A horror thriller that makes you paranoid just by watching it, Invasion of the Body Snatchers turns a normal, busy metropolis into the center of a grotesque alien invasion. Extraterrestrial spores infect the city of San Francisco with plant-like pods, and more and more people start acting strangely—they look and sound the same, but there is something inhuman about them.
“My wife. She wrong, different. That not my wife!” says a local dry cleaner about his spouse, who lurks in a nearby shadow. You may ask, ‘Is he crazy?’ But things are definitely wrong in this city: loved ones seem distant and disconnected, garbage trucks work day and night to cart away loads of dried-out remains and strange, flowering pods keep showing up everywhere.
A man makes out with his girlfriend while watching the game—turning away mid-kiss to cheer for his team. He’s a jerk, but a human one. Later, he sets an alien pod next to his sleeping girlfriend and calmly watches it suck the life out her as if she were a piece of meat, he is transformed. He leaves to watch television—which is tuned not to a game, but to a live feed of a bunch of pressure gauges! In a city filled with millions of people, it turns out you are utterly alone.
Director Philip Kaufman made sure every shot in the film had something disturbing about it: a weird camera angle, a menacing glance from a stranger or a long, dark shadow straight out of film noir. This was all intentionally designed to be “unsettling,” says cinematographer Michael Chapman, “we did whatever we could to be outrageous.”
Rich with details, thrills and creepy special effects, it is surprising that this film had a very small $3.2 million budget: they made every dollar count. It was shot entirely on location in San Francisco and for many of the busy street scenes they hid the camera in a blanket and secretly filmed actor Donald Sutherland out in public. Even the surreal opening, which shows the aliens’ home planet, was created on a 4×8 foot sheet of plywood, and the strange extraterrestrial spores were made from an inexpensive jar of material from an art supply store.
The masterful Ben Burtt, of Star Wars and WALL·E fame, created disturbing effects that used the sounds of pig squeals, the slowed down sounds of babies and even an ultrasound of his own pregnant wife’s fetal heartbeat to create the horrific noises of replicating pods and terrifying alien screeches.
The noted jazz musician Denny Zeitlin created a remarkably atmospheric, almost experimental soundtrack. He was offered many scoring jobs once this film was released, but after ten weeks of exhausting round-the-clock work on Invasion, he vowed never to do another soundtrack—and he never has. Also, famed Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, a friend of one of the sound crew, performed the music for the banjo player who appears briefly in the film.
In a nod to the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, both actor Kevin McCarthy and director Don Siegel—from the 1956 film—appear in bit parts. Siegel plays a taxi driver, but he was too vain to wear his thick glasses on camera. Since this was a low budget film, he was actually driving the cab—with his terrible vision—through the city streets. The cameraman said he thought the actors in the back seat looked really scared—and he was right, they were petrified they were going to get into a wreck!
Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a critical and box office success, ranking number one on its opening weekend and earning $25 million overall. Variety praised the film for “validat[ing] the entire concept of remakes.” It won the prestigious Saturn award and was also nominated for Hugo and Writers’ Guild Awards. It remains one of the best remakes of all time, and noted film critic Pauline Kael gushed, “it may be the best film of its kind ever made.”