Friday, March 28, 2008

Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

It was a turbulent, post-war world that saw the release of director Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1956. Nazism had long been defeated in Europe, but the Red Menace (communism) represented by the Soviet Union and Red China was growing. In January of 1955, the United States Congress authorized President Eisenhower to defend Formosa from China. On May 14 of the the same year, the Soviet Union and seven other communist nations joined forces under the Warsaw Pact. But these were only the most recent developments. At home, on the domestic front, there was a virtual red hysteria roiling.

Going back a few years to 1950, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy launched his campaign to unearth Communists in the American government. McCarthy, later known to be an alcoholic, imagined reds everywhere, from inside the upper echelons of the Truman Administration, to the U.S. Army to the State Department. Another, earlier (and arguably easier...) target of the Communist witch hunt was the liberal entertainment industry itself. Specifically, the House of Representatives' investigative arm, called HUAC (House Committee on Un-American Activities) sought to root out communists inside the film industry. The committee was aided and abetted by opportunists like a young up-and-coming politician named Ronald Reagan. Reagan (who flip-flopped and was a Democrat before he was a Republican) insisted that communism was indeed festering in Hollywood ("the threat is real" he asserted) and needed to be rooted out. He was all too happy to oblige.

Ironically, membership in the American Communist Party was not (and is not) a crime in the United States. Membership in various political parties is part and parcel of our democratic liberty, and yet here - with no sanction from the Constitution and no evidence of any actual crime committed, the American government began to oppress citizens who, at worst, found themselves involved in what today we would consider progressive or humanitarian causes. Actors, actresses, writers, producers and directors were regularly summoned to testify in Washington D.C. and name "names" in the hunt for commies and communist associations. Those who didn't submit to the will of HUAC were blacklisted and named in a pamphlet called "Red Channels."

Among those blacklisted was a left-leaning writer and novelist named Daniel Mainwaring. He was the man who adapted Jack Finney's science-fiction novel, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to the screen. Given this background, one can begin to detect how an anti-McCarthyite message or sub-text runs through the science fiction film. Consider, for example, that those who join the alien pod "herd" develop a kind of mob mentality. Their first course of action, as we see in the film with the example of Becky (transformed in the last moments of the film), is to "out" or testify against those who are still human. This pointing of the finger is the equivalent of naming names to the Committee. Pointing out someone who is "different" and alerting the boiling mob to their presence. The mob then seeks to stamp out those individuals who think differently.

Furthermore, the specific characters in the film are ones who may carry untrustworthy (communist?) backgrounds according to inquisitors like Joseph McCarthy. For example, Becky has just returned to the United States after five years in Europe (an invention of the screenplay, not the novel), and therefore her loyalties are suspect -- who knows how she's been influenced by the socialists of Old Europe?. Becky and Miles have both rejected the patriotic bedrock of marriage: they are divorcees, so they are outside social norms in 1950s America as well. And the other "targeted" character in the film is Jack Belicec, a writer. It is his occupation that's of paramount importance here: he is a representative, in a sense, of the under-siege entertainment industry. One of those damned, dreamy-eyed writers who might fall under the spell of socialists and communists, and begin spreading his godless ideas to innocent Americans who don't know better.

And really, that was the essence of McCarthy's argument: that Communism was Godless and should not be spread in the Christian States of America. Consider, it was on June 14th, 1956 that the words "under God" were officially added to the Pledge of Allegiance by law. It was on July 30th of 1956 that "In God We Trust" became the National Motto by law. Politicians - fearful of being labeled communists by Red Hunters, bent over backwards to prove they were patriotic, Christian Americans. So they made patriotic but ultimately meaningless laws like these. (A modern corollary: renaming French Fries "freedom fries" after 9/11; good to show off patriotism, not so good for actually battling terrorists...). The message here, spawned by the red baiting inquisitors: conform! conform! conform!

Given Daniel Mainwaring's background and history, as well as proclamations from the cast (including Dana Wynter) it is easy to see how Invasion of the Body Snatchers might be interpreted as an anti-McCarthy film. One railing against the right-wing machine urging conformity of religion and ideology.

