Here's what happened between 1956 and 1978: John Kennedy's assassination, the war in Vietnam, and Watergate. Here's what happened between 1978 and 1993: Jason Voorhees.

At any rate, that was my first thought at the opening of Abel Ferrara's 1993 Body Snatchers, as it became obvious that our hero for this entry was going to be a seventeen-year-old girl named Marti (Gabrielle Anwar). I'm not sure which of the post-slasher tropes is more annoying: that we can no longer have a horror film with an adult protagonist, or that girls always have androgynous names (and in Marti's case, an androgynous costume for the first couple scenes, that made it hard for me to tell, initially, that the undeniably lovely Ms. Anwar was in fact a woman).

The good thing about this intro, though, was that it immediately reset my expectations. Once I realized that this adaptation was going to be just another early-nineties horror flick, it made the stark tumble in quality much easier to bear. Ultimately, given how many changes this film makes to the story, it's almost - almost! - possible to view this film on its own terms, not as a remake of a brace of masterpieces, but as an occasionally successful horror film that might feel like a particularly well-made Sci Fi Channel original, if that station had been producing original movies in 1993.

In this outing, Marti is the daughter of Steve Malone (Terry Kinney), an EPA official visiting a military base somewhere in the South to investigate toxic chemicals that may or may not be contaminating a nearby river. Along for the three-month project are Steve's wife Carol (Meg Tilly) and their son, Marti's half-brother Andy (Reilly Murphy).

At roughly the same moment, Marti makes a psychotic new best friend in Jenn Platt (Christine Elise), while Steve makes a new adversary in Jenn's father, General Platt (R. Lee Ermey, playing to the cheap seats). Life on the military base sure does seem kind of crappy for everybody!

Especially when Andy goes to daycare for the first time. In the film's second-best moment, the attendant has all the children finger-painting, and she asks the kids to raise their pictures up so she can see them. Every single child has painted a virtually identical snarl of bright red with a green shape in the middle, except for Andy, who looks around with rather pronounced dread. This scene takes place mostly in one hand-held shot that pans across the row of identical paintings, and it's better than scary: it's creepy. Damn creepy. The insistent musical score doesn't help out much, but it also doesn't hurt.

Meanwhile: Steve meets Major Collins (Forest Whitaker), the base psychiatrist, who asks vague questions about the psychological ramifications of the chemicals: could they make somebody hallucinate that their loved ones aren't who they seem to be? Steve downplays this connection, and it's actually kind of neat to see a genre film like this one have such a major plot thread that absolutely fails to connect back to the main conflict. Life is like that sometimes.

In fact, the precise manner in which the alien pods arrive is never quite addressed in this film, but Ferrara and his cadre of writers seem to playing the same game that Kaufman did - you know what's happening, why should we spell it out for you? - and it works almost as well here. Anyway, things get creepy, Marti meets the hot helicopter pilot Tim Young (Billy Wirth), and as Andy gets more and more freaked out about what's going on, he walks on on his mother's dried-out body, just in time to see it collapse into a pile of dust as she steps out of the closet, naked, without any expression on her face (awesomely, the end credits note: "Body double for Meg: Jennifer").

I was a little disappointed to see that this film lacked the now-traditional discovery of a featureless, unformed human body, jumping straight into the "holy shit!" moment, but you know what? I've seen that moment twice now. And fair is fair, the action part of this film is pretty good, all things considered. It takes something like 35 minutes to get here, out of 87, and most of that opening act is deadly dull "I'm a sad teen" angsty crap. But from the moment that Meg Tilly looks at the boy with a teeny tiny smile, the film generally works more than it fails. Oh, there's plenty of teen angst to come, a lot of it centered in the hugely problematic love story between the girl and the (presumably significantly older) helicopter pilot. That doesn't take away from the scenes that work, often surprising well. It's worth pointing out that neither of the first two films actually show us the domestic scenes in which the humans start to realise that something is very wrong, and Body Snatchers finally gets around to doing just that, using Tilly's natural weirdness to dynamite effect.

It's also around this point that the film reminds us that it was made during the Gore Age. In the film's third-best moment, Marti is drifting off to sleep in a bubble bath, when a pod hidden in the ceiling tiles above starts to drop tendrils down to her face. They snake around into her nose and ears and all over her face, and then we're treated to some rather discomfiting shots of an alien plant womb, and the human-shaped "fetus" forming inside. It's sexualized horror in a manner that the films had previously not attempted to tap into, and it works. It was at this point that I felt particularly annoyed that I had never seen any of Ferrara's films before: this is surely not a good entry point, and I was deeply curious to see whether this oh-so-Cronenbergian scene was typical of his style.

The customary running around happens, and it's not nearly as tense as in the first two movies, and there's only one reason I can come up with: the characters aren't as good. Not just the heroes, but pretty much everyone around them in the first two, were sympathetic or at least understandable humans, and watching them turn to robotic clones was genuinely horrifying. Here, nobody's death "takes," because nobody feels real, and it's hard to work up too much anxiety over the fates of our cardboard protagonists.

That said, there are a few scenes that are pretty unnerving: certainly, the moment where Marti decided on essentially no evidence that Steve is a pod person and shoots him is startling in a great way, although the film immediately demonstrates that, oh wait, he is, and that takes the sting away. That's got nothing on a scene later on: Marti and Tim have figured out that if they don't show any emotion, the clones won't notice them, and they are slowly making their way to a helicopter when they meet Jenn. She whispers to Marti that Andy was looking for her, and without breaking her stride, Marti takes a step...another...and a third...then she turns and asks, "where is he," and Jenn screams to the other pods that there are two humans. It's a brilliantly tense moment that humanises Marti in a way that the rest of the film never even approaches, and it's the emotional highlight of the film, and its best single moment.

Without giving away any more plot, I think it's worthe mentioning that this film has a much more ambiguous ending than the previous films, almost annoyingly so, and it works a little too hard to make sure we're not completely bummed out as we leave the theater (contrast the 1978 film, whose objective seemed to be to send us straight to a bottle of vodka). I've noticed elsewhere that horror films started getting "nice" around the mid-'80s, and this is surely a relic of that tendency.

So, to sum up: how is this a film of its age, après the first two? Well, it's paranoid about the military and only the military (first US screening: 28 January, 1994. Debut of The X-Files: 10 September, 1993). Really, most of its cultural specificity comes because of the very particular time it was made in the evolution of its genre. It's a teen horror film with grown-up violence, and just enough clever plotting to stay out of the slasher pits, and that combination dates it just as much as Don Siegel's invocation of the Reds dates his film. Body Snatchers doesn't have a lot to tell us, but it's just close enough to scary, and it has just enough well-observed details in amidst the clichéd dreck, that it's a good bit of fun. It's not terribly smart, but it's entertaining in its flashiness, and that means it's just the remake that the 1990s deserved.