Cultural Chaos in the 1970s Part 3: Invasion of the Body Snatchers Ignites Urban Paranoia

By Michael Crosby

In this 3-part series, Michael Crosby looks at how horror films of the 1970s exploited the American cultural divide between rural, suburban and city neighbors.

In the first two parts of our Cultural Chaos series, we took a look at two films that exemplified regional fears here in the good old US of A during the tumultuous 1970s. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) capitalized successfully on the fears some of us city slickers have of the rural South, whilst John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) brought mindless terror to the suburb of Haddonfield, Illinois. This leaves us with one more fear to explore: the vast expanse of the modern American city.

Cities literally burned in the 60s and 70s. Civil rights were the underlying issue at stake, old as the founding of the country itself. Our Founding Fathers began a game of Kick the Can Down the Road regarding slavery and race because they simply — and pragmatically — knew that they had to if the American experiment was to survive its infancy. However well-intentioned, this process would lead to a deepening of divisions culminating in no less than civil war. The atrocities committed in the name of upholding slavery are so numerous they merit their own book, much less an article. Those divisions still exist to this very day, and more than any other, the urban setting has been the battleground of this particular war. Entrenched poverty, ghettos, a failed drug war, segregation, gentrification, and daily abuses from a policing standpoint all contributed to a tipping point.

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Livernois-Fenkell Riots of 1975. Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

The modern American city in 1978 was a much dirtier, grittier place than most today. Homelessness, prostitution, red-light districts, open-air drug markets, and the Mafia business exploded during the decade. Coupled with a nationwide recession that forced police departments to slow or stop spending, urban areas in 1978 were a curious mix of bright lights, 24–7 booze, sex and drugs, violent crime and urbane culture.

And they were definitely dangerous.

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New York City in the late 1970s. Photo by Manel Armengol.

In terms of raw, visceral horror, examples abounded physically: rape, overdoses, murder. The city had it all, usually in mind-bending abundance on any given night. From the tragedy of the dope-fiend who keels over while trying to take a crap…to the 3-month-old raped by his dead-eyed stepfather…to the inevitable shotgun blast or stabbing…cities were rife with violence.

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Physical violence in urban areas generally found expression in American cinema through the crime drama or gangster film. A good horror film usually has something going on beyond the gross-out, and the psychological underpinnings of city life have provided fodder for some great scary movies set in that milieu. You can argue it isn’t horror, but Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) has some truly disturbing things to say about the alienation and anonymity found there. Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is a treatise on urban paranoia. But in my mind, Phillip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) perfectly encapsulates them both, while also taking some welcome jabs at the self-help, “I’m OK, you’re OK” movement prevalent at the time.

Although remakes and sequels are a dime a dozen today, this wasn’t the case in 1978. Remaking the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers within an urban setting, with a major studio and an expensive cast, was by no means a guaranteed hit. Fortunately, the direction, writing — hell all of the technical cast — came through in spades. The same could be said for the main cast. Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy all turn in stellar, respectful performances.

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Brooke Adams, Donald Sutherland, and Jeff Goldblum. Credit: Scream Factory.

Where the film truly succeeds, however, is the shift from the suburban setting of the original film to the big city setting of San Francisco. Kaufmann takes advantage of the locale, which could’ve been interpreted as a lazy script’s attempt to freshen up the material. Instead, he exploits every trope of big city living to the film’s betterment. The idea that it’s possible to never feel more alone than when you’re surrounded by thousands of neighbors is explored. As is the festering paranoia that explodes in the final act where no one can assume people — especially close friends or anyone in a position of authority — are on their side. Alienation and paranoia are central to the film’s themes, much like the aforementioned Rosemary’s Baby.

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Alienation in the city of San Francisco. Credit: Scream Factory.

Enough about alienation in the film. How about dehumanization?

The chilling ending is effective and an ultimate punctuation to the theme of paranoia. But, for my money, the most disturbing scene in this remake is the scene Sutherland shares with his pod, the alien “snatching” him, and it appeals most definitively to the theme of dehumanization.

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Birth and erasure. Credit: Scream Factory.

Given improved resources in both budget and FX, Kaufman indulges in an intensely slimy, intense and haunting scene where his character is witness, as are we, to the perverted “birth” of his own doppelganger, the creature that will replace him and his life. Finally, face to face with the truth that the invasion is real, that he himself is being erased…the idea is terrible enough, but the FX work takes us to a truly horrific level. Simultaneously primitive and state-of-the-art, Sutherland is forced to watch his own birth and erasure, all at once. It’s disturbing, it's nihilistic, and it doesn’t offer the audience much hope.

Much like the cities themselves.

About the Author

Michael Crosby was a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. He passed away on December 5, 2020. We miss him dearly. His articles remain on this site in his honor.

Follow Manor Vellum on Twitter @ManorVellum and Instagram @manorvellum.

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A membrane of texts about the human condition within the horror genre. A MANOR feature.

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