Monday, April 18, 2011

50 years of paranoia-tapping body snatching!

One of science fiction’s most powerful storytelling techniques is the allegory. By placing contemporary issues in a fantastic context, filmmakers can tackle issues such as racism, sexism, any-ism in a metaphorical manner that’s often more entertaining and palatable to an audience than more direct proselytizing (Practically every episode of the original “Star Trek” TV show was an allegory to some ‘60s controversy).

Opening this week, “The Invasion” is the latest film version of a much-dissected sci-fi classic, the story of paranoia that comes when you start to suspect that the people around you aren’t what they appear to be… It’s a tale that’s been terrifying audiences for more than half a century, since author Jack Finney first serialized “The Body Snatchers” in Colliers Magazine in 1954.

The 1950s were in many ways the quintessential American decade, as the nation basked in postwar pride and prosperity. It was the iconic age of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Jackie Robinson. Suburbia bloomed. Everyone liked Ike and loved Lucy. It seemed like the only thing to fear was the ongoing Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union.

Into this era came “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” The 1956 movie stars the ironically-named Kevin McCarthy as Miles Bennell, a California doctor who discovers that people in his town are being replaced by exact duplicates grown from giant pods. The “pod people” are identifiable by their utter lack of emotion, and they turn out to be aliens planning to replace the entire human race. Bennell and his former girlfriend Becky (Dana Wynter) try to convince the authorities of their fantastic tale while battling to avoid being taken themselves, but nobody wants to listen. The film was originally to bleakly conclude with a beaten Bennell standing in the middle of a highway screaming “You’re next!!,” but the studio demanded an epilogue that bode better for our continued existence.

The movie has been interpreted as having three distinct allegorical meanings, two relating directly to the Cold War. Some view it as a cautionary tale on the threat of Communism, showing how the Godless, classless system of government would strip away American individuality. Others see it as a commentary on the hysteria ABOUT Communism fostered mainly by witch-hunting Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. And others like to think that the film is an indictment of the American tendency towards blind, unquestioning conformity. Amazingly, to this date, if the filmmakers had a specific agenda, they still aren’t telling, leaving it open to the different interpretations.

22 years later, it was time for another visit from the pods. Philip Kaufman directed the 1978 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” with Donald Sutherland starring as Matthew Bennell, now a health inspector in San Francisco who discovers the existence of the emotion-free pod peeps. Times had changed since the “Leave it to Beaver” ‘50s, and in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era, the public was far more mistrusting of the government and authority, amping up the paranoia quotient in this version. When Bennell contacts Washington DC for help, the person he reaches knows his name before he gives it, causing him to wonder if the aliens have already infiltrated our government.

The movie also takes a jab at the psychoanalysis boom of the ‘70s (and the “personal transformation” EST movement specifically), with Leonard Nimoy playing a pop psychologist who tries to tell Brooke Adams that her suspicions about her pod-boyfriend are actually a product of her own troubled psyche. In addition, with its big city setting, the movie felt like a commentary on the ironic loss of identity one can feel when immersed in such a concentrated, yet detached mass of humanity. And this time, the studio let the filmmakers have their unhappy ending.

The third visit from the pod people, 1993’s “Body Snatchers” transposes the story to a military base where Marti Malone (Gabrielle Anwar), the teenage daughter of an EPA agent discovers that soldiers are being replaced with the soulless automatons. What follows is less of an allegorical thriller than a more standard blood-n-guts horror film. In addition, this version (directed by Abel Ferrara) loses some of its power by placing the film in a context to which the average filmgoer can’t relate. Besides, isn’t stiff, unquestioning conformity the norm for the military? Or is that the point?

Still, if only out of habit, some sought hidden meaning. The interpretations this time ran the gamut from a condemnation of President George Bush’s (the elder) post-Cold War New World Order to an allegory about fear of AIDS (as critic Roger Ebert famously interpreted).

The powerful concept of the Body Snatchers has seeped into our public consciousness. Other movies such as “The Stepford Wives” (1975 and 2004), “The Hidden” (1987) and “the Faculty” (1998) are based upon the idea of mindless doppelgangers and “pod people” has entered the lexicon as a euphemism for those who refuse to think for themselves.

So what will modern audiences see beneath the surface of “The Invasion?” Will the fact that the film (originally completed in early 2006) had a screenplay tweak by the Wachowski brothers and new scenes shot by director James McTeigue add to the mystery? And will old fans miss the excised pods? All we know for sure is that you are advised to make sure you don’t fall asleep in the theater… They’re here! You’re NEXT!

The thin line between BOO! and OOH! or, Ten Sexiest Monster Movies

The advertising for the new werewolf flick, “SkinWalkers” is playing up a common, yet often sublimated aspect of monster movies: Sexuality. There’s a distinct correlation between the primal, feral nature of mutated beasts and what happens to humans when we truly give ourselves over to our baser instincts. Over the years, a number of creature features have exploited this similarity to great effect, as our list of the ten sexiest monster movies shows…

10) Attack of the 50-foot Woman (1958)
Of all the giant atomic mutants of the 1950s, none had the appeal of Nancy Archer. Allison Hayes plays a wealthy boozehound whose irradiated encounter with a spaceship causes her to grow to fifty feet tall! Rather than wreaking havoc on her entire town (as 1957’s Amazing Colossal Man did), Nancy uses her new stature to get revenge on her cheating hubby and his money-grubbin’ mistress (Yvette Vickers)!! Despite laughably bad effects, the image of the voluptuous sheet-wrapped giantess indelibly embedded itself into the psyche of many moviegoers of the 1950s (a 1993 remake starring Daryl Hannah was less memorable).

