Writer-director John Murlowski has been turning out low-budget genre fare since Return of the Family Man (1989) – with such VHS era items as Amityville: A New Generation (1993) and Black Cadillac (2003) to his credit. Lately, he’s been toiling on those female-skewing mild peril thrillers that are a mainstay of Channel 5’s afternoon schedule (Sisters in Crime, Killer Contractor, that sort of thing) … but this science fiction horror item might be his best work to date. It’s a closer adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers than either of the last two adaptations – Body Snatchers (1993), The Invasion (2007) – and plays some knowing variations on the 1956 and 1978 films titled Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers uses Finney’s small town setting, but each remake moves to a location that supplants the author’s Santa Mira as representative of America: post-hippie San Francisco in the 1970s for Phil Kaufman, an army base in the 1990s for Abel Ferrara, the political arena of Washington D.C. in the 2000s for Olivier Hirschbiegel and his replacement James McTeigue. Murlowski, who co-wrote with Steven Palmer Peterson, takes the story home with a twist, as misfit teens Zach (Joel Courtney) and Randy (Calum Worthy) post youtube videos designed to show that their small home town of Multon, Missouri is the inspiration for the term ‘podunk’ but find themselves chronicling the take-over of their community by pod people with a familiar m.o. Here, tiny spores swarm into rat-sized bug-like critters who bite people to same their DNA then grow into naked clones who must throttle their originals while draining their memories. Rapidly, the town’s authority figures – minister (Terry Dale Parks), sheriff (Byron Hughes), parents – are replaced, and there’s barely a moment to mourn the passing of eccentrics like the hippie bookshop chick (Amye Gousset) or the parents (Vito Viscuso. Jennifer Pierce Mathus) of teen heroine Kayla (Andi Matichak).
The replaced are standard stiffs, with an interesting line in blunt malice (‘your mother’s a slut and your father’s a junkie’, the formerly daffy minister tells the heroes) and distendable jaws all the better for doing a version of that bigmouth yell Phil Kaufman’s film invented. In a particularly creepy moment, Zach’s father (Kevin Remington) reveals that he’s been replaced when he stands up – his double is perfectly-made, whereas the original was a double amputee. Their life cycle also means that some humans, like the gun-proficient deputy (Cam Gigandet), have a chance to fight back against their screeching, running naked doppelgangers. Underneath it all is a life lesson for the well-delineated kids who take their dull town for granted and set out to poke fun at it – then find out how much they depended on having something to react against when it’s summarily wiped out by aliens.
In the home stretch, survivors try to pass for pod people by faking emotionlessness even as they stroll through a town where aliens make bonfires of the husks of the people they’ve taken over. Like the novel, the finale involves an action-suspense stratagem — as Zach and Kayla break into a data storage facility in order to upload their revelatory footage to the internet and warn the world. It’s traditional in adaptations of this material – only one out of four films goes with anything like Finney’s happy ending – that there’s a grim, downbeat punchline and we duly get one, though here there’s a further twist that you can add to your collection of ways-this-story-could-pan-out.