31 (More) Days of Fright: Mr. Vampire

No need to hold your breath: Mr. Vampire doesn’t stink!

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. Today’s film came from my very supportive friend Liane Fong’s suggestion that I watch a movie featuring “hopping vampires.” So, I went with the film that launched a thousand hopping vampire flicks: Mr. Vampire (1985), directed by Ricky Lau (The Romance of the Vampires). I rented Mr. Vampire from Toronto’s Queen Video.

What happens:

For the uninitiated, the “hopping vampires” of Chinese folklore, or jiangshi can be a disorienting phenomenon. Aside from being undead, having long fangs, and operating by night, there’s not a lot that connects them with their Eastern European counterparts. They usually move by hopping around with their stiffened arms outstretched, and aren’t injured by things like wooden stakes or crucifixes (obvs). But they’ve been depicted in literature and film since the Qing Dynasty, and saw a real resurgence following Ricky Lau’s debut Hong Kong horror-comedy, Mr. Vampire.

A buffoonish Taoist student, Man-Choi (our director, Ricky Lau) is on night duty at the temple, making sure he “feeds” the corpses in the stone coffins their nightly incense, and that the candle that stands in front of eight inert vampires stays lit. The vampires (jiangshi) wear traditional Chinese dress and have paper ribbons inscribed with protective spells that hang from their foreheads. But while leaving incense at one stone coffin, something grabs Man-Choi. He re-counts the inactive vampires: eight. But another (ninth) vampire leaps at him, and Man-Choi must protect himself with a hexagonal mirror (one such protection against supernatural beings). The mirror doesn’t help for long, and the vampire bares his fangs, which promptly … fall out.

Three men and a coffin.

For this is no vampire; it’s fellow student Chau-Sang (Siu-ho Chin) playing a practical joke. However, all their tomfoolery has caused the candle to extinguish and the paper talismans (talismen?) to blow off the real vampires’ foreheads. The eight vampires begin to hop menacingly toward the two students, their sharp fingernails extending from their outstretched arms. Terrified, the students call for their master, Master Kau (Ching-Ying Lam), a powerful Taoist priest with a moustache and comically impressive unibrow. Together with fellow priest, Four-Eyes (Anthony Chan), they manage to subdue the eight vampires with a combination of kung fu and dotting the vampires’ foreheads with their own priest blood. In no time, the vampires are again deactivated, and Four-Eyes leads them hopping out into the night, like some sort of Pied Piper of the Undead. Master Kau, obviously, is disappointed in his two students.

Master Kau has a meeting with a wealthy Hong Kong businessman, Mr. Yam (Ha Huang), over English tea. Having never had English tea before, Kau and Man-Choi follow the lead of Yam and his beautiful daughter, Ting-Ting (Moon Lee), who has just returned from cosmetology school. Ting-Ting is apparently on her way to a costume party as Little Bo-Peep. (Man-Choi, obviously, is madly in love with Ting-Ting.) Their unfamiliarity with Western meals leads to a number of comical errors, in which Kau and Man-Choi believe the table cream to be a separate drink, and then – once realizing it and sugar are to be added to tea – begin to add sugar and cream to everything they’re served. Mr. Yam was told by a fortune teller that he needed to re-bury his father twenty years after his death, and that anniversary is coming up. Kau accepts the mission, and they decide the re-burial should happen in three days.

Once they arrive at the scenic burial plot, Kau realizes that Yam’s father has been buried vertically in the ground. He believes a fortune teller tricked him into doing so, bringing Yam years of bad financial luck. Kau and his assistants unearth the coffin, and the local birds go wild. (Not a good sign.) When the stone coffin is opened, the senior Mr. Yam looks incredibly well-preserved – as if he died only yesterday. Master Kau recommends cremation, but Mr. Yam refuses, noting his father hated fire. So Kau offers to store the body and coffin until they find a suitable new plot. (You’d think they’d have figured that out before digging up the body.) Kau instructs his students Man-Choi and Chau-Sang to light incense at every grave in the burial ground before they leave. Handsome Chau-Sang spots a tombstone for an unfortunate twenty-year-old woman and leaves some extra incense. Immediately after, he begins to hear an eerie female voice in his head.

The students return to the temple with bad news for Master Kau: Man-Choi was left with two short and one long incense stick. A bad omen. Kau believes the dead Mr. Yam to have died with anger in his heart, thus making him a vampire. He casts spells, mixing chicken blood, fire, and ink, and gives the mixture to his students. They are to crosshatch the coffin with the magic ink so the vampire can’t escape. (Only one problem: they forget about the underside of the coffin.)

