“They’re All Part Of It!”
The year: 1978. The city: San Francisco. The Film: Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The person writing this: Me, Ashton. This is my favorite horror film. And I only watch horror films. It’s skyrocketed to my number one for various reasons, not the least of which is its infamous final shot. It scares the shorts off me every time. Now when viewing, I only wear pants. I’m also only now starting to ask why that scene scares me so much.
The film is a remake of the classic 1956 version directed by Don Siegel, which is itself an adaptation of the terrifying Jack Finney novel, The Body Snatchers, written two years prior. All versions concern the same central premise of a small American town getting surreptitiously invaded by alien pods. The seemingly harmless plants swallow up the townspeople one-by-one and spit out replicas – replicas faithfully human on the outside, but mindless automatons on the inside with the sole mission of furthering their species.
Film historians generally agree on the themes and metaphors of the novel and first film adaptation. Whether the clones represent the dangers of conformism and loss of self under socialist rule or they conversely represent the tyranny of McCarthyism, there’s the general consensus that they’ve definitely got something to do with communism. Finney denies that this was ever his intention.
Born in 1986, I missed out on the fear of communists and of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. To me, Kaufman’s Invasion is about something entirely different, which is exactly why I love his 1970’s remake more than the others. It hits me on a much more personal, visceral level that’s difficult to shake.
SPOILERS AHEAD (but come on, you’ve had 36 years to catch this movie.) The bulk of the film follows protagonist Matthew Bennell played immaculately by Donald Fucking Sutherland. Bennell is our loyal, intelligent, and incredibly charming hero - we feel safe with him. We spend the majority of the film watching him struggle to evade the alien invasion, losing many friends along the way. In the closing scene of the movie, Bennell silently walks through his office, past his “coworkers” than out into the streets of infested San Francisco. The world as we know it is gone, yet Bennell has miraculously managed to survive being overtaken by an alien pod…or so we think.
Veronica Cartwright, who’s graced us in other genre heavies such as Alien and The Birds, sees Bennell and runs up to him, relieved to find a fellow survivor. As she cautiously approaches him, the camera pushes in on Donald Sutherland. He slowly raises an arm, points his finger directly at her/the camera/us and emits a guttural, indescribable scroan (it’s like a scream and a groan). Veronica grabs her head and screams, realizing it’s the end. And there go my shorts again.
On the surface, it’s quite obvious why it’s so scary. The scream coupled with Donald’s contorted face, which goes zero to alien in the blink of an eye, is unlike anything we’ve experienced before. And we’re powerless to escape. The camera cuts back and forth between Veronica walking towards us and a steady push-in on Donald. The camera takes us hostage and drags us inexorably towards certain doom. We register that something is amiss and we realize that Donald Sutherland is not Donald Sutherland milliseconds before he points and screams. But by that point, it’s too late. The camera and its momentum are too powerful for us to disengage and there’s nothing we can do but scream along with Veronica. It’s a terrible feeling of helplessness as we realize that the one anchor in the entire film has failed us, and if Donny Boy can’t survive, there’s not much hope for the rest of us.
Which leads me to the deeper implications of this horrifying final scene. Like all good horror films, it reaches us all on a personal level. Every person, regardless of age and memory retention does have the clear recollection of being left somewhere as a child. Whether it was a supermarket or a playground, we remember suddenly looking up and finding that our parent is no longer holding our hands and we’re standing amongst a group of strangers. For me, it was the Westfield Public Library - let’s say 1990. And while I’m sure the whole ordeal probably lasted mere minutes, I distinctly remember the palpable feeling of abandonment and crushing isolation.
That’s what that final scene summons in me. Matthew Bennell is not a communist, nor is he fighting against them. He’s a simple human, one whom we love and trust and have no doubt in our minds that he will be with us and protect us through all this horror. While the rest of the world crumbles around us, Bennell holds our hands and assures us that everything is going to work out fine. When we approach him at the end, there’s a great feeling of relief that’s quickly snatched away. Philip Kaufman radically let’s go of our hand and leaves us in a world full of strangers. It’s a profoundly bleak ending and one that’s impossible not to ruminate over.
That’s why I love this film so goddamn much. Yes, it’s got oozy alien clones emerging from plants and thrilling noir-like chase sequences through claustrophobic downtown San Francisco. But it’s so much more than that. Watch it and see what I mean.
P.S. The hairstylist’s name is Edie Panda.
Ashton Golembo lives in Los Angeles and works as a television Field Producer and Production Coordinator. He's a genre cinephile and avid lover of all things horror.