However, there is another side to this story too, one that is the polar opposite of what I've just described above. It is entirely possible to read Invasion of the Body Snatchers in a contrary way. That the film is - in fact - not about McCarthyism at all, but about the deadly dangers of the encroaching Red Menace. Let's gaze at Don Siegel for a moment, the director of the film. He was widely-known to be an ardent right-winger in terms of his politics, and his career began under the bailiwick of pro-government propaganda films like 1946's Hitler Lives! His films, including 1971's Dirty Harry, have often been interpreted as being not just right wing, but actually fascist, misogynist, racist and so forth. Considering this background, and the fact that film in general is not - alas - primarily a writer's venue - one can make the argument with some confidence that Invasion of the Body Snatchers '56 is an aggressively anti-communist diatribe.

Notice, for example, how late in the film, Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is on the run and seeks help from his nurse and secretary, Sally. He goes to her house, peers in the window, and finds that she is hosting a gathering of the pod people. It is a secret meeting, a secret meeting not unlike the kind McCarthy imagined: communists and communist sympathizers working under closed door against the common good of patriotic Americans. Secondly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers in this incarnation, though extremely faithful in dialogue to Finney's novel adds a new word to Miles' diatribe against the aliens' emotionless gestalt. In the book, Miles complains that without emotions there is no ambition and no love. In the film, he tellingly adds "faith" to that list. Again, the fear of "godless" communism is apparent in the film, and the addition of the word "faith" to those qualities lost under pod-ism ties back directly to those acts of Congress I mentioned above, the ones re-establishing a Christian God as America's sponsor.

Also, the idea of being re-born into an "untroubled world" where "everyone is the same" seems to smack of an attack against Communism, not McCarthyism, no? A little more digging, and you can discern how this Invasion of the Body Snatcher views "collectivism," the group think of the emotionless pods. It can't be a coincidence that the Grimaldi vegetable stand - once a very successful and thriving enterprise (under human ownership) - goes under when managed by the pod people. In a world of collectivism, the film seems to be saying, capitalism dies. As author/producer Joseph Maddrey wrote in the comments section of this blog here a few days ago, there seems to be a pro-capitalism bent to both Finney's novel as well as this incarnation of the film.

So the question for us, as intrepid and questioning interpreters of this cinematic art, is, simply: what is this Invasion of the Body Snatchers attempting to say to us, or rather to the intended audience of mid-1950s middle America? Is it vehemently anti-McCarthy or willfully anti-Communist? I submit that the film is likely railing against both "evils"; that it is actually a movie about resisting group think or the mob mentality under any guise. After all, what is inherently the difference between rabid communists and rabid anti-communists? Both factions are extreme, and seek to impose their will, ideology and philosophy on the unaligned. Extremism, in any form, is oppressive and undesirable. I don't know if it's worse to live under a fascist dictatorship or a communist one, and in the end I don't think it matters. Whether you a far leftist or a far rightist, your ultimate goal is to push your dogmatic set of beliefs on those in small town America who just want to be free: free to work; free to love; free to be free from such rancorous divisions.

Miles' warning at the end of the film fits both interpretations of the material. It is delivered directly to the camera, in extreme close-up, and thus directly to us, the audience. "They're after all of us! You're next!" I submit that's a warning that skews in both directions. If allowed, unabated, the HUAC hearings would continue the witch hunt into small towns and middle America. Contrarily, it could be a warning that the Soviet Union was not about to let freedom reign in America, and that subversive communists were already here, corrupting our country.

It is undeniable that this Invasion of the Body Snatchers is extremely faithful to the novel by Finney and so in seeking answers about the intent of this art, we must return to the source material. Entire passages of dialogue and narration have been lifted from the book for the film, and so the concept of personal alienation is also critically important to the film. That idea of personal alienation finds its greatest expression in a beautifully-staged moment that is absolutely and totally inconsistent with everything the film has told us. However, it is so important, I believe, that the filmmakers let it go.

Let me explain. Throughout Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the filmmakers carefully explain the life-cycle of the alien invaders to us. A pod, in close proximity to a human, expels a human-sized "blank" (an impression, the film calls it...). That blank then absorbs the mind and appearance of the nearby human while he or she sleeps. The original human body itself is then destroyed, reduced to "grey filth" and the pod body takes over without missing a step. The distinction I am trying to make is that the pods don't take over the human body. They inhabit duplicate bodies. The original body is...disposed of.