While Chau-Sang is out cycling that night, he encounters (unbeknownst to him) a beautiful ghost lady – obviously the woman from the tombstone – being carried in a litter by four clown-faced servants. When she sees her crush pass, the leaps from the litter and alights onto the back of his bicycle. In a bit of slapstick, she doesn’t see him duck under a low branch and ends up being knocked off the seat. Soon after, she disappears … but I have a sneaking suspicion she’ll return.

Mr. Yam doesn’t look exactly like his mug shot.

Next, we’re introduced to Wai (Billy Lau), the self-important police inspector who (a) just happens to be Mr. Yam’s nephew, and (b) is also smitten with Ting-Ting (who is his cousin). When Man-Choi and Chau-Sang arrive at the Yams’ house, Wai is affronted they even look in Ting-Ting’s direction. He orders them to leave, which they do – but not before taking a hair from Wai’s head, which, when swallowed by Man-Choi, allows him to control Wai’s actions. The two have a lot of broad comic fun, making Wai slap himself and tear off all his clothes in front of Ting-Ting. When Master Kau arrives, he doesn’t see the inherent humour and punishes his students.

That night, the vampiric old Yam busts out of his coffin, makes short work of a couple goats, then hightails it to his son’s house. He smashes into the Yam house (I guess jiangshi don’t need to be invited in) and savagely murders his own middle-aged child. Wai is called to investigate the heinous murder of the influential Mr. Yam. Noting that Yam has puncture wounds in his neck – the kind caused by sharpened fingernails – he suspects the man with the longest nails in town: Master Kau. He promptly arrests Kau and tells his fellow police to lock him up with the corpse of Mr. Yam so he’s faced with the consequences of his actions.

As night falls, Chau-Sang arrives with the paper spells, chicken blood, and sticky rice that Kau requested: but he’s cooked the rice! (The rice needs to be raw to protect against the “vampire vapours,” which is what I imagine vampire Southern belles get.) However, there’s no time to pick up raw sticky rice, Mr. Yam on the other side of the jail, has already turned into a vampire and is on the move – staggering more than hopping at this point. (He did die pretty recently; give him a break.) A brief martial arts battle between Chau-Sang and the vampire ensues in the prison (which includes a bed of nails), with Chau-Sang finally subduing Mr. Yam with a forehead talisman. But Wai enters and Chau-Sang has to hide in the shadows. Wai, cleverly spotting the intruder, draws his pistol and pulls the paper from the corpse’s eyes so his uncle can “watch.”

Mr. Yam returns to undead life, and a comedic battle with Wai, Chau-Sang, Mr. Yam, and Master Kau (still behind bars) follows. During this epic battle, Wai nearly has his crotch chomped by the vampire, he is branded with the “villain” iron, and we learn that if you hold your breath, a vampire can’t sense where you are. (Handy hopping vampire tip!) Master Kau and Chau-Sang are finally able to defeat the vampire by clotheslining it with the ink-drenched thread, then driving a sword through his body, and lighting the corpse ablaze with a magic spell.

“And THAT … is why you always leave a note.”

Man-Choi, meanwhile, has been tasked with guarding Ting-Ting, armed only with his ninja-like stealth suit and a long wooden tube. (This comes in handier than you might think.) In no time, the elder vampiric Mr. Yam smashes in the front door and Man-Choi and Ting-Ting flee to hide in her bedroom closet. The vampire hops up to the closet entrance, and both Man-Choi and Ting-Ting desperately hold their breath. They realize, by breathing through the wooden tube, they can misdirect the vampire (who will think they are standing where the air is being expelled). This lasts for only so long, but luckily the cavalry of Kau and Chau-Sang arrive to wound the vampire with their inked thread. The police then arrive and fire upon the seemingly unstoppable senior Yam, who hops away.

Unfortunately, the attack has left Man-Choi wounded by the vampire’s sharp fingernails. Master Kau worries that he may turn into a vampire, so he’ll have to do a number of things to stop the vampirism from taking hold – things that include hopping and sleeping on a bed of sticky rice and dancing like a monkey so his limbs don’t stiffen. (Man-Choi’s dance is pretty excellent.) The anti-vampiric spell also involves gruesomely cutting out a live snake’s heart and mixing it into a poultice. The temple is running low on sticky rice, so Kau sends Chau-Sang to pick up more.

