Film Review: 'Body Snatchers' (1993): Underrated Version of a Classic Yarn

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Abel Ferrara's film Body Snatchers adds a few twists to the familiar sci-fic classic yarn about alien replicants replacing humans.

Body Snatchers (1993), directed by Abel Ferrara; based on the Jack Finney novel. Starring Terry Kinney, Meg Tilly, Gabrielle Anwar, Forest Whitaker, and R. Lee Ermey.

Body Snatchers is the third iteration of the classic Jack Finney sci-fi novel, The Body Snatchers. The first two versions, released in 1956 and 1978 respectively, are legendary in film circles; the fourth version from 2007, starring Nicole Kidman, was a huge flop. This version, directed by Abel Ferrra of Bad Lieutenant fame, is the least well-known. In fact, I was unaware of this film until quite recently.

Unlike the 2007 version, it’s definitely worth a watch. Terry Kinney and Meg Tilly play Steve and Carol Malone, a married couple who test hazmat sites for the EPA. As the film opens, they and their two children, Marti and Andy, are moving into temporary quarters at a US Army base in deepest Alabama. There’s a mass die-off of fish and other aquatic life at a river near the base, and Steve suspects contamination from chemical or biological weapons stored at the base. R. Lee Ermey (“Gunny” from Full Metal Jacket) plays the General in charge of the base -- in another one of his usual roles as a tough-ass military commander. He tells Steve to get his testing done and then leave ASAP in no uncertain terms.

This is a film that’s drenched in dark, foreboding vibes from the very beginning. Since it’s only 85 minutes long, Ferrara doesn’t have much choice but to introduce terror and tension from the get-go. The first indication that things are not well is when Steve’s teen daughter Marti (the gorgeous Gabrielle Anwar), tries to use a public toilet on the base as the family arrives to their temporary home. She’s accosted in the toilet by a paranoid-seeming soldier, who grabs her and starts babbling about people not being the same after they go to sleep. When she runs for help, the soldier disappears.

As the family settles in, Marti is befriended by Jen, the General’s same-age daughter — and she’s your standard blonde, spoiled rich girl who is determined to get Marti in trouble. She introduces Marti to handsome Tim, a young chopper pilot at the base (played by Billy Wirth, aka “Dwayne” from The Lost Boys.)

Meanwhile, five-year-old Andy goes off to daycare where he’s the only kid who finger-paints a picture that’s different from the identical ones painted by the other kids. (Brilliant scene, BTW.) Like most small kids in horror/sci-fi movies, Andy picks up on what’s going on a lot faster than his parents.

There are other signs of weirdness. Forest Whitaker plays an anxiety-ridden military doctor who interviews Steve about the possibility that the river toxins he’s testing are causing paranoid delusions in the doctor’s patients. Rich girl Jen notices that her alcoholic mother no longer drinks vodka. At the super-secure chemical weapons storage enclosure, Steve observes an accident that injures a soldier in a hazmat suit, exposing a burned leg that seems to be made of plant matter. He surreptitiously takes a sample from the torn suit and sends it off to a lab to have the residue on the suit analyzed.

Carol is the first to change. The real Carol turns into a pile of ash while Andy inadvertently watches. The new Carol then emerges naked from a closet and tells Andy to forget what he saw. (For fans of the sexy Tilly, this scene depicts full frontal nudity with au naturelle privates.) Andy doesn’t buy it and declares that his mother is dead, which of course no one believes at first.

After Carol “turns,” action picks up even faster. Most people at the base seem to have turned as well, including the General. Robot-like soldiers wade into the river and retrieve hundreds of the large, hairy seed pods that the alien replicants grow in.

Steve decides to leave the base with Marti and Andy, after Carol tells him there’s no place to go, as the whole country is being taken over. The escape attempt doesn’t go as planned, but then handsome Tim joins the escape and offers to chopter the remaining Malones out of the base.

The last 15 minutes or so are expertly suspenseful and twisty. The ending isn’t a surprise, but the actions leading to it are very much worth the watch.

The main criticism I have of this film is that it’s too short. At a mere 85 minutes, it doesn’t take advantage of the excellent cast. With actors of the caliber of Kinney, Tilly, Ermey and Whitaker, I wish there’d been time for more character development and more creepy build-up. I also wish that Ferrara had taken better advantage of the naturally scary atmosphere of a Deep South location; I wanted alligators, big snakes, ghostly trees, and crazy-looking moonshiners. Alas, there are none.

Despite these quibbles, I feel this film is grossly underrated at only a 5.9 audience score from IMdB. It’s at least a 6.5 in my book.

Body Snatchers is currently streaming for pay on Amazon but is otherwise hard to find. There is also an excellent copy on YouTube as of this writing (see link above). Watch it before it gets taken down!

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