And yet, at the climax of this film, Miles returns to Becky after leaving her briefly to investigate the sound of music nearby (where the hills are alive, he hopes). In his absence, she has fallen asleep - the kiss of death, the period of duplication. Yet, in the same body, her eyes open, showing coldness and iciness. She says "I fell asleep and it happened, Miles," or some such thing, and that is absolutely inconsistent with the duplication process the film describes. She fell asleep, and the pods took over HER body. What should have happened, had the film been true to its own internal logic, is that her body should have dissolved away into dust, and another Becky should have sprung up nearby (wherever the pod was...). This is precisely what happens in the remake of the 1970s. Someone saw the inconsistency there and fixed it.

Yet, going out on a limb here, I would suggest that Siegel, Mainwaring and the producers were smart enough to know this, but that they wanted to get across the message of romantic alienation, the fear of "my wife isn't my wife anymore." How can I claim such a thing. Well, consider how, visually, this scene plays out as dramatized. Miles returns to Becky and she falls asleep right there on him. They fall over together, and he lands on top of her. They end up in an embrace in the mud.

Essentially, looking at them - this man and this woman are ensconced in the missionary position. Miles kisses Becky desperately and passionately, trying to wake her up, trying to rouse or stimulate her. This is the 1950s equivalent of making love on screen (you couldn't show much else.) Then, the film cuts to a first-person perspective, Miles' point of view, looking down Becky, his love. He expects her to return his affection, but this is not to be. It is from that first-person angle that we see Becky slowly open her eyes...and we know just from Wynter's performance that she is no longer Becky. This choice of angles, of mise-en-scene determinedly reveals to us the fear of romantic alienation. That the woman we make love to might open her eyes afterwards, or the next morning and...suddenly not be that woman anymore. That romantic love can...slip away like a thief in the night, and we are left with something...cold, frigid.

Critically, this message of alienation could not have carried across in this fashion if the filmmakers had stuck strictly to the "rules" of the pod people. We could not have been afforded - literally - an eye-to-eye look at romantic alienation. So yes, there is a huge inconsistency here, but this is one of those occasions, I submit, when breaking the rules is acceptable because there is an artistic purpose underlining it. If the message of the film is alienation, then you need this shot.

Much has been made over the years over the "framing" story of this Invasion of the Body Snatchers. If you've seen the film, you know it begins and ends with a raving, lunatic Miles in a hospital, trying to make a psychiatrist and a doctor believe his crazy tale of an alien invasion in Santa Mira (not the Mill Valley of the book). For years and years, I have read amongst genre reviewers how this framing device and the subsequent optimistic ending (the fight is joined!) sullies the message and intent of the film. It's received wisdom however, and I'm all for questioning received wisdom.

For one thing, the book-end framing of Invasion of the Body Snatchers allows us to hear Miles' recount the adventure in his own words and expressions, in voice-over. This is the filmic equivalent of the book's first person voice. Hence, it is true to the spirit of the book. Secondly, had the film ended merely with Miles screaming in traffic "they're here! they're coming after you!" it would have been a deliberately downbeat climax directly in contradiction to the upbeat ending of the book (which saw the pods head off into space). The book-ends, with the doctors believing Miles after the discovery of the pods - is actually closer in spirit to the novel than the more downbeat ending that many critics have argued for over the years. Maybe they didn't read the book. My point is that the story frame doesn't diminish the film; but actually brings the film in closer alignment to the source material.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, beyond the search for cultural subtext and meaning, is the visualization of the material, the careful staging. For instance, Siegel arranges numerous shots with an eye towards visually expressing entrapment. There are shots through staircase posts (bars of a sort), shots through grills in doors (another jail-like visual), even through wooden floorboards in an abandoned mine. The upshot is that we often view our on-the-run protagonists (Miles and Becky) through some kind of visual barrier...something preventing their escape. I believe that this approach helps to enhance the mood of hysteria and paranoia the film is so famous for generating. I hadn't watched the film in a good long while, perhaps eight or nine years, so I wasn't prepared either for the fact that Invasion of the Body Snatchers boasts two jump-out-of-your seat jolts in the first five minutes. This film was made over fifty years ago and those stingers still work. That's a testament to the technical skill of the filmmaking, I think.

There seems to be a great deal to discuss about this film, its message and its implications, but I hope to leave some of that to you, my intelligent and curious readers. I was thinking about writing about how, in some sense, this film is about the age of small towns in America (an age that has passed in history; I submit we're now in the Wal-Mart Age). And that in some fashion, this Invasion is about how foreign ideas can poison or an infect a small town. But I think I've explored enough ideas for one post and one movie, and now I want to know what you think.

