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American Scream: The Other Scariest Movie of the 1970s

Like all the best horror movies, Philip Kaufman’s paranoid remake of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ builds from a whisper to an otherworldly shriek. It’s still a gloriously creepy metaphor for modern life.

Leonardo Santamaria

Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting The Scream is an image of the individual overtaken by anxiety; in his diary, the famed Norwegian Expressionist wrote about walking along the road near his home and perceiving the evening sunset as some sort of supernatural transition, with the sky suddenly dripping with blood-red menace. “I sensed a scream passing through nature … the color shrieked.”

As an act of self-portraiture, The Scream is at once claustrophobic and cathartic, suggesting not only pent-up existential tension but its exhilarating release. This complexity is one of the reasons that the canvas has endured as a pop-culture touchstone, reproduced by artists ranging from Andy Warhol to Erro and re-imagined in the “Ghostface” masks worn by the killers in a film that also borrowed Munch’s title: no less than Halloween or Friday the 13th, Wes Craven’s Scream owes a debt to The Scream.

The first scream in Scream belongs to Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore), whose unexpected death in the opening sequence pays homage to Janet Leigh’s premature murder in Psycho. But it’s also part of a larger continuum. Ever since Elsa Lanchester’s Bride of Frankenstein yelped her displeasure after seeing the groom she was brought (back) to life for, the greatest horror movies have only been as good as their best scream. That’s true of Psycho, which churns along as an intense, if low stakes, bit of embezzlement intrigue until the shower curtain is peeled back and Marion Crane howls in terror, ripping the fabric of the film (and film history) in two; think of Fay Wray (and Jessica Lange and Naomi Watts) pleading in the iron grip of King Kong; the high-pitched hippie-chick-as-amuse-bouche in Jaws; David Hedison as The Fly squealing “Help Meeeeeee!” as along comes a spider; Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer, over and over again. In Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, the soundman played by John Travolta watches and listens as his lover, played by Nancy Allen, lets out a blood-curdling cry as her final act on earth, backdropped by a massive American flag; “it’s a good scream” he says, later, replaying it heartbroken in a recording studio.

What the screams in Psycho, Blow Out, and Scream have in common, other than the fairy-tale retrograde archetype of the damsel in distress, is a sense that the screamer is overwhelmed by something more than physical peril. They’re moments of realization so sudden and terrifying that they transcend language altogether. There’s nothing to say and no time to say it, and in these moments, the screamers’ faces become mask-like, or Munch-like—a lesson learned and practiced most recently by apt pupil Ari Aster in Hereditary. And yet if I had to pick the one movie scream that gets the closest to the contradictory, consuming emotions conjured by Munch’s masterpiece, it’s the one unleashed by Donald Sutherland in the final shot of Philip Kaufman’s 1978’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers—in my opinion, the scariest American movie of the 1970s (a decade that offers plenty of competition) and one that inverts the idea of the scream from an involuntary expression of terror to its cold, calculating source.

Munch’s description of a “scream passing through nature” is as apt a description of Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ overture as any. Kaufman’s reimagining depicts the migration of a group of veiny, translucent pods from some distant planet to Earth—specifically San Francisco, where they glom on to the city’s springtime greenery, accompanied by the howl and thrum of Denny Zeitlin’s electronic score. The verdant, almost impossibly luscious colors of Michael Chapman’s cinematography deliberately distance the film from its black-and-white source even as certain touches of W.D. Richter’s screenplay bind it closer; the wonderfully sick cameo by the 1956 original’s star Kevin McCarthy is just one of the many proto-Tarantino touches adding layers of postmodern cleverness to the otherwise primal power of the material. Another example: As the pods spread their spidery tendrils across the city’s parks and gardens, we see a fully-frocked priest lazing blankly in a playground spring. A weird enough post-Exorcist sight gag, until you squint and realize that the Father is actually … Robert Duvall? The Godfather’s lawyer? What the fuck is going on here?

The success of Rosemary’s Baby and especially The Exorcist created a market in the 1970s for mature, studio-subsidized genre fare, applying A-list actors and budgets to B-movie material, and reworking the formulas of the 1950s into a more period-appropriate context. (The loyal opposition remained real B-movies, which were honed to chain-saw sharpness in response to Hollywood bloat). The shift wasn’t limited to horror, either. In 1977, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg offered similarly nostalgic yet temperamentally distinct takes on the sci-fi boom of the 1950s—Star Wars kept the spaceships and jumpsuits but fit them to the template of ’30s serials and swashbucklers, while Close Encounters of the Third Kind borrowed and then reversed the modernist anxiety of films like The Day the Earth Stood Still. There, a group of benevolent aliens descended upon our planet to scold us for building up nuclear arsenals, like an interplanetary U.N.; in Spielberg’s masterpiece, the visitors just wanted to jam, bathing government agents and heartland kooks alike in a neon rainbow.

Although the characters in Invasion of the Body Snatchers never actually talk about seeing Star Wars or Close Encounters, we know they have; “we’ve always expected metal ships” says Veronica Cartwright’s Nancy when it’s clear—to her and her friends, and also to the audience—that the spores have begun replicating the city’s inhabitants in a hostile takeover. The lack of metal ships in Kaufman’s film is both consistent with the 1956 version, which required brilliantly efficient direction by Don Siegel to disguise its thriftiness, and suggestive of cultural undercurrents that Richter’s script plugs into with a potent, polyvalent charge. Released in the shadow of Nixon’s “silent majority” and the Watergate cover-ups and located just down the street from the sinister conspiracies of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), Invasion of the Body Snatchers 2.0 was as much a reflection of its era’s paranoia as Siegel’s film, except with more fully developed subtexts—and a greater sense of humanity amongst its characters.

