otherwise, hearkening back to the original 1938 short story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, this piece is its own beast. Carpenter’s film — about a group of scientists and a support team stranded in an Antarctic research station who find a creature thawed from the ice — starts out like the original but quickly shifts gears as we discover that the eponymous “Thing” is able to mimic other living creatures, absorbing them and then appearing to be them. Kurt Russell realizes what’s going on too late as the perfectly-cast station crew (including Wilford Brimley, Richard Masur, David Clennon and Keith David, later to appear in Carpenter’s They Live) does battle with a being that, able to disguise itself as human, sows paranoia and distrust amongst the men.
The tough, downbeat film — a failure in the summer of 1982, up against a much friendlier alien in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial — is centered by the amazing special FX work by Rob Bottin, which, even in this day and age, have yet to be bested (the 2011 “prequel” was to showcase similar work from Amalgamated Dynamics, only to have much of their craft obscured by obvious CGI). The transformation scenes, considered too graphic by many in 1982, are grotesque but absolutely terrifying— instead of James Arness’ lumbering Frankenstein-esque plant monster from the original, we get a creature that can be anyone or thing, from a dog to your best friend. The reveals are so bizarre and otherworldly that they shock us out of complacency— this isn’t some being we can relate to or defeat conventionally, but something that defies existence itself. Carpenter’s film — thanks in no small part to Bill Lancaster’s tight screenplay —may share the tough camaraderie of the Hawks/Nyby original, but in hewing closer to Campbell’s story, it creates a unique tale of terror that literally gets under your skin.
Scream Factory has just released a stellar Blu-Ray release of The Thing that stands as not just the definitive home-video version of the film but one of the very best Blu-rays to date. The film has never looked better— working off a brand new 2K scan of the interpositive supervised by cinematographer Dean Cundey, the image showcases rich blacks, detailed textures and gets rid of the over-saturated color scheme of the previous Universal Blu-Ray. A new 4.1 mix has been created from the original 70mm Dolby stereo soundtrack and both Ennio Morricone’s score and the grisly sound phenomenal, though be sure to check your disc for any sync problems— the disc was delayed nearly a month because of sound FX issues, particularly the “blood test” scene involving Kurt Russell putting a hot wire into a vial of blood (if you hear the screech just before the test, you’ve got a bum disc). Special features are voluminous— between the three audio commentaries (including a fun one between John Carpenter and Kurt Russell that dates from the film’s laserdisc release); the new documentaries on Carpenter; the majority of the cast members (including Wilford Brimley, whose cat and dog attack each other while sitting on his lap!); editor Todd Ramsay; members of the visual, makeup and sound FX crew (sadly, Rob Bottin is MIA); the 90-minute “Terror Takes Shape” documentary from the laserdisc and DVD releases; and the network TV broadcast version of The Thing, which includes new scenes and cuts out almost all the transformation sequences, you’re talking hours upon hours of Thing-centric viewing, all of it worth your while.
1956’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers — directed by Don Siegel off a script by Daniel Mainwaring, adapting Jack Finney’s novel “The Body Snatchers” — is classic science-horror that still holds up today. Mining the same essential concept of “Who Goes There?” the book and film detail an alien invasion of the world by creatures (brought as giant seed pods) who are able to duplicate and dispose of their human originals, becoming emotionless automatons in the process. While the concept of 50’s-era assimilation brings to mind McCarthyism from the left and the fears of Communism from the right, the paranoid fear of whom can you trust carries forth into the ‘70’s with Philip Kaufman’s terrific remake, which brings the pods out of small-town Santa Mira, CA and into 1978-era San Francisco.
