Movies & TV / Columns

A Bloody Good Time: ABGT Face-Off – They Live vs. Invasion of The Body Snatchers 1978

November 10, 2016 | Posted by Joseph Lee


Opening Logo courtesy of Benjamin J. Colón (Soul Exodus)

Before we begin, I’d like to direct your attention to this week’s episode of The Bloody Good Podcast! We discuss the news that Max Landis is directing a remake of An American Werewolf in London before going off on a tangent about werewolf movies in general.

This week, I thought I’d get a little political.

No wait, come back!

Don’t worry, I’m not going to comment on the election or our new President. I have to write enough about actual politics as it is. I’d much rather talk about movies, since that’s what I do best. In this case, I wanted to talk a little about when horror mixes in political elements. Some movies are more subtle about it, like George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Others are a little more overt. I’ve selected two that came out within a decade of each other for the latest edition of the ABGT Face-Off.

When I think about politics and horrror, these are the two that immediately jump to mind. So we’re going to pit the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers against John Carpenter’s 1988 movie They Live!

Both are interesting films to me, in that they both use aliens to tell their stories. They also take on the alien invasion story in different ways. Body Snatchers, like the 1956 original, makes the aliens look like normal people with different personalities. You don’t know who could be an alien because they’re here already and they’re replacing your neighbor or your loved one.

In They Live, they’ve been here for a very long time. They’re in a prominent place in our culture and are controlling us through subliminal messages. The only way to see them is through a special pair of glasses, which means only a small handful of people are even aware the aliens exist. But once you put on the glasses, you’re awake and you’ll never be able to unsee it.

Both films were a commentary on the era of politics in which they were made. While the original Body Snatchers was about the fear of communism, the remake seems to focus more on being an individual vs being one of the crowd. It feels very anti-establishment, probably born out of the counterculture and New Age movements that rose in the 60s and 70s. They Live, meanwhile, takes shots at Reaganomics, popular culture and consumerism. Of course, I’m no political analyst, this is only what I’ve seen in reviews and commentary, along with my own personal takes on what I saw.

So let’s get into what I do best and analyze the movies themselves. You know how this goes. I break it down category by category with my thoughts, then you get to vote at the end.

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Round 1: The Hero

These movies both have completely different heroes who also have one thing in common. They’re both ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. They find themselves in the middle of a war against an insurmountable force that they didn’t necessarily mean to join. You could almost consider They Live an homage to Body Snatchers, given how similar the plots are.

In Body Snatchers, we follow Donald Sutherland as health inspector Matthew Bennell. He’s a pretty normal guy with a somewhat boring job. Just when we start to get to know him, we find out that something’s happening to the people around him. People are starting to act differently. They’re not good or bad, they’re just acting like they’re not themselves. Even the police seem to be indifferent about things like people dying. Eventually he discovers what’s going on and it’s horrifying. Sutherland is great in the role and it’s one of my favorites in his career.

Meanwhile, Roddy Piper in They Live is also a normal guy. Perhaps he’s a better built guy than Donald Sutherland, but he’s still relatively normal. He’s a drifter, moving from town to town looking for work. Just when he begins to settle into a new job, he finds a pair of sunglasses. The glasses let him see the world in black and white, which is when he discovers that several people are actually aliens. In addition to that, the media and ads have messages like “obey”, “consume” and “conform.” Naturally, he loses his mind a bit and tries to convince people to help him.

Piper wasn’t known for his acting at this point, with only three roles beforehand. They Live was such a big movie and Piper was so good in it that it essentially gave him a second career. Sure, most of that was straight-to-video B-movies, but it’s good work if you can get it. Sutherland of course, was well into his own film career when he took on the pod people.

It’s a really hard choice. They’re both great performances for different reasons. Piper is a great B-movie hero and Sutherland’s just great in general. I guess it boils down to personal preference. In that case, I’m going to go a little outside the box and give the nod to They Live. I think the reason I like John Nada a little better is because Piper’s performance is so surprising. With Sutherland, you know you’re getting something good. But casting a professional wrestler as the lead in your high-concept sci-fi movie was a bold move that just happened to pay off for John Carpenter.

Winner: They Live

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Round Two: The Aliens

This is another case of ‘similar but different’. The aliens have different physiology, but their plans are the same and when we discover them, they’ve already been on Earth and are taking over. It’s just different stages of invasion plots.

In They Live, they’re humanoid with weird bug eyes and skull faces. They’ve already been on Earth long enough that they’ve taken everything over and are hiding in plain sight. It’s actually really scary, if you think about it. Somehow this alien race was able to take over the Earth and no one noticed. they’re in powerful positions and they have been for years. It’s basically dumb luck that someone with the guys to do anything discovers they’ve been here.

In Body Snatchers, it’s a completely different species. They’re spores that leave they’re dying planet and create small pods. When humans sleep, a pod person is created who replaces them. It’s as simple as that. You go to sleep and then you’re replaced by something that’s identical but not you. It has your thoughts and memories, but your personality and you are gone forever. The aliens simply use your form to exist.

Both scenarios are horrifying for the same reason. They’re subtle takeovers. Humanity isn’t aware they’re happening. It could be happening right now in real life and we wouldn’t know. Maybe we’d suspect that someone is acting different, but there’s a lot of different reasons to explain it. We certainly wouldn’t automatically think “pod person.”