The rice vendors, however, are greedy … and also low on sticky rice. People from the next town over have been travelling to them to buy sticky rice. (Possibly because of some sort of vampire infestation.) Upon the suggestion of his wife, the rice vendor mixes the regular rice with sticky rice to save money. And that’s the kind of rice Chau-Sang purchases. The other thing that happens when Chau-Sang goes to purchase sticky rice is he encounters his ghost paramour again.

One perfect shot: Blue Velvet (1986).

The ghost woman, Jade (Siu-Fung Wong) seemingly unwilling to simply ask Chau-Sang out on a date, asks, then magically compels a bystander to molest her. Chau-Sang sees the attempted assault and intervenes, “rescuing” the ghost woman. (The whole scene is played for laughs and very uncomfortable.) Chau-Sang offers to walk the ghost woman home. Once there, Chau-Sang creepily suggests how great a dude he is for stopping the sexual predator and walking her home. The ghost agrees, and says she should probably marry him. Given the unusual reaction, Chau-Sang understands that this woman is a real-live ghost. He nervously says goodbye and makes his exit, but outside it begins to pour. He’s trapped! Chau-Sang agrees to one cup of wine. But the wine is drugged, and before you know it, somebody’s turned on the wind machine. Soon, his undead lover has taken advantage of Chau-Sang. (Again: very uncomfortable.)

Back at the temple. Ting-Ting wakes Man-Choi from sleep, and he discovers his nails have grown long and his skin has gone pale. He’s becoming a vampire! Wai and the police knock at the door, and Man-Choi figures he has to make it look like he’s still human. So he frantically clips his nails and uses Ting-Ting’s cosmetics to give himself a very rosy glow. (It’s possible he overdoes it a bit.) Chau-Sang arrives with the massive bag of rice, leading Master Kau to ask what took him so long. His student says a storm broke (not incorrect) and he had to take shelter. But as he naps in a chair, Kau notices the red marks on his neck and thinks he, too, has fallen victim to a vampire.

Wai and his squadron, meanwhile, search high and low for the fugitive vampire. They enter a cave and are nearly attacked by a gorilla (or a man in an unconvincing gorilla suit), but they don’t find the ancient vampire recuperating deeper in the cave. Master Kau eventually realizes that his student hooked up with a lady ghost. He follows him that night when he returns to his ghost booty-call’s secret house. But when Chau-Sang embraces the ghost, she’s repelled backward into the wall. Master Kau secretly painted a spell on Chau-Sang’s chest!

Chau-Sang and his ghost girlfriend, in better times.

As Chau-Sang tries to rub off the spell, Kau wipes his eyes with eucalyptus leaves and is then able to see the ghost’s true face, which is pretty gruesome. (One side of her face is partially melted.) Kau and the ghost engage in battle, with the ghost turning its hair into porcupine-like quills and using its head like a projectile. Losing the battle, the ghost causes her lover Chau-Sang to hallucinate that Kau is actually Wai. Student and master fight as the ghost flies away into the air. The ghost’s departure causes a series of explosions, and the two men are left in ruins of a house. The ghost’s sweet pad was just another illusion.

At the temple, Master Kau has tied Chau-Sang to a chair (so he doesn’t attempt to meet his ghost lover again). Man-Choi is still hiding his growing vampiric tendencies. Night arrives, as does the ghost, out for revenge. But Master Kau has booby-trapped the temple with ink markers and spells. Man-Choi also transforms into a full vampire, growing fangs. A chaotic four-way battle follows, with Chau-Sang bound to a chair for a good part of it. Master Kau finally gets the best of the ghost by tossing his yin-yang cloak upon her. Chau-Sang asks his master to take pity on the defeated ghost, and frees her to escape into the air. That leaves only one supernatural being to take care of left.

Master Kau realizes Man-Choi transformed because the sticky rice has been tainted with regular rice. While Chau-Sang files down Man-Choi’s fangs and Ting-Ting helps to segregate the rice, the evil old vampire gobbles down a rat and, revived, leaves hiding to begin his assault on the temple. Wai arrives and the resulting Götterdämmerung of vampire kung fu involves nearly every character in the film. The vampire, however, proves – like Steven Seagal – hard to kill. A blade to the skull has no effect and our heroes quickly run out of inked thread. Fistfuls of sticky rice thrown at the vampire prove slightly effective, but it’s when Kau’s old friend Four-Eyes returns with his eight docile vampires that things really get interesting.

