Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is interested in the changing nature of personal relationships in the wake of the sexual revolution

Which big screen version of Jack Finney’s classic novel ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ is your favorite – the original 1956 black and white adaptation, 1978’s full color remake, or Abel Ferrara’s 1993 iteration? You’re probably expecting me to say that the first-out-of-the-gate Don Siegel-helmed feature is the best, and I won’t lie – it’s definitely close to the top of my list of fave sci-fi films.

Ever eager to confound expectations, however, I must admit to enjoying all three – and I have a special fondness for the San Francisco-set ’78 version, screening outdoors on the Crescent Lawn at Oxford Street (between Center and Addison) at 7:30 pm on Friday, Sept. 27 as part the Endless Summer Cinema program that being hosted by Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive and the Downtown Berkeley Association. Admission is free.

Directed by Philip Kaufman (The Wanderers, The Right Stuff) and written by W. D. Richter (Brubaker), 1978’s Body Snatchers naturally reflects the times in which it was made. Whereas Siegel’s original (adapted for the screen by Oakland-born Daniel Mainwaring!) focused on timely ‘50s issues such as small-town social conformity and Red Scare paranoia (or, one might argue, clear-eyed realism), Kaufman’s is more interested in the changing nature of personal relationships in the wake of the sexual revolution.

Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams star as city health workers Matthew Bennell and Elizabeth Driscoll. He’s a restaurant inspector adept at discerning the difference between a caper and a rat turd; she’s a lab worker capable of analyzing the contents of said turd. The two are close friends, but not an item – Elizabeth’s involved with Geoffrey Howell (Art Hindle), a dentist and Warriors enthusiast, while Matthew lives alone.

A rainy day walk in the park draws Elizabeth’s attention to an unusual pink-petaled flower and – her scientific curiosity aroused – she picks the posy and brings it home for closer examination. A dip into the encyclopedia suggests it’s a grex, a unique species resulting from the cross-pollination of two other species. Whether based on genuine science or the more questionable movie variety, her diagnosis (“many of the species are dangerous weeds and should be avoided”) proves prophetic: the bud quickly sets down roots and sprouts an exact, but soulless, replica of Geoffrey.

Initially, neither Matthew nor pop psychologist chum David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy) gives any credence to Elizabeth’s fervent belief that her partner’s personality has changed for the worse overnight. It’s all a “hallucinatory flu”, Kibner suggests, an ailment of modern society where “people are stepping in and out of relationships too fast because they don’t want responsibility”. Matthew comes around, however, when presented with evidence of his own: the folks down at the dry cleaners have changed, too. Can he and Elizabeth alert the authorities before it’s too late – or will the hellish weed win total control of The City?

Shot through a variety of distorted lenses and taking full advantage of San Francisco’s hilly, off-kilter streetscapes, Invasion of the Body Snatchers features a clangorous and suitably discomfiting Denny Zeitlin score and unsettling Russ Hessey and Del Rheaumes’ special effects. As moist and gruesome as they are (watch out for the dog towards film’s end), however, they aren’t a big distraction from what is otherwise a terrific character-driven chiller. It’s the perfect film for a late summer’s evening – but please, don’t take a nap on the lawn. PFA will take no responsibility for doppelgangers.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more Big Screen Berkeley reviews here.

Postpone the start of fall with Endless Summer Cinema (09.23.13)

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...