That last point is crucial because what makes the story of Invasion of the Body Snatchers so scary—from its first incarnation in Jack Finney’s serialized 1950 novel through to various other movie versions, remakes and rip-offs—is the fear that humanity can be here today and gone tomorrow, first on an individual level, and then collectively. Pauline Kael, a critic as given to overstatement as underappreciation, said Invasion “may be the best movie of its kind ever made,” which may be true, and got it exactly right when she opined that this value was tied to the specificity of its leads physicalities and performances. As would-be lovers Matthew and Elizabeth, Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams are low-key oddballs whose mutual affection is rooted in shared values and humour; their pals Nancy and Jack, played by Cartwright and a brilliantly cast Jeff Goldblum—she a mud-bath proprietor, he a struggling poet—are even more eccentric than the San Francisco norm. There’s something of Robert Altman or Alan Rudolph’s funky, loose-limbed humanism in the scenes showing these characters hanging out while the invasion takes shape around them, and their weirdness—especially Goldblum, whose very presence refutes normalcy— contextualizes the background strangeness while raising the stakes.

A scene from ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’
Allied Artists Pictures

If Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers basically boils down to a cautionary tale about conformity—arguably angled satirically against Eisenhower-era America, or else sincerely and rabidly anti-Communist in a (Joe) McCarthyist manner—Kaufman’s movie practices non-conformity in every goofy line reading or superfluous digression. By visualizing San Francisco as a literal hothouse of vines and blossoms, the film reverses the solution of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, in which it’s the Earth’s smallest organisms that repel alien invasion, and visualizes a threat more omnipresent and insidious than mere political polarities (“maybe he’s become a Republican” Matthew jokes when Elizabeth frets that her boyfriend has been acting oddly). A decade after the Summer of Love, Invasion of the Body Snatchers essentially weaponized flower power, hinting that the erosion of individual consciousness in favor of groupthink was as natural and ingrained as photosynthesis itself. And by casting Leonard Nimoy as a New Age guru who’s also the smiling, placating human face of the invasion, Kaufman and Richter also weaponized pop culture itself: After all, if Mr. Spock is peddling surrender, it must be logical.

Finney’s most ingenious conceit in The Body Snatchers was that the pods take over their human victims while they sleep, drawing on a link between sleep and death as old and poetic as Shakespeare (“to sleep, perchance to dream”) and as up to date as Get Out (whose villains use hypnosis to tranquilize their quarry, a wonderful conceptual joke on the necessity of wokeness in a white-supremacist moment). The hell of it is that the aliens’ ambitions are dreamy bordering on utopian: “a world without hate,” as Nimoy’s Dr. Kibner soft-sells it to Matthew after the latter has been captured and injected with a sedative. “Or love,” the similarly drugged Elizabeth retorts, taking up a counterargument Nimoy’s old Star Trek co-star William Shatner used every five episodes or so to justify Captain Kirk’s horrible behavior—that humans are stupid, flawed, and destructive, but hey, you gotta love us. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the aliens may not “hate” humans, but they find humanity itself so untenable to their colonial aims that they have to supplant it entirely.

The one hitch in the invaders’ plan is that by perfectly replicating human beings, they allow for the possibility that a few resourceful, determined, sleep-deprived stragglers might pass unnoticed. That’s where the screaming comes in. Of all the additions that Kaufman and Richter made to the material, the addition of the pod peoples’ klaxon-like alarm system—the way they trill automatically and endlessly upon identifying undesirables— is the spookiest. It occurs whenever the pods spot human emotions in the wild, and doubles as a method of identification and an expression of disgust. It takes multiple viewings to realize that the cries have been audible along, buried deep in the sound mix, melding with the blaring of car horns and the hum of the city: Like all the best horror movies, Invasion of the Body Snatchers builds from a whisper to a scream.

Back to that last shot, which would require a spoiler alert if it wasn’t so iconic. The last 30 minutes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers are filled with indelible moments, like Matthew’s slow, hopeful approach to a cargo ship whose radio is playing “Amazing Grace,” which becomes a hymn to the beauty of human endeavor before it’s drowned out by white noise (an auditory metaphor for the totality of the invasion itself), or the jaw-dropping reverse-Edenic imagery in which a passed-out Elizabeth crumbles to dust in her lover’s arms only to rise again naked from the reeds, beckoning him to “sleep” (and the sex that such an invitation implies) and then, when he runs away, extending her index finger and howling like the rest of her extraterrestrial brethren. But it’s the coda, which reunites Nancy and Matthew—both of whom have escaped the pods while heading in different directions—that can’t ever be forgotten.

It doesn’t take much to explain what’s so hair-raising about the combination of sound and image here; the “Is he faking?” ambiguity of Matthew’s posture as he recognizes Nancy; the dread-infused zoom in on her as she crosses the street to embrace him; the slight but ominous pause before his face contorts into a Munch-ian monstrosity; the devastating cut to Nancy, collapsed into sobs, standing in for the audience that Kaufman’s composition locates as the other, true subject of Matthew’s gesture. In Blow Out, Nancy Allen’s doomed naif reaches out to John Travolta against that red-white-and-blue backdrop, screaming for help; in Invasion, Sutherland becomes a version of Uncle Sam, an (in)human recruiting poster indicating “I Want You!” (Of course, going to sleep in 1978 meant waking up six years later to “Morning in America;” in They Live, John Carpenter gave us the Reagan-era Body Snatchers riff we deserved.) Nancy’s tearful protest will doom her—if not now then later—while Matthew’s shout represents a new world order, the shot tracking into his face and down his throat into the blackness, a cry that swallows the camera and the world. It’s a good scream.