Four-Eyes, using his trusty bell, is able to command the vampires to hop in unison after the other vampire, slowly surrounding him. But the old Mr. Yam eventually breaks free. So Kau, Four-Eyes, and Chau-Sang have to hold the vampire down while they instruct Wai to “suck the vampire vapour out” with his mouth. He hesitates, so Ting-Ting jumps in. But it’s too late. The vampire is free again. So it’s up to Four-Eyes, garishly dressed in canary yellow, to bring down a massive chandelier on the vampire, torching his body – but, also, the bodies of the eight vampires he was caring for. “My clients!” he moans, and the final credits roll.

“No Disqualification” matches haven’t been the same since vampires started wrestling.

Takeaway points:

  • Watching Mr. Vampire, which is more a kung fu action comedy than horror film, is great for a Western filmgoer with a limited knowledge of Chinese folklore, because all the vampire tropes seem brand-new: dying in anger creates a vampire! Sticky rice can stop a vampire, but so can a hexagonal mirror! And so can two dots of blood on the vampire’s forehead! And why not? It’s no odder than garlic or a crucifix or running water, but the rules – to me – were alien. And that’s not all we learn: holding your breath can prevent a vampire from finding you. And when you disturb a coffin, people born in certain years must not witness the lid’s opening. (That’s great!) Not only is Mr. Vampire a fun romp, it’s a crash course in Chinese superstition and folklore.
  • I love that dying in anger is the reason a corpse transforms into a vampire. Though the film is anything but tragic, there’s a real pathos to the idea of someone dying with a grudge, then being punished forever after with the curse of a vampire. And something even more tragic is that someone who died angry must now travel around by the jauntiest method ever: bunny-hopping. Though, given this prerequisite, there could be thousands if not millions of vampires roaming China at any given moment.
  • As improbable as it seems, this is the second film (of eight) that I’ve watched that make use of the coveted IMDB key phrase, “sex with ghost.” A full quarter of the films so far have included a sex scene with a ghost. Coincidence? Or something more sinister?
  • Four-Eyes appears to be employed as some sort of “vampire walker,” which leads us to the question: are we to believe that was historically a real job? Who employs him to care for these vampires (since he is always worried about his clients)? Their families? Is he employed by the city for performing some sort of public good? Furthermore, who is the “Mr. Vampire” of the film’s title? Is he Mr. Vampire? Is Mr. Yam? (They share the same first name.) And if so, which Mr. Yam?

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Literally nothing about Mr. Vampire is scary. The comedy is broad, but some of it still works remarkably well.

Ting-Ting, shortly before sitting on a tuffet to enjoy some curds and whey.

Best outfit: I am a strong proponent of Ting-Ting’s unusual green, intricately designed top and her gray chequered outfit, though there’s also something to be said for Man-Choi’s clown-like rainbow-and-orange unitard.

Best line: “It’s good you found out so late. That way I got to enjoy her tender love.” – Chau-Sang on the impeccable timing of when Master Kau discovered the ghost lady

Best kill: The professionalism with which Master Kau and Chau-Sang dispatch the younger (more recently vampired) Mr. Yam is a thing of beauty: tether him with inked thread, shove a sword through him, light that paper talisman on fire and torch the guy.

Unexpected cameo: The older vampire Mr.Yam is portrayed by Wah Yuen, an accomplished stunt man and fight choreographer. Not only is he killed three separate times in Enter the Dragon, he also portrays the landlord in Kung Fu Hustle. Jackie Chan, one of his fellow Peking Opera students, often tells an anecdote of how Wah Yuen could sleep while maintaining a perfect hand stand.

Unexpected lesson learned:I learned that rice in China (as well as other food items) is measured in “catties.” One catty equals about 605 grams.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Yee Hung Garden.

Next up: A Bucket of Blood (1959).

31 (More) Days of Fright: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Space flowers for Algernon.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. What better to follow up on last night’s movie than the (first) remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), directed by Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being), and suggested by friend, president of book distributor Ampersand, and former college instructor of mine Saffron Beckwith. I also picked up a DVD of this version Invasion of the Body Snatchers from Queen Video. Lets compare and contrast, shall we?

What happens:

The late 1970s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is nearly identical to the original (and, I imagine, the book by Jack Finney upon which it’s based), but differs in a few notable ways. For one, our story does not take place in the fictional small town of Santa Mira, but the swingin’ 70s metropolis of San Francisco! And instead of opening with a frame in which our hero recounts hist story, this film opens on an alien wasteland, where we see the seed pods rise from the planet, travel through space, and rain down on the Golden City, infecting the plant life. Department of Health employee Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) spots an unusual flowering plant and decides to take it home.

