It's interesting how many of the movies people tend to name-check when citing great horror remakes (even better than their originals in some cases) are actually adaptations. John Carpenter's The Thing is probably the most famous/respected, a "remake" of Christian Nyby's The Thing From Another World but really just a more faithful adaptation of the story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell Jr. The Fly also has its roots in literature; the 1958 film (remade by David Cronenberg in 1986) was credited to a short story by author George Langelaan, and The Ring was famously based on a Japanese film (spawning an endless wave of Asian remakes, none of which lived up to Ring's acclaim or popularity), which in turn was based on a novel by Kôji Suzuki. There are exceptions, of course (Dawn of the Dead certainly comes to mind), but as I've said in a previous column, I think having a meatier source to draw from results in better remakes than when all they have is a 90 minute movie that was probably good to begin with.
But even before those above examples came along, there was a precedent set by Philip Kaufman with 1978's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, an update of the 1956 film by Don Siegel - and both based on a published story, in this case The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney (originally published as a serial; since collected as a relatively brief novel). Finney's work isn't exactly the best sci-fi novel ever written, with inconsistent character actions and cliched plot points overshadowing his intriguing (if not entirely original - Robert A. Heinlein's Puppet Masters tackled similar territory in 1951, and 1953's feature film It Came From Outer Space was an even closer cousin) concept of aliens taking over human bodies for their own mysterious purposes. By pretty much anyone's count, Siegel's film improved on the novel, casting Kevin McCarthy as the only man who has seemingly caught on to the fact that everyone is being replaced by "pod people". In an era where much of the horror and sci-fi films involved creatures or traditional space aliens, it stood out with its creepier "human" antagonists.
One thing it still had in common with a lot of its '50s brethren was how it could be seen as a metaphor for various real world issues. The advent of nuclear/atomic weapons during World War II yielded no shortage of ideas for the genre; nearly every monster movie that came along after the war had some sort of connection to this technology, and it's nearly impossible to find one without a military man suggesting one of our foreign enemies as the cause of whatever is going on before realizing it's just a giant insect or whatever. Body Snatchers joined their party, but in a more subtle way than something that might feature John Agar and/or a guy in a rubber suit (zipper visibility may vary). It drew parallels to the ongoing Communist witch hunt spearheaded by Joseph McCarthy, as well as the general fear of Soviet-style conformity that ran rampant throughout the decade, but without digging deep into specifics, allowing the film to entertain without getting heavy handed. In fact, many of the film's principals (including screenwriter Dan Mainwaring) denied any intentional political or social allegory at all, though Siegel allowed that the "political reference to Senator McCarthy and totalitarianism was inescapable" (even if it was coincidence, casting a guy named McCarthy probably helped make that connection). However, he downplayed it, feeling that "motion pictures are primarily to entertain and I did not want to preach," making it easy to just ignore any sort of political connection and enjoy the movie for what it is: a B-movie plot given A-list treatment that can work just as well on an uneducated young genre fan as it can on a history buff.
Kaufman followed suit for his remake, which many (including me) think is an even better film. Compared to the later versions, Kaufman and screenwriter W. D. Richter didn't stray too far from the original movie's character dynamic (with Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams in the lead roles this time, more or less playing McCarthy and Dana Wynter's characters, at least in function), but did set it apart with one major change - they set it in a big city (San Francisco, to be precise) instead of the small town from the source material (which was retained for Siegel's version). According to his interview on the new Shout Factory blu-ray, the script was originally set in another small town, as usual, but Richter and Kaufman - with only a few weeks to go before shooting - suddenly saw potential in the social commentary that a big city setting would allow, with its infected characters not unlike office drones who were just cogs in the wheel (something that's since come full circle, with the background extras in Office Space and similar movies often being compared to "pod people"). Like the previous version, this allows the film to have a relatively timeless appeal, as there will likely never be a time where office workers aren't trapped in a mindless routine.
Unlike the other filmed versions of the story, 1978's installment has another ace up its sleeve: it's fairly funny at times. Not a full blown comedy, but there are a number of crowd-pleasing chuckle moments ("Rat turd." "Caper!") and an enjoyable camaraderie between the characters that is absent from the others. Jeff Goldblum has a major role, and despite it being relatively early in his career he's already got his scene-stealing skills down to a science, particularly in the book party scene where he rants about Leonard Nimoy's character (leading to another great bit where Nimoy sics him on a potential love interest just to get away from him). Even the cameos are designed to make you smile; McCarthy pops up, seemingly as his original character (is it a sequel or remake?) warning off our new heroes before meeting his demise, and later Sutherland and Adams catch a cab driven by none other than Siegel himself. The 1956 film had humor in its original form, but its producers - despite the funny parts working as intended on a preview audience - demanded they all be cut, and any humor to be found in the 1994 and 2007 versions is minimal at best, unintentional at worst. The original's money men also forced their version to include the optimistic bookend scenes, whereas Kaufman and Richter kept things downbeat (with one of the great scare moments in horror history), something audiences might not have expected given the more lighthearted approach in earlier scenes.