But which alien is better? While I’ve always enjoyed the look of the aliens in They Live, I think the aliens in Body Snatchers are scarier. Once you go to sleep, it’s over. You have no control over it and you have to sleep. More important, the aliens in Body Snatchers actually succeed. At least Nada manages to wake the world up to the problem in his movie.

Winner: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

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Round Three: The Supporting Cast

As always, a good group of supporting characters is essentially for most classic films. Both of these have it, although both are different from each other.

The two main standouts in They Live are Frank Armitage (Keith David) and Holly Thompson (Meg Foster). Frank is a lot like Nada, in that he’s a working man who wants nothing to do with a situation like this. He’s forced into it (literally) by Nada and ends up working with him to save humanity. Holly doesn’t believe Nada’s story at all and is eventually (spoiler alert on a 28-year-old film) revealed to be one of the few humans that are working with the aliens.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers has quite the impressive cast outside of Sutherland. Brooke Adams, an earlier role for Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright and even Leonard Nimoy, who breaks out of his role of Spock to give one of the better performances in the movie. There’s even a cameo from Kevin McCarthy as a nod to the original. It’s an impressive collection of people and all of the characters are written well, making this almost an ensemble piece for a time.

As far as which alien movie has the better supporting cast, I’d have to go with Invasion. They Live does extremely well building up the characters it has with the cast it has, but there’s something to be said about a larger cast that manages to build its story up well and keep it from falling apart. I think Body Snatchers ’78 has the best cast of any of the takes on this tale, and this comes from someone who adores the original.

Winner: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

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Round Four: Memorable Moments

Behold, the toughest category for me to judge. Yes, it’s even more difficult than judging the overall quality of both films. Both of these films are incredibly memorable, so much so that we’re still talking about them decades later. In the case of They Live, it’s regarded as one of Carpenter’s better movies in a decade where he couldn’t put out a bad film. With Body Snatchers, it’s definitely the best of the remakes and there are some who might say it’s even better than the original. So picking which film had the more memorable moments is hard.

Let’s start with They Live. And since we’re talking about They Live, we have to bring up the fight scene. You know the one. The five-minute fight sequence between Roddy Piper and Keith David that drags on forever, because it’s two equally matched guys beating the hell out of each other. They fight in a realistic style, but no real fight is going to go on this long if the people involved are laying into each other like this. There’s a reason fights in MMA can be done in seconds with one proper head shot.

That’s not even the only scene in the film. What about when Nada shows up to the bank to start blowing away the aliens? How about when the aliens are revealed and we got that iconic image of one standing in front of an “Obey” sign (like the photo at the top of the article)? Personally, I enjoy the scene at the very end in which an alien is revealed during sex.

Body Snatchers is no slouch in this department, either. We have the iconic ending, in which one of the main characters is revealed to be a pod person in the most horrific way. We have the revelation that Leonard Nimoy has turned and is trying to convert our heroes. We have the half-formed pod person. On top of all of that, there’s the hobo/dog hybrid that is created because a pod is created next to the pair and something goes wrong. I’d scream at seeing something like that in real life too.

Since it’s my opinion, I have to give the nod to They Live here. While both films are very good, Invasion is more about the film as a whole while as a B-movie (and I mean that in the best possible way), They Live is more about the moments. It’s highly entertaining, so those moments absolutely deliver.

Winner: They Live

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Round Five: Quality

So this category is about the film’s overall quality. Which film is the best and has the most rewatch value? That’s another tough one. Perhaps I should stop directly comparing movies for this and go back to concepts or film companies.

The last time I compared two films, we had The Lost Boys and Near Dark. I still think Near Dark got robbed, by the way. It was a case of a more popular vampire movie against an overall better vampire movie. That’s a similar case here, only it’s a much tighter race. Both movies are classics for entirely different reasons.

They Live is one of my personal favorite Carpenter films, behind only Halloween and The Thing. I realize Carpenter’s filmography is astoundingly good, so being able to rank them at all should be incredibly difficult. But I’ve always enjoyed the movie ever since I first saw it on MonsterVision. It’s a B-movie classic, and a perfect representation of how to do a B-movie without treating your audience like they’re stupid for liking it.

If you’re not into Roddy Piper blowing away aliens because he’s all out of bubblegum, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is probably the smarter choice. There’s not a whole lot that happens on the surface, because it’s all about tension, paranoia and dread. What we don’t see in this movie is more terrifying than what we do see. It’s a very intelligent take on the alien invasion movie and arguably (it’s 1-A and 1-B for me, honestly) a better adaptation than even the 1956 original.

In the end, I think I have to go with Body Snatchers. They Live is absolutely a great film, but Invasion ’78 is terrifying, even more so today. As a lifelong horror fan, I have to go with the film that still creeps me out. Plus on top of that it has everything They Live has and more. It’s a great film.

Winner: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

The final tally is 3-2 in favor of Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978. Don’t agree? That’s why the final vote is always up to you. The winner will be revealed next week. Meanwhile, please let me know what other versus battles you want to see. It can be movie vs. movie, character vs. character, company vs. company or even entire subgenres of horror. Anything’s fair game on the ABGT Face-Off!


Ending Notes:

That’s it for me. Leave some comments here, on my Twitter or my Facebook.


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