Is Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 an anti-communist film? Or is it Anti-McCarthy? Or do you agree with me: is it simply a warning against extremism on either pole? Can't wait to read your thoughts...

Next up: I'm Okay, You're a Pod: Invasion 1978.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Pod Sex

An addendum to my post on Finney's Body Snatchers: I neglected to note that Finney's novel is the only version of the material that specifies the sexual habits of the duplicated beings, or "pod people." In particular, the pod people do not sexually reproduce at all, according to the book. I think this is a critical aspect of Finney's narrative and central argument. Because if you don't feel some form of emotion, why would you make love? In a sense, I think that Finney is saying that emotions - love in particular - are the things that drive us to perpetuate the species and reproduce. If you take emotion out of our genetic equation, the human race dies. This eventuality seems borne out in the life cycle of the pods: without the capacity to reproduce, their duplicated bodies die out after five years, and the parasitic seeds must seek more "fertile" (if you'll pardon the expression) terrain on other worlds.

I thought this was worth mentioning in light of the fact that virtually every cinematic incarnation of Body Snatchers involves some sort of love relationship gone awry. We have divorcees Becky and Miles in the 1950s version -- both the products of failed marriages. We have unhappily married Elizabeth attracted to Bennell in the 1978 take, and her husband is one of the parasites. Even the latest version, in 2007, lands a female Bennell (Nicole Kidman) in a failed marriage and seeking love with another suitor (Daniel Craig). The romantic love relationship - this passionate, connection to a human being - is always the "thing" that is in danger of being lost in the films, though (for better or worse...) The Invasion adds the element of parental love. But more than that when we get to it.

Tomorrow: "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been: Invasion 1956."

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: The Body Snatchers

In 1954, Dell published a science fiction novel entitled The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney. Finney's landmark work has been translated to film a whopping four times, in 1956, 1978, in 1993 and just last year, in 2007 (as The Invasion). Some of the terminology associated with the Invasion of the Body Snatchers franchise, including the descriptor "pod people" has landed in the pop culture firmament of our country and remained there for decades. We have seen variations of the paranoid tale in efforts such as The Stepford Wives (1975), and even on Buffy the Vampire Slayer ("Bad Eggs"). There have also been entire TV series titled The Invaders and Invasion which grapple with some of the same core concepts as Finney's story.

Considering the importance of this novel in genre film history, I thought it might be interesting to go back to the beginning and examine first Finney's novel, and then all four celluloid adaptations of the story. We can survey the whole franchise together, surveying the efforts for similarities, differences, and variations on a theme. In particular, I enjoy gazing at how the tale changes with the passage of time, reflecting the decade in which the particular film was made. So if you happen to be near a library, pick up a copy of Finney's novel so you can contribute to the discussion. I've also just queued the various cinematic versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers at Netflix and urge you to do the same. This is always more fun if we do it together and have points in common to discuss. I won't start blogging the films till next week, so you can catch up with me, if so inclined, by acting now.

Finney's novel (which was first appeared serialized in Colliers Magazine) commences with this paragraph, and one might consider it a mission statement for the book, and also for the film adaptations :

"I warn you that what you're starting to read is full of loose ends and unanswered questions. It will not be neatly tied up at the end, everything resolved and satisfactorily explained. Not by me, it won't anyway. Because I can't say I really know exactly what happened, or why, or just how it began, how it ended, or if it has ended; and I've been right in the thick of it. Now if you don't like that kind of story, I'm sorry and you'd better not read it. All I can do is tell what I know."

After this disclaimer of sorts, Finney escorts us to the evening of October 28, 1976 in a small-town in southern California called Mill Valley. It's a Thursday around 5:00, and the book's main character, Dr. Miles Bennell continues to narrate the story in the first person. He's a young family practitioner, having inherited the local medical practice from his father, and is well-known and well-liked by the locals. Miles is an effective literary protagonist for Finney to deploy here because his style of narration is crisp and at times it feels as though we're actually reading doctors notes, narrated directly into a tape recorder. The voice is intelligent, the language smart, but there's nothing too flowery, too knowledgeable, too over-the-top or melodramatic to break the spell. And Miles never gets to see the whole picture...he just reports what he sees. A kind of literary Cloverfield, in a sense. We aren't privy to the big picture, only on how the events impact Miles and the town of Mill Valley.