She returns to find her dentist boyfriend, Geoffrey (Canadian treasure Art Hindle) busy watching basketball with headphones on. She shows him the special plant and has a difficult time identifying it in her plant reference books. Across town, tough-as-nails health inspector (and Elizabeth’s co-worker), Matthew Bennell (other Canadian treasure Donald Sutherland) is putting the screws to a French restaurant after he finds a rat turd in their soup stock. (They assert it’s actually a caper.) Not everyone appreciates Matthew’s work ethic, and he finds his car’s windshield broken by an inexpensive bottle of French wine. Fittingly, we view much of the film’s later scenes through Matthew’s splintered glass.

No rat turds on the watch of Matthew Bennell, ace health inspector.

When he returns home, Matthew calls Elizabeth and informs her he needs her to come into work early the next day. Reluctantly, she agrees and falls asleep with the newfound plant set at Geoffrey’s bedside. Atypically, her sports-loving boyfriend is up and dressed early, sweeping up debris on the bedroom floor. He doesn’t say much, just takes the refuse directly to the back of the garbage truck, and heads off to work. Elizabeth, however, confused by Geoffrey’s behaviour, arrives within the marbled walls of the Department of Health later than expected. Once there, she shares with Matthew how strange Geoffrey has been acting: “He was just weird.” After work, he becomes stranger, passing up Warriors tickets in favour of a mysterious meeting. When Elizabeth questions him, he puts up a wall: “I don’t need to justify my every action to you.”

Left alone for the evening, Elizabeth visits co-worker Matthew at his apartment, where he’s whipping up a delicious stir fry and flirting up a storm. She tries to explain how Geoffrey has changed: the feelings, the emotions are different. But he’s clearly the same person. Elizabeth starts to wonder if she’s experiencing psychotic delusions. Matthew offers to introduce her to his friend, celebrity psychiatrist, Dr. David Kibner – not because he thinks she’s mentally ill, but because Kibner could help eliminate possibilities, such as if Geoffrey has “become gay” or has contracted a “social disease.”

The next morning, Matthew drops off some stained clothing at his Chinese dry cleaners, and the co-owner tells him his wife is not his wife. Elizabeth later surprises him when he’s working late at the office to dish more info on Geoffrey’s strange behaviour. That day, she followed him to work, and witnessed him meet with people she’d never seen before, passing around things swaddled in blankets. Overnight, everything has become frightening and conspiratorial. They decide to meet with Dr. Kibner right away – that evening he’s launching a new book – and drive to see him. Along the way, they nearly run over a man ranting in the street (Kevin McCarthy, star of the original film, in a clever cameo). The seemingly disturbed man is run down by a car moments later and a gathered crowd seems content to just watch him die in the street.

At the book launch, they meet their friend, Jack Bellicec, who seems to be a failed writer of sorts, and doesn’t take much stock in Kibner’s acclaimed ideas. That’s when we meet Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), busy on-stage consulting a woman, Katherine (Leila Golden) who loudly proclaims her husband, Ted (Tom Luddy) is an impostor. Elizabeth wants to intervene with valuable information – namely that she’s felt the same way about her husband and, further, that she’s seen this woman’s husband meeting with her own. But Kibner refuses to let Elizabeth talk, and instead reconciles husband and wife with his quiet, soothing words.

Kibner takes Elizabeth and Matthew outside to discuss Elizabeth’s personal crisis. He doesn’t believe that Geoffrey is an impostor any more than that woman’s husband was. Instead, he sees this rash of people claiming their loved ones as impostors as a symptom of the modern world, where people enter and leave relationships too quickly. He suggests that Elizabeth is seeing Geoffrey as an impostor because it’s an easy way to excuse herself from their relationship. Then, confusingly, as Jack approaches them, Kibner throws him up against the wall, to “shock her.” (These Invasion movies are, invariably, packed with suspect psychiatrists.)

Jack returns to his place of business, Bellicec Baths, a spa and mud bath that doesn’t seem overly hygienic. (They definitely reuse the mud at Bellicec Baths.) His wife, Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright), a crunchy granola type, is hard at work assisting customers, but Jack, aggravated by his encounter with Dr. Kibner, treats himself to a steam. We learn that Mr. Gianni, an intense reader and regular spa customer, recently gifted Nancy a plant (!), which explains why why she later finds a half-formed slimy clone on one of the massage tables and screams blue murder.

