FROM LIBERAL HORROR TO CONSERVATIVE HORROR
by Chris R. Morgan
In the late-1970s, horror cinema began making what I call the Lovecraft pivot. H.P. Lovecraft was not unknown to the previous era of horror, but the difficulties of his work—technically and thematically—gave him marginal placing beside his idol Edgar Allan Poe and his protégé Robert Bloch. Only a sliver of his already small body of work was adapted—The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and “The Dunwich Horror” by Roger Corman, for instance, and “Cool Air” for an episode of Night Gallery.
This changed as more prestige directors attempted science fiction, which inevitably led to experiments in horror-sci-fi hybrids. This being Lovecraft’s signal literary contribution, his more radical ideas were now fair game. In due course, quite like a contagion, the resulting hybrids acquired both Lovecraft’s impenetrable aesthetic and his amoral philosophy. Humanity was ever under threat by extraterrestrial invaders, but ones that were far removed from our concerns and limitations, with little commonality or interest in us specifically, and unburdened by culture, ethics, or any higher motivating factor than survival. This dynamic was better insofar as it seemed more realistic. The notion that aliens were “like us” or that our principles and spirit would carry the day against them were naïve conceits best left in the 1950s. And because experiments like Alien and The Thing were wildly successful, this attitude prevailed to the point of becoming conventional wisdom.
Not that success was always assured. The Thing suffered in its 1982 theatrical release so close on the heels of the more humane ET a year earlier. Nor was it altogether advantageous. The brute terror these early films introduced would become widely imitated and spill over into lesser genres, being drained of nuance and novelty with each new rendition. Faced down enough times, the most feasible response to this onslaught is somewhere in between disgust and resignation.
But at least one film of this early era is, if not fresh, then open to wider interpretation, in part because it lacks the iconography of its peers and in part because it does not jettison completely the pre-Lovecraftian humanity.
Philip Kaufman’s 1978 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers stands confidently with the compatriots it immediately predates. Like Alien, Invasion’s galactic antagonist relies on pods and human hosts to perpetuate itself. Like The Thing, it is microscopic and can adapt almost perfectly to any organism. It is also a remake of a 1950s classic, and makes an explicit and foreboding callback to its ancestor.
At the half-hour mark of Invasion, protagonists Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams literally collide into their predecessor Kevin McCarthy who picks up where he left off 22 years before: raving in the middle of traffic of the catastrophe that awaits humanity, down to the exact same lines. In the original, McCarthy’s character was believed at the right time, leaving the indication of a hopeful resolution. He is less fortunate in its successor, which sees him being pursued offscreen by a mob of presumably body-snatched San Franciscans and killed. The gesture is less fan service than fan warning: the 1950s are over and never coming back. But as the film proceeds, it’s clear that it does not give this warning with glee or provocation. Indeed, rather than embrace the nihilism of Carpenter’s The Thing, Kaufman’s Invasion practically clings to what few shreds of decency remain in its world. Its effect is not as visually arresting as its peers but is psychologically more intense, carrying itself much like its characters.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers follows Sutherland and Adams, two friendly coworkers at the San Francisco Health Department, who discover a fast-spreading phenomenon that they can see better than they can explain. People all over the city are overcome with marked changes in behavior. They become aloof to and isolated from their friends and intimates and convene with otherwise unrelated city-dwellers to undertake a very vague conspiracy. Cue the discovery of duplicate bodies, mass harvesting and distribution of pods, and the call for humanity to embrace an improved version of themselves, free from the anxiety of individual existence and more amenable to pliancy and orderliness. It does not really deviate from the earlier film with respect to its narrative, aside from the amendment of the protagonists’ careers and an intermediary transmission of the organism by way of an exotic flower. It is rather in the framing and delivery of these elements that it departs radically.
It helps to think of the 1978 film like its compromised humanoids, which are notably different from the indistinguishable imitations of The Thing. On the surface it has all the markers of the original, but spend enough time with the film and it begins to seem off in increasingly unnerving ways. It does not function as you would expect or want it to function. It follows a very different logic and is tenacious in doing so. At times it fights to restore its old humanity, but soon resists and doubles its force. You keep telling yourself that you can right its direction, that it can be stopped. Anyone with eyes to see can stop it, but this is not going to happen. This is not a film that is rooting for one side over another, nor is it encouraging its viewers to do the same. It’s not objective so much as embracing the tensions of its predicament and letting it be succumbed by whichever prevails.
At the time of its release the film was polarizing. Pauline Kael loved it, which baffled Roger Ebert. Gene Siskel thought it was fine given the worse options of that theatrical season. Others thought it lacked the subtly of the original, was sometimes unintentionally comical, and too literal-minded. Today its legacy as one of the greatest film remakes, and a great science fiction film in its own right, is more assured. But I would add that it is also one of the greatest satires of American social life, especially of life in the 1970s.