In short order, the divorced 28-year old Miles is met at his office by his old flame, the recently divorced Becky Driscoll. She wants to talk business not pleasure, however. Her aunt, Wilma Lentz, has begun acting...strangely. She claims that her uncle Ira is not her Uncle Ira at all. Oh he looks like Uncle Ira, sounds like Uncle Ira, moves like Uncle Ira and has all of Uncle Ira's memories...but Wilma is sure -- just sure -- he is not the same man. Hot for Becky but also genuinely concerned for his patient, Miles goes to see Ms. Lentz and question her about this. "Miles, there is no difference you can actually see," asserts Wilma to the town doctor. She won't be moved from her position, and Miles attempts to talk some sense to her in what is the first of the novel's many comments on psychology and psychiatry, which in the 1950s were moving rapidly into the American mainstream.

"Now listen to me," says Miles..."I don't expect you to stop feeling emotionally that this isn't your uncle. But I do want you to realize that he's your uncle, no matter what you feel, and that the trouble is inside you. It's absolutely impossible for two people to look exactly alike, no matter what you've read in stories or seen in the movies. Even identical twins can always be told apart - always - by their intimates. No one could possibly impersonate your Uncle Ira for more than a moment without you, Becky or even me seeing a million little differences. Realize that, Wilma, think about it, and get it into your head, and you'll know the trouble is inside you. And then we'll be able to do something about it."

The preceding paragraph is critical to an informed reading of Finney's novel because it lays down the underlying subtext and dynamic of Finney's novel: the idea that psychology/psychiatry and rationality has in essence - by exploring the human mind - killed God, faith and belief and most significantly, imagination. Wilma Lentz just knows that her Uncle isn't the same man that he was, but she can't prove it, and there is no scientific rationale - no acceptable scientific rationale, for her beliefs. Therefore, she must be sick. Right? If you know the story of the Body Snatchers, you know that Uncle Ira is indeed not himself, but a "snatched man," a replicated man, an alien invader who duplicated Ira but who lacks the emotionality of mankind. This new being, one who looks and sounds like us, is the ultimate triumph of the rational age, the age of such sciences as psychology, one might assert. The aliens have not merely sublimated emotion (as Miles has asked Wilma Lentz to do), but have eliminated it from the gene pool.

Miles is torn between two competing belief systems in the book. On one hand is the intelligent, rational, steadfast psychology of his friend Mannie Kaufman, a local psychiatrist. Mannie suggests that Wilma and the others who begin to suspect that their loved ones are not their loved ones, are actually delusional. That the madness is all within their sick minds, not in reality. He lays out a convincing case that this strange belief is merely a "contagious neurosis." In compelling terms, he describes case histories of mob hysteria (including the Mattoon Maniac of Illinois...) to prove his point. You want to believe him, he makes the case so powerfully and so logically.

But the other voice in Miles' head, the voice that ultimately allows him to believe in the alien invasion, belongs to an imaginative writer named Jack Belicec. As a hobby, Jack collects newspaper clippings that involve inexplicable happenings around America. Like the time frogs fell from the sky in Edgeville Alabama. Or that story in Idaho, about a man who spontaneously combusted...but his clothes were unharmed. Jack is the opposite side of the human equation from Kaufman, the side that can conceive of things beyond science, beyond psychosis. There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in Kaufman's philosophy (or in the DSM IV), and Jack is the character who gives voice in the novel to that aspect of "us."

Ultimately, the novel serves a as a rejection of "cold" science and also as plea for humanity to hold fast to the sometimes strange beliefs he holds. From the valedictory passage in the book, as expressed by Miles:

"But...showers of small frogs, tiny fish and mysterious rains of pebbles sometimes fall from out of the skies. Here and there, with no possible explanation, men are burned to death inside their clothes. And once in a while, the orderly, immutable sequences of time itself are inexplicably shifted and altered. You read these occasional queer little stories, humorously-written, tongue-in-cheek, most of the time - or you hear vague distorted rumours of them. And this much I know. Some of them - some of them - are true."