There are much worse things you can find in spa than a Jeff Goldblum clone.

Matthew has accompanied Elizabeth back to Geoffrey’s apartment, but the dentist is nowhere to be seen (though we viewers see him lurking in the shadows). Shortly after Matthew has brought Elizabeth home safe, he gets a call from the Bellicecs to do a little unofficial health inspection. He arrives and sees the smooth, vague body with his very own eyes, declaring it not unlike some sort of adult fetus. As you’d expect, they soon determine this body is the same height and build as Jack (though Goldblum’s Jack is significantly taller than King Donovan’s). Realizing what impossibly seems to be occurring, Matthew calls Geoffrey’s apartment to warn Elizabeth, but Elizabeth is already being drained by and covered with plant tendrils. Geoffrey takes the telephone from her and leaves it off the hook. Sensing skullduggery, Matthew leaves immediately.

This leaves Jack and Nancy with the half-formed clone. At some point, Jack injured himself and got himself a nosebleed. So when Jack lays down to rest, the clone opens his eyes the very moment the real Jack’s eyes close. Also, his nose begins to bleed. Oh, and tendrils start to creep out from his body. Nancy sees this alarming phenomenon and wakes her husband, and then Dr. Kibner arrives to surprise them both. Back at Geoffrey’s house, Matthew decides to break in through the basement window. Geoffrey has headphones on to watch the basketball game, so doesn’t notice at Matthew creeps upstairs to see an Elizabeth clone, surrounded by lush plants, and the real Elizabeth, unconscious in her bed. He tries in vain to wake her, and when this fails, he carries her out the way he came.

Back at the Bellicec Baths, Kibner returns to his friends in the lobby to tell them there’s nothing remotely like a body in there. Jack and Nancy can’t believe this and tear the spa apart looking for the clone. Kibner thinks one of Jack’s friends must have played a practical joke on him. “I don’t have any friends,” Jack mumbles. That’s when Matthew returns with Elizabeth and asks Nancy to take her back to his apartment. He calls the police from the spa and reports a body at Geoffrey’s, but when the police, Kibner, and Geoffrey arrive, what was a clone is now a few ceramic pots surrounded by houseplants. Elizabeth, however, is missing, and – given the circumstances, it looks like Matthew kind of kidnapped her. However, Kibner is able to smooth things over with the police – the detective’s wife is a big fan of his books – and Geoffrey decides not to press charges.

Our protagonists go over the situation at Matthew’s apartment, and Dr. Kibner can’t believe what his friends are saying – they seem to be buying entirely into fantastical notions. Most fantastical of all: that a flower – the flower Elizabeth found and the one that a client brought to the spa – is somehow responsible. A flower, perhaps, from outer space! (“Why do we expect metal ships?” Nancy asks.) However, Kibner agrees to do a favour for Matthew and set up a phone call with the mayor, one of his patients. However, Matthew gets the runaround from every government official he contacts. No one will listen to his plea. (However, we viewers expected that, for we saw Kibner later enter a car with noted pod people Geoffrey and Ted. He’s already one of them.)

Elizabeth, while Matthew is attempting to elicit help from the authorities, takes the flower to her colleague at the Department of Health to be be analyzed. (Nothing ever comes of that.) Over the course of day, people who had previously believed their loved ones were impostors – the dry cleaner, Katherine from the book launch – assure Matthew and Elizabeth they were mistaken. Our heroes hole up in Matthew’s hilltop apartment, where Kibner advises a good night’s rest before departing.

Matthew Bennell visits his apartment’s rooftop garden, but soon begins to doze in a lawn chair. As he does, tendrils emerge from the garden to ensnare him. Then a giant flower (not noticed by Matthew earlier) basically begins to give birth (it’s very yonal), ejecting a plant fetus that slowly takes shape as a Donald Sutherland duplicate. Also on the rooftop, clones of Jack, Nancy, and Elizabeth begin to take shape. Luckily, Nancy ascends to the roof and wakes Matthew up with a scream when she sees the slowly forming doubles. Matthew and Nancy race downstairs to call the police, who somehow already know who’s calling. Everybody’s in on it! Then the power’s cut and the streets outside are barricaded.

The green roof movement has gone way too far.