A friend of mine articulated this hypothesis that I like very much, which posits that liberal and conservative should be seen not as ideologies that explain the world but as habits of mind that help people live in it. A conservative lacks curiosity but can adapt to any mass situation around them. Someone posting black squares on Instagram and studying the rituals of good allyship in Montclair, NJ is as much of a conservative as the MAGA hat-wearer parroting Charlie Kirk’s logic-chopping in Tulsa, OK. And one may easily become the other without a moment’s thought if their situations change. A liberal is almost reflexively curious to the point of contrarianism. If the group goes in one direction the liberal is compelled to go in another; less to provoke than to understand what is being overlooked. The liberal is more sensitive toward autonomy and any imposition against the freedom to be as one wishes. It is in this respect that Donald Sutherland is the perfect embodiment of the liberal outlook and not because he is a civil servant who is ecstatic to shut down businesses when he has the means to do so.
The entire film is shot through with Sutherland’s habitual liberalism, but it is a tragic variant. Sutherland, Adams, with Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright in tow, are awake to the change spreading around the city and make every effort to resist it. But unlike the invasion in the original film, it has made more rapid headway (which in light of recent events this is its most frightening aspect), to the point that they are virtually alone. It’s evident that the floral invader is stealing the individual’s memories and skills for its survival. The human’s character and intuitions are left with its husk. This is put to the stubborn stragglers as a positive good. Leonard Nimoy’s celebrity psychiatrist, implied to have been assimilated early on, becomes the chief expositor of the view that submission to this species means being reborn into “an untroubled world” where neither hate nor love have any dominion over them, and hence anxiety, disappointment, the need to compete with others for pointless gains or otherwise distinguish themselves are obsolete along with them. (It’s kind of Rousseauian when you think about it.) You will carry out a simple but very important purpose in service to a more deserving civilization.
And while the film is not poor in characterization, it does not go out of its way to make the counterargument for humanity generally. The world into which the majority are assimilated is somewhat duller, cleaner, and more orderly. The force of the occupation is nowhere in evidence. Nimoy’s evangelism proves largely correct. The revelation that Sutherland ends up as one of the assimilated, and not just hiding among them, makes this the perfect film for its time. Roger Ebert sardonically wrote that he was told the film was saying something about Watergate; post-Watergate is more like it. This is the horror of malaise, of diminished prospects and exhausted promise. It conveys the same dreary mentality that put Jimmy Carter in the White House the year before its release and Christopher Lasch on the bestseller list the year after. The film is fatalistic rather than nihilistic, a darker condition because its embracers are not ignorant of what they’ve sacrificed. This is made clearer when contrasted against John Carpenter’s more triumphantly liberal film They Live, released 10 years later, in which resistance to the alien occupiers is not only undertaken with firm resolve but successful.
Since 1978, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was remade two more times: Body Snatchers in 1993 and The Invasion in 2007. That I don’t know the former and only vaguely remember the latter might tell you all you need to know about their impact. The first seemed to suffer from poor timing. Existential crises virtually went underground from 1993 to 2000, the most popular genre films of the era were an odd mixture of VFX fireworks and ironic metanarrative (some were less annoying about it than others). While 2007 seemed primed for art to go after the hegemonic sway of American power, metaphors and satire were some of the least effective means. Indeed, most horror in the mid-2000s was mediocre, while most science fiction after Dark City has remained in an academic holding pattern, preferring to resemble lyrical but detached metaphysical treatises. Yet we seem never to be done with body-snatching, and another remake is in the works with the writer of The Conjuring 2 and Aquaman handling the script. I liked The Conjuring 2 more than the first film, but whether another entry is worthy of our present time (or maybe the other way around) depends on acknowledging certain factors.
“We come here from a dying world,” the podded Nimoy preaches. “We drift through the universe, from planet to planet …. We adapt and we survive.” When I first watched the film, I misheard the first line as “We came to a dying world.” Before I was corrected, I fell into a sort of vision state wherein I stopped seeing events through the eyes of the invaded and switched to that of the invader. This erroneously conceived invader was guided by a quest of cosmic purification, delousing each world it conquers of its problematic hang-ups. This, I thought, is what fantasy writers see when they close their eyes. I was disgusted by this but could not entirely escape the concept into which I had entangled myself—it was not unfamiliar to me.
I write from a conservative time. All around me are calls to adopt certain poses that act in opposition to other types of poses in substance without really differentiating from them in style. Idiosyncrasy, to say nothing of autonomy, is out of fashion; the imperfections of humanity have lost their nuance and come with painful consequences. If each version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers justifies itself by commenting on the times in which it was created, this version will fail—or will be less interesting long term, anyway—if it just replicates the past and ignores the conservative sentiment of the present. This means channeling not the claustrophobia of the resisting humans but the terror—the only real emotion they have—of the assimilated humans when they see someone who does not belong. That is the moral essence of conservative horror, which is easy enough. Whether the conservatism is to be triumphant or tragic is more challenging for the people who write the horror and for those who live it.