Besides the battle between science and belief, Finney's The Body Snatchers
treads primarily on the idea of relationship "alienation" made literal. Those alienated from their families are actually dealing with alien life forms. That's pretty clever, actually. But if one gazes at the characters in the book, many are also coping with the fall-out of bad relationships. It can't be a coincidence that the two main characters - Becky and Miles - are both divorced. And that's the ultimate form of human alienation, isn't? You live with a person you love for years and years and then you wake up one day and suddenly don't feel the same way about that person anymore. Without warning, something has changed. Overnight, you "don't know" that other person anymore, that husband, that wife, that uncle, aunt, parent or child. Alienation of affection is what I'm talking about here, and it happens all the time in normal, mundane relationships. The alien invaders of Invasion of the Body Snatchers symbolize this strangeness in human interactions. I don't believe it a coincidence either that the changeover from human to alien comes like a thief in the night, during sleep. Alienation of affection can go on for months or years but when grappling with it, it seems to have come all at once. You don't recognize the person in bed beside you anymore. They feel like a stranger. They look like your mate; they have your mate's memories...but they feel like an interloper, a changeling.

What the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers lack is the core of humanity and the human experience: emotions. They can pretend to have feelings and they can skillfully mimic emotions, but they don't feel anything at all. Without emotions, there is no excitement. Without excitement there is no ambition, no love. Without ambition, nobody writes books anymore...imagination vanishes. Kaufman - now an alien - will never finish the textbook about Psychiatry he began as a human being. That is the fate mankind is doomed to here in the novel if the aliens win; if we abandon the imaginative side of ourselves.

Late in The Body Snatchers, Miles confers with Kaufman as well as with a "converted" professor. They explain to Miles the end game of the aliens, beings who have arrived on Earth in giant seeds, pods for lack of a better word:

"What do you do and for what reason? Why do you breathe, eat, sleep, make love and reproduce your kind? Because it's your function, your reason for being. There's no other reason, and none needed...You look shocked, actually sick, and yet what has the human race done except spread over this planet till it swarms the globe several billion strong? What have you done with this very continent but expand till you fill it? And where are the buffalo who roamed the land before you? Gone. Where is the passenger pigeon who once literally darkened the skies of America in flocks of billions? The last one died in a Philadelphia zoo in 1913. Doctor, the function of life is to live if it can and no other motive can ever be allowed to interfere with that. There is no malice involved; did you hate the buffalo? We must continue because we must..."

You have to admit, there's a cold logic to the alien motive for their takeover of Earth, but the difference is that we still feel pity for the buffalo or the passenger pigeon. If we could change their fates, I submit we likely would. With cold science, there's no need for pity, no need for remorse, no need for compassion.

Some other interesting notations about the book and how it differs from the film versions. First, the ending. The climax of Finney's Body Snatchers is not inherently nihilistic, bleak, depressing or dark, as some have claimed over the years. In fact, at least two film versions feature abundantly darker endings than what is featured here. In the novel, the pods flee Earth when they realize how irrational human beings are (again, human emotions!), after Miles and Becky wage a hopeless war burning fields of the alien pods.

Secondly, the alien countenance: In this novel, the aliens are not easily detectable. They lack strong emotions, but as I wrote above, they have the capacity to mimic human emotions. It isn't so easy to spot them in the novel as it is in all the film versions.

Thirdly, Finney goes to great lengths to describe the science behind the "body snatching" procedure and why that procedure occurs during sleep. The explanation involves "tiny electrical force-lines that hold together the very atoms that constitute" human beings. These force-lines are in constant flux, constant change, but they change less, according to Finney, during sleep. And during sleep, that "pattern can be taken from you, absorbed like static electricity, from one body to another." Only the 2007 version of the material came this close to offering a scientific explanation for why the changeover occurs during sleep.

Also, Finney reveals what the future is for planet Earth should the aliens win: all organisms on the planet will die within five years and the the pods will seek another world to duplicate. The novel indicates that there was once life on Mars and even on our Moon, but that the pods duplicated - and then destroyed - all life there. Not one of the four films have picked up on this element, to my recollection. (I'll be watching them all soon - hopefully you will too -- so I may be wrong about this.)

With this information about the novel behind us, I hope you get the chance to read Finney's stand-out work and study some of these points, and find others of interest too. Let's see your comments below. I may have missed something important, but these are my initial thoughts about the novel after a quick reading. I'll update, perhaps, after I sleep on it...assuming I'm not a pod person by tomorrow morning.

Monday, March 24, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: 30 Days of Night (2007)

Based on the comic-book series by Steve Niles and illustrated by Ben Templesmith, 30 Days of Night is a 2007 horror film produced by Ghost House: Sam Raimi's production company. And Sam Raimi's involvement with the film led to me to two conclusions about the quality of this movie, and also the potential of this movie.