Our survivors go to the roof to leave via the fire escape. Before leaving, Matthew picks up a shovel and attempts to work up the courage to kill the Elizabeth clone. While he fails, he succeeds in smashing in the face of his own clone in a horrible, gory mess. Once the four hit the street level, they are chased through the night by nearly everyone in the city. The pod people begin emitting a horrible screech as chase them down a long flight of stairs (way easier a trip than up the staircase, as in the original!). They overcome numerous obstacles but are completely stymied by a chain link fence that’s about the height of Jeff Goldblum. When a police helicopter arrives, Jack and Nancy race in the other direction to draw it away, leaving Matthew and Elizabeth on their own.

Elizabeth and Matthew speed-walk into a seedier area of the city (which seems like it hasn’t been infiltrated by pod people). They find a cab and instruct the driver to take them to the airport, but become increasingly paranoid with every question the cabbie asks. The airport is crawling with police, and when the cops stop the taxi, Elizabeth and Matthew escape out the back. They make it back to the Department of the Health (must be near the airport), where their busker friend and his dog companion are unconscious beside a large flower. (Matthew gives the flower a swift kick and it oozes blood.)

A police officer follows them into their offices, and Elizabeth and Matthew have to hide in a darkened closet. While in hiding, Matthew and Elizabeth kiss, with Matthew looking for the world like he’s trying to loosen a screw with his lips (further bolstering my theory that Donald Sutherland can’t kiss – a theory first established after watching Don’t Look Now). After the cop leaves, they take a look out the window and spot trucks distributing massive seed pods to dozens and dozens of people. Elizabeth begins to lose hope. The pod people seemingly control the city, and she’s too exhausted to go on. Luckily, they find a solution in their office: speed. “How many does it say to take?” Matthew asks. “One,” Elizabeth answers. “Take five.”

Jack Bellicec arrives at the office, but he’s also brought Kibner, Geoffrey, and a few others with him. Jack has been assimilated. They restrain Matthew and Elizabeth while Dr. Kibner injects them both with a sedative to assist them in falling asleep, all while making a speech similar to the one Kaufman makes in the original film. Being a pod person frees them from troubles, from anxiety, from feeling. Matthew argues that becoming a pod person also means you all think the same – Jack and Kibner always fought before, and now they agree on everything. Elizabeth confesses to Matthew, “I love you,” but Matthew leaves that admission just hanging there.

The pod people drag Matthew and Elizabeth in front of two fresh pods, but Elizabeth breaks a bottle over Kibner’s head and Matthew chokes Jack out (and apparently stabs him in the back of the head with a dart). Seeing the elevator guarded, they try to escape via the stairs. They encounter Nancy in the stairwell, but she seems to be her old self. (Not a pod person!) She provides our heroes with some helpful tips – she’s discovered you can fool the pod people by not showing emotion. The three leave the office and line up to collect pods as blankly as they can.

It’s approaching *that* point of the party.

However, while waiting in line, they encounter a grotesque sight: the busker’s dog has fused with the human busker’s face. (Why this happens is never explained.) The frightful sight causes Elizabeth to shriek, and they’re found out as humans! Found out, Matthew slaps an old lady and they flee, leaping unseen onto the back of a transport truck.

The truck brings them to an enormous factory where the pod people’s operations are centred. Unfortunately, Elizabeth rolls her ankle, which slows them down a bit. After the injury, Matthew then admits he loves her too. (Sure. When no one else is around, Matthew.) While hiding in some tall grasses outside the factory, they hear bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace.” Realizing only a human being could be idiosyncratic enough to enjoy the sound of bagpipes, Matthew tells Elizabeth to stay put while he investigates. The music is coming from a radio upon a large cargo ship, which is when Matthew remembers he lives in a port city! They could escape on a ship! Unfortunately, the ship in question is being loaded with massive seed pods.

Matthew returns to Elizabeth to see she’s fallen asleep in the reeds, and her body is covered in vines. He tries to shake her awake, promising her that the ships will take them away. But Elizabeth rots and turns to plant goo (answering the question of what happens to the original humans once cloned). The clone Elizabeth pops up in the reeds, stark naked, and beckons him to join her in sleep. Matthew runs and Elizabeth cries her banshee wail, pointing out the interloping human being.

Our surviving human hero returns to the pod compound, where he encounters a massive greenhouse with rows and rows of pods being incubated by overhead lights. Matthew scurries up to the rafters, a la Soylent Green, and grabs a fire axe. Alarms immediately sound and a nude Elizabeth storms in, pointing toward Matthew above and emitting her piercing wail. But it’s too late. Matthew starts attacking the light rigging with ferocity, bringing the lights down on the plants in a series of fiery explosion.

