There are lots to choose from, as this fine actor, who passed away last month at the age of 88, performed in over 140 films. But for me, the benchmark of Donald Sutherland’s screen roles was that of health inspector Matthew Bennell in the excellent 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.


Before this film was even conceived, the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers was already a classic. Subtly terrifying, the well-acted movie played on the fears of the day: invaders from other worlds, and the threat of communism robbing people of their individuality. So what did the remake do to earn its accolades and, even to this day, carry a nearly perfect rating on Rotten Tomatoes?

For starters, the film boasted an outstanding cast. It starred Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams, with strong support from Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and…Leonard Nimoy! Without trying to be too imitative, it expanded upon themes introduced in the original. And, given that twenty-two years had elapsed, during which special effects and makeup had greatly improved, many of the horrific scenes caused viewers to cover their eyes. The film still appears on many “Scariest Movies of All Time” lists.

Star power (l-r): Jeff Goldblum, Donald Sutherland, and Leonard Nimoy.


The basic storyline, drawn from Jack Finney’s novel, The Body Snatchers, remains the same. In this version we actually see the spoors drifting through space, landing on our world—specifically, San Francisco—and sprouting small flowers. Elizabeth Driscoll (Adams), who works for the Department of Public Health, brings one of the flowers home and puts it in water on a nightstand. The next morning her boyfriend is acting kind of weird. Yep, he’s one of the pod people. Elizabeth watches from the window as he dumps a trash can full of something into a waiting garbage truck—the remains of the real boyfriend. We never did see what happened to the dead bodies in the original.

Elizabeth’s boss, Matthew Bennell (Sutherland), starts encountering people swearing that their wives are not their wives, or fathers, etc. His friend, psychiatrist David Kibner (Nimoy), tries to convince everyone, including Elizabeth, that they are delusional. He, of course, is one of the pod people. Matthew’s friends, Jack and Nancy Bellicec (Goldblum, Cartwright) find a partly formed body in their bathhouse, one that looks a lot like Jack. The body disappears before authorities arrive, as does the one near a sleeping Elizabeth, Matthew having broken into her house and carried her out. These scenes mirror the original.


Matthew’s pod double is nearing completion…

The 1956 film took place in a small, fictional town near Los Angeles. Since the setting here is San Francisco, and since the alien takeover happens so swiftly to so many, the effect is truly frightening. That said, from the point in the story where Matthew, Elizabeth, and the Bellicecs are targeted by the pod people all the way till the end, the result is a non-stop rush of pure terror.

It begins when the four of them, believing themselves safe in Matthew’s home (they’re not; Kibner knows where they are), settle in for some much-needed rest. Matthew reclines on his patio, determined to keep watch, but of course he falls asleep, and this is when all of the duplications and transformations take place. We want to scream for him to wake up during a drawn-out scene as the horrid thing in the pod begins to look more and more like him, its creepy tendrils snaking up him and transferring his essence. Fortunately he is awakened by the others, and almost instantly they are being pursued through the streets by numerous pod people. Jack and Nancy, in a brave act, divert the crowd from Matthew and Elizabeth.

I’m going to stop here, in case you’ve never seen this film, or haven’t viewed it for a long time. As noted, Sutherland was excellent in this challenging role, and near the end he is involved in one of the scariest, most shocking scenes in all of sci-fi/horror filmdom, I kid you not.

RIP Donald Sutherland. You will be missed.

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