But let's not jump the gun. 30 Days of Night is the harrowing and extremely gory story of Barrow, Alaska (population 152) which - every year - undergoes thirty days without sunlight. Alcohol is illegal during that month of darkness ("we have enough problems without people drinking in the dark..." says one local), and many of the residents who can't take the oppressive, unending night abandon town by plane, Anchorage-bound. They have to do so: the town of Barrow is isolated by 90 miles of snowy wasteland in all directions. The only effective way in or out is by sled dogs or by air. No trains, no cars, no motorboats...

As the film begins, it is the "last day of sun" and the "last sunset for a month." A creepy, Renfeld-esque stranger arrives in Barrow just as a string of strange events occur. Someone has been stealing and burning cell phones. The town's helicopter is sabotaged. And then...all the sled dogs are brutally murdered in their kennels. The sheriff of Barrow, played by likable but wooden Josh Hartnett, begins to suspect that his town is being set up for something more sinister than vandalism, but he has no idea what's really occurring: a terrorist attack by a crew of ravenous, super-strong vampires who hope to feast for thirty days.

The vampires begin feeding on the town's people the first night, after destroying the local infrastructure (including power and computer networks). The citizenry can't rally much of a defense, so Sheriff Eben (Hartnett) leads a band of motley survivors including his estranged wife, Stella (Melissa George) and his brother, Jake, into hiding. They cower in an attic for about seventeen days, then make for the general store to stock up during a "snow blind" blizzard. Then, finally, they attempt to hold out the rest of the month in the local power plant. But the vampires are on their trail, and on their backs, the whole time...

I have to admit, the concept of this film is utterly brilliant: one of the best horror movie premises I've seen in a very long time. Vampires at play - on the loose and unstoppable for thirty days of darkness - is a potent and trenchant nightmare. And I'm also predisposed to enjoy films about towns under siege. I deeply admire John Carpenter's The Fog (1980) and Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). I love the idea of quarreling neighbors taking up arms to defend one another from an exterior menace. In the post 9/11 age, I think this metaphor is even more powerful. "Let's roll" and all.

And yet 30 Days of Night makes a series of infuriating missteps that severely compromise the great premise. Perhaps most importantly, the film devotes almost no significant screen time whatsoever to setting up the peculiar rhythms and rituals of the town of Barrow. The attack begins so early in the film that all we really know is that Barrow is dark and snowy, and that Josh Hartnett is sheriff. If the filmmakers spent some time developing the geography and locales and flavors of the town, the movie would have been much more powerful. The same goes for the characters here: very few townspeople are introduced successfully and even fewer prove memorable. The result is that when the attacks begin, we don't care in the slightest who we are losing to the vampires. For instance, three horny pipeline workers are attacked. The two men are bearded and interchangeable, and the woman is just a screamer. What are their names? How did they come to this job? why should we care about them? A critical aspect of generating terror in the cinema is empathy. We must like and identify with the people in danger, or else it's just a freak show: blood and guts but nothing else. That's certainly a valid criticism of 30 Days of Night. We hardly know the victims or anything about their lives so the attacks are just bloody spectacle.

The upshot of this is that when 30 Days of Night cuts to an absolutely glorious, absolutely beautifully staged shot of the carnage in Barrow, it has virtually no impact. The shot is staged from a helicopter a couple of hundred feet up, and the camera is pointed directly down, at an overhead angle. Because of the helicopter's height, we can see a vast swath of territory. We see the towns people running about madly, and vampires leaping on them and eating them. Crimson blood plumes dot the white snow: a powerful and disturbing image. But we are so far up in the sky; so far back from the action, that 30 Days of Night becomes even more distancing. The shot is staged adroitly, but it makes the action feel even more remote. We don't know who is being killed, and now we're watching from such a distance, we hardly care. A similar shot was utilized in the exquisite (and powerful) war film, Black Hawk Down (2001) several years back, but there it provided a powerful sense of scope, showing us outnumbered American soldiers surrounded and under attack from blocks and blocks of Somali enemies in a cityscape boiling over with rage. There the shot laid out the terrain for the battle and showed us the odds.

Here the shot is pretty but nothing else. No one behind the scenes ever thought to consider what the shot meant; or how it would be received, I guess. And that's disappointing.