Matthew slides out of the compound via the roof, with the pod people hot on his heels and the factory exploding around him. The pod people chase him down the street and Matthew finds refuge under a boardwalk. One pursuer peers down into the boardwalk below and shines a flashlight that provides a nice filmic transition to the next morning.

The next day, we see Matthew sauntering down the street, walking among the unsuspecting pod people doing their old jobs, if somewhat more joylessly than usual. Matthew, as before, cuts clippings from the paper. Business as usual. At lunch, he walks over to City Hall when he’s stopped by Nancy. (Remember her? She’s still human.) Hearing Nancy’s voice, Matthew turns, raises his pointer finger at her, and shrieks the pod person shriek. (OMG!)

Whatcha gonna’ do when Sutherland-mania runs wild on you?!

Takeaway points:

  • If the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers was either an allegory for Communism or allegory for McCarthyism, what does this film, made in 1978 mean? The same premise is in place: individualism crushed by a collective will, a creeping inhumanity infecting the populace. But there are clues that this inhumanity arises not from any sort of political dogma, but (strangely) the social phenomenon of self-interest. This is the era of the Me Decade. This film is set in a city, where people are naturally more distant (rather than the quaint and friendly small town of Santa Mira), precisely to emphasize this reading. Kibner notes people these days are more self-interested, less willing to work out a difficult relationship (something a male psychologist would say). Even when the street ranter is run over in the street, no one makes a move to help; they just watch him die. And this is before most of them are pod people. It’s not a stretch to say that Kaufman uses Invasion as a warning that people’s individualism not turn to solipsistic self-interest.
  • Interestingly, if you read the man ranting in the street as Dr. Miles Bennell (from the original film), this Invasion becomes not a remake, but a sequel of sorts. The framing device in the first movie could be read as a dream sequence. The invasion has spread from Santa Mira to the major city of San Francisco. And instead of saving humanity, Miles dies in the street. (Grim!)
  • Though the remake lacks the framing device of the original, the cosmic introduction (revealing definitively the extraterrestrial origin of our seed pods) does the job of removing any ambiguity. We know it’s an invasion; we saw the pods. There’s never a question over whether this is a mass delusion. It does, however, also have a way more cynical end. Perhaps post-Vietnam and Watergate, Americans couldn’t believe in the false hope at the end of the original. There’s no chance for Nancy. All hope dies at the film’s conclusion.
  • Though there have been two other remakes of the central Invasion of the Body Snatchers story, it would be interesting to see a non-white and non-American (or specifically recent immigrant) director tackle the story. The films are about assimilation, but it’s invariably the white American majority who are fearful of this assimilation. What would a similar film look like from the perspective of someone who has had to struggle with his or her own assimilation into white America? That would likely be a very different and very interesting Invasion.
  • Can we admit that Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright) is the real hero of Invasion of the Body Snatchers? She first alerts people to the duplicates, she survives the longest, she’s the first to champion the idea of the “space flower,” she draws the police away from Matthew and Elizabeth, and she comes up with the idea to act blankly to confuse the pod people. Without Nancy, our other protagonists would have died forty minutes into this film.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a solid remake – mostly faithful to the original with an added level of Watergate-era paranoia, and a couple unsettling scenes of gore. And the sounds the pod people make are enough to give nightmares on their own. There are scares, for sure.

Oh, and I suppose you just leave the back of your hand naked?

Best outfit: There’s a lot of great 70s-era fashion on parade, but you have to hand it to Dr. Kibner, king of the useless accessory, for his leather half-glove that he wears for no apparent reason.

Best line:What’s a big conspiracy?” Matthew asks Jack. “Everything,” he responds.

Best kill: Matthew Bennell smashing in his own face with a shovel haunts my dreams. After seeing it, you won’t be able to see Donald Sutherland’s face without imagining it caved in by a garden implement and gushing blood.

Unexpected cameo: The inclusion of the original film’s star, Kevin McCarthy, playing the exact same role he did at the end of the first movie, is a stroke of genius. Additionally, the original film’s director, Don Siegel has a cameo as the taxi driver who takes our heroes to the airport. Weirder still, Robert Duvall has an inexplicable cameo as a priest playing on a child’s swing in one brief scene.

Unexpected lesson learned: Most health inspectors are, at heart, failed chefs themselves.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Worlds in Collision (the title of the book Nancy’s literate client recommends).

Next up: Mr. Vampire (1985)