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Creepy Sci-Fi Recommendations

October 30, 2014

There are partial spoilers ahead for two classic films. If you are sensitive to spoilers, go watch the movie first and then come back. One can be found on Netlfix, but you’re probably on your own for the other.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Waves of movie remakes are not a new thing for Hollywood. Take a look at the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Philip Kaufman. An updated take on Don Seigel’s 1956 original, Body Snatchers ’78 is more than a simple retread. It’s one of the more effective chillers of its era.

Body Snatchers is a movie of its time, just the way Seigel’s was back in the fifties. The “otherness” that provided the horror of the original was steeped in McCarthyism and The Red Scare. The fear of communism and being singled out from the nameless, faceless masses was a very real fear then, especially in Hollywood, but holds up pretty well today and is a favorite here at OPB.

I just had my first experience with Kaufman’s take on the material, courtesy of Netflix.  For those who haven’t seen any version of this film (’56, ’78, or the lesser ’07 version with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig), the original introduced us all to the concept of “pod people.” The political context changes with each iteration of the film, but the story remains the same. People around town become distant, emotionless shells of their normal selves. As the affliction spreads, our hero, in this case Matthew (Donald Sutherland), discovers alien pods are copying and replacing individuals while they sleep.  As the net of pod people closes in on Matthew and his small circle of friends, they must try to stop the invasion or find a way out of town. The rest of the survivor group is played by Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright.

Kaufman successfully mines horror from the mundane. The leering expressions of folks on a passing bus. A glance or bit of eye contact lingering just a touch longer than it should. There’s a particularly great sequence in which the camera tracks with the protagonist’s feet, walking among the many other pedestrians of San Francisco. The hero’s feet pass a group heading in the opposite direction. After the paths cross, the group of feet stop, turn and begin following the protagonist. It’s very creepy, fueling the building paranoia and terror.

Another quick scene at a laundromat, features a couple at odds. The husband is trying to explain in vain to Matthew that his wife has been behaving strangely and is somehow not really his wife. This couple is revisited later in the film, but this time, the husband and wife are in harmony again. Given my familiarity with the material, it seemed like a routine setup that paid off predictably. But this is one of the parts of the movie that has stuck with me, because people do fight and make up with their significant others in real life. When you view a scenario like this in the context of Body Snatchers’ escalating paranoia, it casts an otherwise common situation in an entirely new light. It forces you to read more into it than you normally would. That sounds like a pretty reasonable definition of paranoia.

This time around, McCarthyism has been replaced by a general mistrust of the government. The suspicious glances suggest a hive-mind connection among San Francisco’s pod population. Leonard Nimoy plays Dr. Kibner, a celebrity psychiatrist and author who tags along with the main group of survivors. Little do they know, Kibner has been a pod person the whole time. When the reveal happens, there is an intense feeling of infiltration and violation. Only a few years removed from 1972’s Watergate scandal, surveillance was a rather hot topic at this time. This was the subject of other films of this era as well. The most notable is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), in which Gene Hackman plays a surveillance expert with a crumbling sense of personal privacy (in San Fran, no less).

Kibner being revealed as in infiltrator in the midst of those struggling to survive presages another movie moment still to come in 1979. Kidner’s character arc is eerily similar to Ash’s in Alien (directed by Ridley Scott, and also featuring Veronica Cartwright). Ash (Ian Holm) was a company robot disguised as a very-human science officer on the space freighter in the film. It turns out that the company planted Ash on the ship purposefully, to force the crew into contact with the titular space beast. Though Alien enjoys a higher profile, Kibner, and Body Snatchers, came first. Both instances suggest that the “powers that be” have nefarious plans for the everyday citizens who have no one else to trust. With Body Snatchers, the conspiracy goes straight to the top. And by “top,” that means Outer Space.

The Fly (1986)

David Cronenberg’s The Fly just so happens to be another great remake. The 1958 film of the same name that spawned it, featured horror movie icon Vincent Price whose many credits include such hits as House of Wax (1953), House on Haunted Hill (1959) and the monologue from Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video. It is still a well-regarded film, even though Cronenberg’s movie, his first masterpiece, has become more-or-less the definitive take on The Fly.

The Fly is the tale of quirky scientist Seth Brundle (played by quirky actor Jeff Goldblum) and his attempts to harness teleportation. He catches the attention of Ronnie (Geena Davis), a science journalist, eager to tell his story and they develop a romantic relationship. Brundle, after a few minor successes with his invention, gets impatient and decides to he’s ready to go where no man has gone before. Unfortunately, a housefly sneaks into the telepod with him and when they are successfully teleported across the room, the computer gets confused and splices them together at the genetic level. Initially appearing to be unharmed, Brundle is ecstatic about the success, until his body begins to deteriorate as he transforms into a horrific man-fly hybrid.

The Fly boasts incredibly gross and convincing special effects. Brundle’s skin begins to mutate, body parts fall off and his body processes begin to mimic that of the housefly (the scenes in which he tries eating are memorably disgusting). It’s a perfect, gruesome, stomach-churning spectacle. And yet the humanity of the characters is never lost. It really is a testament to Goldblum that he could deliver a touching performance with what must have been very heavy prosthetics. Geena Davis does great work here, delivering a performance that elevates the material. The film even manages to find the humanity in Stathis Borans (John Getz), who plays third fiddle as Ronnie’s smarmy editor and ex-boyfriend. It seems possible that, in a lesser film, characters like the ones played by Davis and Getz, both of whom are unlikable at times, would not be treated so well. There aren’t many characters in The Fly but the movie makes the most of this trio.

The Fly features a compelling script initially written by Charles Edward Pogue before being extensively rewritten by Cronenberg. It always gives the actors just enough to work with but manages to never get bogged down in overly-technical dialogue, which, given the teleportation and gene-splicing elements, could have been an issue. The ‘Berg doesn’t tend to feature likable leads, and while the characters of The Fly have unlikable traits, they are played by hugely likable actors in Goldblum and Davis. By the end of the film, Ronnie is ostensibly the hero, even though one of her first actions is to get caught surreptitiously recording Brundle. Brundle is funny and very likable from the start, until he literally turns into a monster. The strong character work showed at the box office. Fly would remain Cronenberg’s biggest box office hit with nearly $61 million for about twenty years until it was narrowly surpassed by A History of Violence.

Critics widely interpreted this film as an AIDS allegory. The comparison is logical, but Cronenberg himself was surprised by the connection and offered that, for him, it was a little more universally relatable. It could certainly be about disease and terminal conditions, but the director has commented that the film reflects his own need to deal with the aging process and death itself.

The Fly represents an interesting point in the Canadian Cronenberg’s unique career. He had established himself as a horror and science-fiction auteur in his early years when was still mostly unknown in the U.S. Then his breakout, Scanners (1981) arrived, simultaneously making him popular in the states and a sought-after director in Hollywood. The Fly is peak-Hollywood Cronenberg, and the transition in his work is plainly evident in third film post-Scanners. 

This second phase of Cronenberg’s career has become synonymous with the phrase “body horror.” Scanners, Videodrome (1983), The Fly, and eXistenZ (1999) are all key examples of this gory subgenre, which feature scenes of grotesque bodily decay or mutation. Not for the faint of heart, but essential cinema nonetheless.

I can’t recommend either of these films highly enough and both make for spooky Halloween viewing.

What are your favorite movies to watch this time of year? Seriously, who doesn’t like getting recommendations?

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