And that one great but misguided shot led me to my contrary thoughts about this film. On the one hand, if the film had been directed by Sam Raimi, it would have felt far more visceral. He is a director who puts the audience smack dab in the middle of the action, so much so that it can be pretty grueling. I think that approach might have worked to make 30 Days of Night seem more involving. You want a movie like this to wring you by the neck and throttle you a bit. You want to be so involved and unnerved that you have no time to think of the implausibilities.

The contrary thought is that a very different, more realistic director like Stanley Kubrick (think The Shining...) could have excelled by taking the material in the opposite direction. If 30 Days of Night were more icy, more remote in all its scenes, it would have been a hell of a movie too. Something to make the blood in your veins run cold. A film without remorse or pity or humanity. With the snow and and grand vistas, an entirely minimal approach like this could have worked. It's counter-intuitive, but it could have worked.

Instead, 30 Days of Night is such a disappointment because it chooses neither approach and just kind of muddles through, right down the middle of the road. It fails to be visceral, and it fails at cerebral terror. It's just...gory.

Also, and I'm not certain if it's the fault of the premise or the execution, but the film really fails too many simple logic tests. Consider for example the level of planning that the vampires demonstrate in staging the assault on Barrow. They send an advanced agent, kill all the sled dogs (preventing an escape), and lock out and destroy communications (cell phones and computers). This reveals them to be a smart, resourceful and organized enemy, I'd say. Because Barrow is in the middle of nowhere, we must assume it takes the vampires some time to get there, even if they fly or turn into bats. So then, why are such clever vampires still hanging out in town on the cusp of the first sunrise in 30 days, to be killed? In the film, the surviving vampires just disappear into nowhere, and this strikes me as a violation of logic. If they could just appear in the town at random, why not adopt a blitzkrieg approach instead of slow sabotage? And conversely, if it took the vampires some time to get to the town, it should also take them time to get away from the town. But that doesn't seem to be the case.

I mean, what kind of idiot goes into an enemy terrain fully prepared for battle but with no coherent exit strategy for getting the troops home safely?

Oh, wait a minute...

Okay, leaving that behind for a moment, there are more problems. Assume you are a hungry vampire and you have thirty days to take out a population of 152. Wouldn't you - using the same meticulous approach you used to sabotage the town - go house by house in Barrow? Form a phalanx and take out one family at a time, until everyone was dead or eaten? The vampires in 30 Days of Night don't do that. They just attack randomly and don't go house by house, leaving their victims an opportunity to hide. It's a free-for-all, a food fight. And again, that doesn't seem consistent with the earlier organization.

I would happily gloss over these points if the film were more visceral and suspenseful. If it were so scary and so involving that I didn't have time to think about the faults of the premise. But unfortunately, the film is a bust in terms of logic. Long spells go by in which characters sit in the attic and we don't know what food they are eating or where they are going to the bathroom. And worse, we don't know where the vampires are and what they are doing, Just kicking back, I guess? Half a month goes by in a scene, and there's no sense of claustrophobia, discomfort, or any genuine human emotion.

It just seems to me that this movie turned the idea of 30 days into a curse instead of a blessing. It isn't 30 hours. It isn't 30 minutes. It's thirty days, and I know a movie can only be accountable for two hours of screen time, but it seems to me that in a movie called 30 Days of Night, you need to know how - specifically - your heroes survive that spell, and what the villains are doing during that spell. If you don't, there's no tension.

And 30 Days of Night is pretty devoid of tension. In part this is because by day seven or so virtually every human in Barrow is already dead. So tell me, would be vampire: would you hang around for another 20 days or so (and risk a sunrise) just to pick off a handful of survivors? Are the vampires smart or stupid? In 30 Days of Night, they are both, depending on the whimsy of the screenwriter.

30 Days of Night tries to make the claim that the townspeople know the "town" and know "the cold" and that is why they can fight back against the vampires. That's a line of dialogue from Hartnett, but it's a silly line, and he doesn't pull it off. Clint Eastwood - with ice water in his veins - could have pulled it off. I mean, these characters "know the cold?" Really? Then why do they wear parkas and live in heated houses? Why do all the womenfolk fly to Anchorage? And why don't the vampires know the cold? They apparently spend the thirty days of night on rooftops looking for stragglers. Seems to me, they're pretty acquainted with low temperatures (and they seemed to have crossed into our country from a northern ocean...again, cold.)

The only really positive thing I can say about 30 Days of Night is that at least it isn't a remake. I was really looking forward to this movie. The premise alone should have guaranteed a winner. Bummer.