9) Wolf (1994)
Few actors personify salaciousness better than Jack Nicholson, and in Mike Nichols’ “Wolf,” we get the full Jack, so to speak. Jack plays Will Randall, a middle aged editor replaced by his smug protégée (James Spader), who also happens to be having an affair with Will’s wife! However, a surreptitious bite from a wolf endows Will with renewed vigor and a, uh, animalistic need to protect his territory. He also gets to have sex with Michelle Pfeiffer. Clips of Nicholson reveling in his newfound heightened vitality are so convincing they should be used to market Viagra.

8) Species (1995)
Opponents of stem cell research could use this sci-fi thriller about the product of spliced alien-human DNA as speculative propaganda. Natasha Henstridge plays Sil, a female hybrid who ages to full adulthood in a matter of weeks. Armed with a supermodel’s body, alien superpowers of regeneration and mutation, a childlike innocence and a built-in need to mate and procreate, Sil’s a date to die for. Especially if she wants to French kiss. Enter this B-movie Alien-Girl-Gone-Wild with low expectations and you’ll get some cheesy thrills.

7) The She-Creature (1956)
Evil Dr. Carlo Lombardi hypnotizes his female assistant Andrea into calling forth her prehistoric reptilian alter ego from the sea to do his bidding, killing people whose death he’s predicted! But when Andrea begins to fall in love with the detective investigating the doings of the dirty doctor, the She-Creature finds a conscience and refuses to follow orders! A truly ludicrous 50s horror flick, it’s elevated by the presence of pin-up Marla English as Andrea and a killer monster design for the titular (pun) creature, perhaps the only movie monster of the 50s in need of a bra!

6) La Belle et la bete (Beauty and the Beast) (1946)
Okay, referring to the traditional French fairy tale as a “monster movie” is kinda like calling “Transformers” and industrial film; It’s a stretch. But director Jean Cocteau’s sensually surrealist 1946 version of the woman-comes-to-love-monster tale is laced with more sexual metaphors than a Georgia O’Keefe painting. Jean Marais plays the charming Beast to Josette Day’s Belle in a movie better suited for the parents of the kiddie fans of the Disney version.

5) King Kong (all of ‘em)
One of the things that the original 1933 “King Kong,” the oft-reviled 1976 remake and Peter Jackson’s 2005 CGI-fest have in common is the monkey-love felt for the comely blonde offered up for sacrifice by the natives of Skull Island. However, while both Kongs ‘33 and ‘76 exhibited some chauvinistic tendencies (attempting to undress their respective ladies, played by Faye Wray and Jessica Lange), Kong ’05 was a more respectful suitor to Naomi Watts, preferring the simple pleasures of ice skating in the park to wet gown contests. Still, we’re pretty sure that all three women were glad that Kong didn’t try to go all the way.

4) The Hunger (1983)
With the exception of 1922’s über-creepy “Nosferatu,” vampires have always been inherently sexy. But the super-stylish Goth bloodsuckers of “the Hunger” are so carnal that bloodlust takes a backseat to the more traditional kind. Catherine Deneuve plays Miriam, a vampire thousands of years old whose lovers, once infected, sadly only retain their youth for another few centuries. David Bowie plays her soon-to-be-aging partner, and when an alluring doctor (Susan Sarandon) fails to cure him, she becomes Miriam’s latest prey. Still, the most monstrous thing about this movie is its terrifyingly ugly ‘80s fashions!

3) Cat People (1942 and 1982)
In 1942’s “Cat People” is a cautionary film-noir about the perils of sublimating sexuality. Simone Simon plays Irena, a Serbian woman who believes that she’s descended from an ancient Egyptian race who transform into panthers when sexually aroused. This makes for a frustrating marriage to her red-blooded American hubby, who inevitably finds release in the arms of another woman, which leads to a literal catfight. In the 1982 remake, Nastassja Kinski plays Irena, this time being pursued by her cat-brother (the always-creepy Malcolm McDowell) to engage in an incestuous relationship, as two cat-people can’t bring out the beast in each other. Impeccable casting raises the temperature on this more overt take on the original.

2) Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Say what you will about the murderous gill man from the Amazon… he has great taste in women. The stunning Julie Adams plays Kay Lawrence, who accompanies boyfriend ichthyologist David Reed and his research team as they search South America for the missing link between sea and land creatures. And the missing link becomes smitten. Scenes of the Gill Man watching Kay swim underwater and reaching out to touch her feet as she treads water have an oddly affecting beauty to them, and partly because of the cloddish ‘50s mentality of the men on the expedition, we almost wish Kay would end up with the Gill Man.

1) Dracula (pick one)
We all know how much women are attracted to bad boys, and who’s badder than the prince of darkness? In the 76 years since Tod Browning’s 1931 “Dracula,” the first official movie adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, over 150 films about the seductive Transylvanian vampire have been produced. Which Dracula is the sexiest is subjective, of course. Some may prefer the exotic sophistication of ‘31’s Bela Lugosi, while others yield to the creepy gothic charm of ‘92’s Gary Oldman. Maybe the silky suave Christopher Lee of the ‘60s Hammer films gets your blood burning or Frank Langella’s dark virility in the 1977 version. Perhaps the Evanescencesque Richard Roxburgh of 2004’s “Van Helsing” or that same year’s musclebound Drake (Dominic Purcell) in “Blade: Trinity” is to your liking. Regardless, it’s doubtful there will ever be a movie monster with as much sex appeal as the Count.

Heck, even the Count who lives on Sesame Street has a hard time keeping track of how many girlfriends he’s got! Lucky bloodsucker.