But as with the first version, Richter claims that there was no intentional political subtext in his script, saying the only deeper meaning was that you had to follow your own path, not join the herd, preserve your human spirit... all that good stuff. But one can't help but see similarities to other (non sci-fi) paranoia thrillers like The Conversation and Three Days of the Condor, with a "Who can you trust?" thread running through the film and some minor post-Watergate/Vietnam disillusionment creeping through for good measure. Like its predecessor, you don't need to brush up on your history before sitting down to watch the film, but there's certainly more to chew on than say, the same year's fellow San Francisco-set The Manitou. All you need to do is see the first movie (or read the book) to know that they were trying to say SOMETHING, because they created the Nimoy character, a psychiatrist named David Kibner. As a shrink, people are coming to him with their concerns that their boyfriends, wives, friends, etc. are "not them" anymore, and he brushes off their fears, chalking it up to the human brain finding a defense mechanism for something they don't want to deal with. Some of his beliefs are a bit unfortunately dated (Donald Sutherland's hero suggests Kibner can help if someone had recently chosen to be gay - oof), but I believe the character informed one of the best (only good?) things about the 2007 remake The Invasion, and it's almost a shame that they didn't use Nimoy more in the narrative here. You almost get the impression that they didn't even need to take over his body for him to join their cause - when he IS taken over later and explains the benefits to being a pod person, it's not really much different than the stuff he was saying when he was human.
The Invasion (I'll circle back to 1993's Body Snatchers) ran with the idea of self-medicating, making Nicole Kidman's hero character a psychiatrist and transforming the Belicec character (the writer played by Jeff Goldblum in the 1978 version) into another doctor who converses with Kidman about the Zolofts and Paxils of the world, mostly over a dinner scene that is probably the best in the finished film. As fans know, the film was heavily reworked by the Wachowskis and James McTeigue, overhauling original director Oliver Hirschbiegel's more cerebral version, offering stunts and explosions in the place of ideas, making it the weakest of the four official adaptations of Finney's novel. But when those little nuggets of its original form shine through, you can tell it would have been a pretty great, or at least interesting, take on the material. Dropping the usual foreign/military fears in favor of something a little more personal (i.e. people self-medicating to the point of becoming zombies) was a terrific and timely variation on the theme, as was the cynical conclusion, gussied up as a "happy ending" (a cure is discovered and people return to normal) but it's really more of a grey area - now that the aliens and their calming, emotion-free nature have been excised from ordinary people, violence and war has resumed in the briefly peaceful world. In a time when mass shootings are so common it's hard to keep them straight (or even mourn them for long enough before another occurs), there's something almost appealing about a world that would be free from that sort of thing - even if you had to sacrifice your independent thought and emotions.
Which brings us back to the 1993 version, which was dumped onto a few dozen screens in 1994 and hasn't been given much reappraisal since, despite a solid cast (Forest Whitaker, R. Lee Ermey, Meg Tilly), cult-fave director (Abel Ferrara), and intriguing screenplay credits (Stuart Gordon AND Larry Cohen?). It's even hard to find much production info about it, and I have even less of a clue why Warner Bros. tossed it aside - if more people had seen it, it might be championed as one of the few bright spots in the genre for that period of the '90s (it was released in between Ghost in the Machine and Leprechaun 2, for some "current state of horror" context). It wasn't up to the heights of the first two versions (at least, in my opinion; on the other hand, Roger Ebert said it was the best of the three), but it also took the biggest liberties with the original book, setting the movie at an Army base, giving the hero a family (the daughter, played by Gabrielle Anwar, is actually the lead), and boosting the action. As for the obligatory metaphor, this time it wasn't subtle at all - it was a comment on how the military's training and conditioning wiped its men of their personalities. It wasn't the first to run with this idea (Bob Clark offered something similar in Deathdream, 20 years earlier), nor was it the last, but it had the 'official' stamp of "Body Snatchers" at its disposal, so it was held to a higher standard. The younger lead role wasn't a disastrous choice, thankfully, and it continued the tradition of the previous films, in that it was commenting on current events - in this case how military training affected some of its soldiers. The first Iraq war had just ended when the film was in production, and thanks to cable news channels cramming the war down our throats we had more insight into their training and daily lives than we had for Vietnam - it's clear the extensive training they endure to function as a unit (as opposed to a group of individuals) was on at least one of the many screenwriters' minds.
New Body Snatchers films have come along in less and less time: 22 years between the first and second versions, then sixteen, then a mere thirteen (actually twelve by design, though The Invasion was delayed thanks to the reshoots). If the pattern keeps up it would be 2019 at the latest before another one hit theaters, and man oh man is there plenty to draw from. God forbid Trump win the Presidency, but if he did you can be assured it would influence a new, certainly NOT subtle take on the story (hell, even if (OK, let's say WHEN) he loses, the fact that he got this far might be enough to encourage a spec script or two) - certainly his plan to exile Muslim people could be easily adapted into a version where the alien clones send off those who don't conform to their ways (the 2007 film introduced an immunity idea that hasn't been in any previous version that I recall, so perhaps they could apply that). Or for fun, they could even go for full blown satire and set it in the world of comic book movie fans, who are convinced of conspiracies and "if you like Marvel you hate DC" (or vice versa) sentiment that could easily be applied to the novel's generalized "us vs. them" narrative. It seems the story's rights are with Warner, so it'd have to be anti-Marvel - everyone who sees the new MCU movie becomes a zombie, and only the (noble, unbiased and un-paid off) DC fans can save the world!
I'm only half-joking. The beauty of Finney's story (besides the inadvertent 'benefit' of leaving room for improvement) is that it can be reapplied every 15-20 years to whatever's going on in the world, using its basic skeleton of "people are suddenly different" to propel the narrative while speaking your mind along the way. The fact that the 1978 one is generally considered to be the superior version has given producers and studios a free pass when trying to mount yet another Body Snatchers. There might be jokes, of course, but ultimately you can't dismiss a remake of this material the way you can the likes of Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street - there's nothing about those movies that cry out for a modern take on a narrative level. But when it comes to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as long as tradition continues, the next ten versions could have something interesting to say, and I hope the box office failure of the last two doesn't keep them from trying again in the future.