Timeless terror: 'Body Snatchers' stands up to a third interpretation

February 25, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Like "A Christmas Carol" or "Romeo and Juliet," "Body Snatchers" almost defies ruination, even by the most enthusiastic of hacks.

Jack Finney's original novella is so exactingly structured both as story telling and morphic resonance that it has now become a movie for the third time. First, it was a '50s meditation on the numbing horrors of conformism, as directed by the gifted, underrated Don Siegel; it had an echo of political meaning to it, a possible metaphoric connection to McCarthyism. In the '70s, Phil Kaufmann did almost a reactionary version, in which Donald Sutherland fought against a pod culture that was linked to New Age philosophy. Or something. Anyway, it was notable for baroque excess and self-indulgence, but still a prime guilty pleasure.

Now comes Abel Ferrara, the exegete of urban malaise ("King of New York," "The Bad Lieutenant"). Ferrara's take is somewhat unexpected. He seems to be going after a Generation X subtext, in which the baby boomers are utterly worthless and the only heroic presences are the very young -- teen-aged or twentysomething. But he doesn't push it.

His own work tends toward profligacy and flamboyance at the expense of clarity and taste -- he's one of the last great self-styled "outlaw" directors. Working under studio discipline, though, he creates a film that is genuinely surprising in its restraint. Like, say, Val Lewton's great "Cat People," it's a movie that depends a lot more on shadowy evocations of menace than on mind-numbing gore and special effects. At the same time, Ferrara goes after exactly what's so scary about the concept.

That is the sense of "otherness." Stripped, it's a terrible tale, almost straight out of Kafka. Suppose you woke one morning and discovered not that you had been turned into a cockroach but that everyone else in the world had been turned into a zombie. Everywhere you looked: vapid, smiling faces, all passion spent, all fear banished, and at the same time you felt the exertion of their terrible, dull wills: they want you to be exactly like them.

This horror is a strict extrapolation from the hormonal paranoia of adolescence, when the whole world seems to grow apart from you and at times you wonder if your parents, so recently your protectors and nurturers, have been occupied by creatures from space, so censorious and distant have they become. Ferrara, working from a script by Stuart Gordon, Dennis Paoli and Nicholas St. John, faces this reality squarely by telling the story from the point of view of a teenage girl, just growing into womanhood and locked in the painful drama of separation.

Gabrielle Anwar plays Marti Malone, moving easily through the story's new wrinkles. Instead of a small town in California or San Francisco, the action has been moved to a fort in the South where a young widowed EPA scientist (Terry Kinney) has been sent to examine stored toxins for chemical warfare. Along with him, he brings his new young wife (Meg Tilly) and daughter and son (Anwar and Reilly Murphy, an excellent child actor.)

At first, the movie plays deviously with the sense of exile civilians feel when exposed to military culture: Are those guys robots or just soldiers? And it is at its best in the early going when Marti (and Ferrara) are just beginning to track the anomalies: A crazed soldier hiding in the bathroom warns her of "them"; a psychiatrist despairs of the incredibly high numbers of sleep disorders on the post; the neighbors' trash -- up and down the military suburb where the family is housed -- consists of a single, uniform small bag.

The operative word is queasy; the quiet, almost indefinable sense of unease. Something is just not right. Ferrara uses a number of strokes to convey this impression without pounding you over the head: He loves anonymous silhouettes of stern, faceless men staring down at the family members; another motif the sound of flies buzzing, perhaps the most disquieting noise on earth.

Alas, there comes a time when the mechanism must be exposed, and sadly, "Body Snatchers" falters. Ferrara's central illusion is visually threadbare: some kind of swamp-nurtured seedpod that extends spaghetti-like tendrils into its sleeping victims as it extracts their essence to create instant happy-face replications. All too frequently, it looks as if the victims have fallen into a vat in a kitchen somewhere in Little Italy.

Another flaw: movie logic, movie logic, too much movie logic. Would a man fleeing in terror with his children abandon them suddenly under hostile circumstances to check it out ahead? Only if it advanced a plot point. But even as the movie stumbles, Ferrara conjures truly hellish moments now and then that get under your skin in powerful ways. The best is when Meg Tilly, whose alabaster face comes to have a truly Medusa-like fascination, unleashes a scream of betrayal that is chilling. Ferrara may goof up, but the story still grips.

"Body Snatchers"

Starring Gabrielle Anwar and Meg Tilly

Directed by Abel Ferrara

Released by Warner Bros

R-rated

** 1/2

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