"Invasion of the Body Snatchers," now at several area theaters, is a curiously studied, overwrought remake of Don Siegel's famous, low-budget chillers of 1956.

Director Philip Kaufman and screenwriter W.D richater have transposed the setting from a small California town to San Francisco, but they adhere to the story outline of the original. A small group of people discover that their fellow citizens are beign dehumanized, transformed by some sinister alien intelligence that can reproduce tranquilized, conformist replicas of human beings overnight in giant pods. While they retain the will to act, the knowledge ones struggle to alert the authorities or escape.

The terror in the original emerged form a straightforward, disarming context. On a budget of $400,000 Siegel had to be incisive, and the serene small town became an incongruouslyeerie setting for a menace that threatened to make human nature serenely obsolete.

The menace was enhanced by one peculiarly effective detail: The pods were activated while the victims slept. You went to bed a human and woke up a zombie. While trying to escape, the holdouts desperately fought against the urge to sleep. The most terrifying moment in the original came when Kevin McCarthy left his exhausted fiancee, Dana Wynter, for only a few moments and returned to discover that she had taken an irrevocable catnap.

Kaufman and Richter don't permit the threat to sneak up on the audience and then envelop them. They impose a pervasive and even cosmic sense of dread from the outset, depicting squiggly, transparent imcrooraganisms jostling each other on some remote planet and then being wafted across outer space before eventually raining down on Earth, where they appear to contaminate the ecology from the elements down and the ground up.

Ippressive as it is, this foreshadowing trends to doom the story to anticlimax. Given the microscopic, organic insidiousness of this invasion, the invaders look unstoppable. It looks like we've had it before we've even had time to identify with the leading characters. Here's the ultimate horror parable for ecological freaks who belivve we're all being poisoned. These invaders don't mess around; they go straight for domination of the "organic," the ecosystem itself.

The filmmakers are knowing. The hero, played by Don Sutherland, is a public health inspector. Under the circumstances his eagle eye for violations at posh restaurants seems mischievously irrelevant. Does it matter anymore that he's skillful enough to detect minute traees of rat feces? In a similar respect, Veronica Cartwright sounds hilariously inadequate to the occasion when she and husband Jeff Goldblum discover his replica growin g in their shop-a mud-bath parlor-and she warns, "Don't touch it! You don't know where it's come from!" No, indeed.

Richter, who wrote the screenplay for "Slither," has a sly sense of humor and an affinity for eccentric behavior. He plants several lines that have a delayed-action comic recoil. The principal betrayer in the story, for example, may be identified by a predilection for reassuring remarks like, "Get some sleep" or "In the morning she'll be as good as new."

Despite its inventive and clever strokes, the movie depends on sustaining a fevered, hallucinatory atmosphere that seems more self-conscious than fighteiing. Kaufman and cinematographer Michael Chapman impose a dark, cramped pictorial scheme in which the actors are frequently crowded, isolated, cornered or lurking in shadows. At one point Richter has a character remark, "There must be some kind of hallucinatory flu going around." The overriding fact about the movie is that Kaufman also seems to have a virulent case of the flu.

The unrelentingly coercive, murky, claustrophobic style may produce an effective illusion of entrapment and foreboding. Kaufman and Chapman know how to operate their visual pressure-cooker, but it's not necessarily entertaining or revealing to be trapped inside, especially if you're averse to being overcooked.

At the end of the rriginal film it appeared that McCarthy might have succeeded in heading off total disaster. I don't think it will be giving anything away to point out that Kaufman and Richter resist this consolation, which always seemed to defy the paranoid logic of the original anyway. They string out the resolution of the crisis far longer than they should before springing the kicker, which answers the question, Who will be the last to go?

Kevin McCarthy himself is used to reinforce the idea that this time it's for keeps. Recalling a scene from the closing moments of the first film, he leaps onto the hood of sutherland's car and screams, "They're here! You're next!" Moments later he's put out of his misery by a less attentive motorist. This accident is no accident, Kaufman and Ricter have signaled their intention to close off the escape routes.

The five principal roles are ably portrayed or at least hinted, by Sutherland, Adams (getting a much better opportunity to capitalize on her skill and beuty thant she had in "Days of Heaven"), Cartwright, Goldblum and Leonard Nimoy. There are also several striking gargoyles decorating the supporting cast, notably David Fisher as one of the customers at the mud baths, a satanic-looking weirdo absorbed in an apocalyptic paperback. Goldblum's appearance delighted me on sight, and I loved the idea of Goldblum and Cartwright as an avantgarde San Francisco couple.