While Siegel’s film holds up better than the original Thing — with Kevin McCarthy giving it his all in one of his few leading-man roles — it still feels a bit dated and comes off a bit preachy; no matter which way you take the metaphor, it’s still there and in your face, with McCarthy’s Miles Bennell screaming “They’re here already! You’re next!” Kaufman and writer W.D. Richter take a sly cosmopolitan approach to the pod epidemic— landing in a persistently-drizzly San Francisco as amoebas that turn into flowers and then seed pods which grow, the aliens don’t even have to sneak in; the populace is so self-absorbed that they’re practically pod people well before the alien drop in. Donald Sutherland, playing health-inspector Matthew Bennell, has to be convinced of the threat by coworker Elizabeth Driscoll (a terrific Brooke Adams), whose husband Geoffrey has been transformed into a flat, unfeeling automaton. New Agey friends Jack and Nancy Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright) run a bathhouse and only come to terms with what’s happening when they find a body of an almost-transformed Jack, which dies after the real Jack wakes up. Their pop psychologist associate David Kibner — played, in genius casting, by an arch Leonard Nimoy — chalks all this up to mass hysteria. Kaufman, in his only genre outing, takes a sly look at the world, but never allows the satire to swamp the horror element, which is genuine and frightening (I saw this at age nine when it first came out; it was my first genuine horror movie seen in the theater). There’s a sense of deep loss when the characters, one by one, are separated from one another— and ultimately from their humanity. Look for clever cameos by Don Siegel as a cab driver; Kevin McCarthy, still yelling “They’re here!”; and a creepy blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit by Robert Duvall as a priest.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers was remade in 1994 by director Abel Ferrara and producer Robert Solo (who produced the Kaufman version) as Body Snatchers, one of indie stalwart Ferrara’s only studio efforts. Completely starting over with new characters and set up as a companion piece to the Kaufman film — the pod transformations are only slightly different — the story centers around Gabrielle Anwar’s Marti Malone, a teenager stuck on a military base in rural Alabama with her EPA agent father Steve (Terry Kinney), stepmother Carol (Meg Tilly) and kid brother Andy (Reilly Murphy). The Army base, with its emphasis on conformity, is a good place for the aliens to infiltrate and soon we see the local swamps becoming a mass breeding place for the pods. This take on the story is effectively eerie and there are fantastic moments, particularly when one major character becomes a pod person and taunts the others— “Where you gonna go? Where you gonna run? Where you gonna hide? Nowhere… ‘cause there’s no one like you left.” But the film, while not short on ideas (the writing credit block includes genre greats like Larry Cohen, Stuart Gordon, Dennis Paoli and Ferrara’s frequent collaborator Nicholas St. John), feels weirdly incomplete and the emphasis on teen Marti — particularly the subplot involving bland love interest Billy Wirth (as a solider on the base) — tightens the focus so much on her family and the immediate effects the pods have on people that we don’t get much sense of the bigger picture until the clunky action-packed third act (which showcases an FX blunder involving a character thrown out of a helicopter that, if you catch it, will completely pull you out of the film). The less said about the 2007 Nicole Kidman-Daniel Craig movie The Invasion, which substitutes the pods for an alien virus, the better; directed by Oliver (Downfall) Hirschbiegel — with massive reshoots by the Wachowski siblings and James McTiegue — the film is a series of interesting ideas undercut by generic action elements that it feels like the cinematic version of a pod person.
The Philip Kaufman Invasion Of The Body Snatchers has been recently re-released on Blu-Ray in a strong special edition showcasing a new 2K scan from the interpositive and effective DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 mixes. The extras are a bit of new and old, with all of the interviews and material from the previous MGM Blu-Ray carried over (including an audio commentary with Kaufman), but also new interviews with Brooke Adams, Art Hindle, W.D. Richter (who had to frantically rewrite the script on the fly when it changed from a small-town-setting to San Francisco), composer Denny Zeitlin, Perhaps the best addition is an 1955 episode of TV’s “Science Fiction Theatre,” based on a Jack Finney story, which shares many of the same themes as “The Body Snatchers.” New to Blu-Ray is Warner Archive’s release of Body Snatchers, which showcases the deep oranges, blues and blacks of DP Bojan Bazelli’s cinematography in a strong HD image and features a 5.1 DTS-MA soundtrack remix from the original Dolby Surround tracks. Special features are limited to a theatrical trailer.
You can purchase Body Snatchers from Amazon.