I have reached that point where I am so ADD I can’t complete a single thought without lunging onto a new tangent. This is nothing new for me. I’ve been cyclically attention deficit my whole life – even before we had a name for it. Or, at least, when the name for it was, “daydreamer” or “silly heart” or some such medieval term. (Tangent: A post about how maybe we differentiate way too much. Maybe it was better when we just threw everybody in the pool and yelled at them to swim.)
No, I’m not going there. I started this post to talk about Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I mentioned the movies and the book in a previous post and it grabbed my attention enough that I decided to Netflix both the 1956 and 1978 versions of the movie. (Tangent: A post about how Heinlein’s novel The Puppet Masters came out three years before Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Maybe nobody talks about the similarities because the Finney book was so superior to Heinlein’s.)
I’m also not going to talk about the psychological underpinnings of the story or whether the body snatchers represent communists or the capitalist status quo because what I’m interested in is the story structure. Invasion manages, in all three of its incarnations (I know there are other remakes but I really don’t care, they’re awful), to define characters at the same time it’s laying on the creepy.
That’s something I failed to do in the one horror novel I ever wrote. I spent the first hundred pages introducing characters and personal conflicts. The monster didn’t even show up until page 150 or something like that. And that’s okay. You don’t have to show the monster at all, but the threat has to come early. Otherwise, you feel like you’re reading something from the Oprah Winfrey book club instead of the Stephen King Library.
Invasion is so effective at accomplishing this because it layers character development in the foreground and weirdness in the background. In the 1978 version, the movie opens with a typical asynchronous relationship between Brooke Adams and Art Hindle (Tangent: A post on Brooke Adams who happens to star in Shockwaves, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Dead Zone.) He’s into the Golden State Warriors, she’s into her coworker Matthew Bennell, played by Donald Sutherland. (Tangent: A post about Sutherland being in both Invasion and Puppet Masters.)
The opening is so innocuous – except for an encounter in a Chinese laundry with the first claim that someone’s spouse is not their spouse – that it falls on director Kaufman’s super creepy direction to instill a looming since of danger. Everything is shown through the warped lens of an LSD trip. Nothing looks normal. People don’t act normal. And this is before the invasion.
At one point, as Bennell is driving through the city with a busted windshield, there’s a quick shot of an older man running for his life with no one pursuing him. This shot, and many others like it, are incredibly effective at setting the mood so that by the time the invasion starts, you’re in the perfect mindset to believe it.
And all of this happened while you were being introduced to the crusading health inspector, his beautiful coworker/soon-to-be lover, the angry poet and his devoted wife, and the pop psychologist who papers over everyone’s fears with mumbo jumbo about modern disassociation.
The second act is all weird discovery and it just gets creepier and creepier which also allows the story to avoid the classic second act drag by keeping the viewer waiting breathlessly to see what will be uncovered next. The third act is one long chase. And Kaufman can get away with that without looking like a Michael Bay tribute band, because you care so much about the characters. And why do you care so much about the characters? Because they were so flawlessly and completely set up in the first act.
It’s storytelling at its best. If you’re having trouble getting a story going, I suggest you take a look at either one of these films and see how they build character while raising the tension in the background. It could help.