It's not every science-fiction metaphor that's still relevant after four decades. In Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers (Warner Bros., R), people are once again being replaced by soulless replicas, look-alike zombies that emerge from squishy alien pods. This time the setting is a U.S. Army base in Selma, Ala., where EPA scientist Steve Malone (Terry Kinney) arrives with his wife (Meg Tilly), their 5-year-old son (Reilly Murphy), and his teenage daughter (Gabrielle Anwar) from a previous marriage. The base, of course, turns out to be a camouflaged cult of pod people.
The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is often described as a parable of McCarthyism, but its political overtones have long since paled next to its nightmare vision of an America in which everyone talks the same, dresses the same, thinks the same -- a middle-class suburbia homogenized by mass culture. In his ingenious 1978 remake, director Philip Kaufman transposed the setting to San Francisco in the flaked-out '70s, where touchy-feely bohemianism was the new conformity. Now Ferrara, director of Bad Lieutenant and many offbeat genre films (Driller Killer, Fear City), returns the story to its low-budget roots. His new Body Snatchers is inky and somber, with some of the creeping bad-dream naturalism of George Romero's Living Dead films.
First to fall prey to podhood is the hostile young stepmother. As an actress, Meg Tilly has often seemed a bit of a space shot, but here her China-doll remoteness fits in perfectly. She's never more terrifying than when she raises her finger to point at her family and lets out a bloodcurdling scream. Ghoulishly effective as this bit is, it's taken from Kaufman's version. What's original here are the queasy special effects: The pods sprout long, wet tentacles -- endless worms -- that wrap around people's faces, poking into mouths, noses, ears.
As pop metaphor, this Body Snatchers is the skimpiest and most abstract of the three. The notion of a military base as a symbol of mindless conformity isn't exactly revelatory, and the characters remain sketchy and underdeveloped. Ferrara, though, does get a quietly compelling performance out of Gabrielle Anwar, the young actress who tangoed with Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. As Marti, she's soft and alert, her eyes as sensitive as a hunted doe's. Ferrara uses Anwar's beauty memorably in a scene in which Marti, having been captured by the pod people, lies covered with tentacles as her helicopter pilot boyfriend (Billy Wirth) tries to save her. Before he can tear the worms off her face, her newly emerging pod self sits up, nude and beckoning. For a moment, he's so transfixed he can barely bring himself to let the zombie goddess die. B