A remake of “The Nightmare on Elm Street” is opening soon and let’s hope it’s better than the contemporary remakes of “Friday the 13th,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and just about every other popular horror picture from the 1970s and ’80s.
The best remakes take the original films and adapt them to new eras. If a premise is suggestive enough, it can be updated on a regular basis.
Witness the way the 1956 science-fiction film “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (above) was cannily remade in 1978 (bottom) and 2007 (below, left).
The Jack Finney novella about an insidious extra-terrestrial life-form that duplicates human beings and then destroys the originals has served for more than 50 years as a chilling commentary on conformity and the various other ways we allow our humanity to drain away.
The 1956 and 1978 versions are terrific reflections of the periods in which they were made. The 2007 remake (which chopped the title down to “The Invasion”) has some good 21st century ideas and scenes in it, but was famously tampered with by the studio (Warner Bros.) after German director Oliver (“Downfall”) Hirschbiegel delivered his cut of the movie a year before it was released.
(A picture called ‘Body Snatchers’ was made by director Abel Ferrara in 1994, but veered too far away from the original story to count as a version of the Finney book.)
It’s fun to watch all three of the films in quick succession to see how three different directors used the idea to comment on the social and political atmospheres of their times.
The notion of aliens taking over the planet one person at a time — through giant seed pods that grow human duplicates — is unsettling to say the least.
The fact that these pseudo-humans live only to force other humans to change too is an especially frightening way of dramatizing conformity.
The director of the original 1956 version of the Finney story — Don Siegel — wanted to call his movie “Sleep No More,” to reference the fact that the aliens can only take control of a human subject while he or she sleeps. The human characters who catch on to what is happening are forced into the nightmarish — and exhausting — position of not being able to go to sleep.
This plot point feeds on a generally unspoken fear of what sleep might bring us — nightmares or, in the words of that old prayer, “If I should die before I wake…”
“Body Snatchers” also works as a political and social parable. When the 1956 version debuted, the alien menace was seen as representing both Soviet Communism and the red-baiters led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
The Kaufman movie has an added comic spark missing in the original. The film often plays like a satire of all of the self-help movements of the “Me Decade.” And what better setting for a late 1970s tale of sweeping human change than San Francisco, the place that spawned hippies, gay liberation and the Rev. Jim Jones?
Kaufman works at a much higher level of accomplishment than most sci-fi practitioners, with a superb company of actors led by Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams, terrifically moody cinematography by Michael Chapman (who shot another great urban horror story, “Taxi Driver,” two years earlier), and an unusually vivid soundtrack put together by audio wiz Ben Burtt (who had just finished working on “Star Wars”).
The two remakes tip their hats to the earlier films in very clever ways. Kevin McCarthy (star of the original film) and director Don Siegel both have cameos in the 1978 film and Veronica Cartwright — who is so good in the Kaufman version — turns up in the 2007 film as the first person we meet who suspects that people around her are changing in strange ways.
There is no reason to doubt that some smart filmmaker a decade or two from now will come up with a new way to use Jack Finney’s amazingly durable idea.