1950s movies, alien invasion, auteur theory, based on a book, black and white film, Body Snatchers, Carolyn Jones, cinema, clones, Communism, Dana Wynter, Don Siegel, dopplegangers, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, invasion, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Jack Finney, Jean Willes, Joseph McCarthy, Kevin McCarthy, King Donovan, Larry Gates, McCarthyism, Miles Bennell, Movies, paranoia, pod people, remakes, sci-fi, sci-fi-horror, small town life, The Body Snatchers, the Red Scare, Tom Fadden, Virginia Christine, voice-over narration
What if the people around you, including your family and loved ones, started acting odd? Not tin-foil hat, playing-fetch-with-an-invisible-dog odd, mind you…nothing that obvious: more like a subtle, slightly out of your line of sight kind of odd. Maybe they seem a little out of it…a little too unemotional and disconnected. Perhaps you’d try to tell someone else, let them know that Uncle Johnny didn’t seem quite like himself or that your next-door-neighbor suddenly seemed a little different. What if nobody believed you because everyone was suddenly acting strange, including all authority figures? Where would you turn, at that point? Would you “give in” and join the masses or would you resist, standing alone against everyone else? More importantly, however…how could you be really sure that the problem wasn’t that YOU had suddenly changed? How can you tell when you’re just paranoid…and when you’re right?
This, of course, is the basic setup for Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the first of several filmed adaptations of Jack Finney’s sci-fi classic, The Body Snatchers. Coming as it did during the maelstrom that was McCarthyism and the “Red Scare” of Communism, it’s pretty easy to read both Finney’s original novel and Siegel’s original adaptation as commentary on the insidious nature of the communist infiltration of America during the mid-’50s (or, to be more accurate, the perception of certain high-ranking members of the U.S. government as to said subtle “invasion”). While there’s certainly nothing wrong with this reading, I’ve always felt that Invasion of the Body Snatchers was more a cautionary tale about the dangers of assimilation and the problems of “group think,” namely humanity’s inability to turn down any opportunity to “join the mob,” than it was explicitly about communism. Regardless of the particular focus, however, one thing is abundantly clear: Finney’s original tale of clones, pod people and alien invaders has proved remarkably resilient and has become part of the cultural zeitgeist in a pretty substantial way.
IOTBS’s begins with a wrap-around story (added later, against Siegel’s wishes, and easily the worst thing about the film) that introduces us to our hero, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), currently under a psych hold at the hospital. No one seems to believe Miles and the story we’ll see is his frantic explanation of events to one of the attending physicians, in order to convince them that he;s not bonkers. It’s an old-fashioned kind of affectation, similar to the whole “it’s only a dream” cliché, and exists purely to give the film a happy ending (the studio demanded the additional scenes after Siegel’s original cut was deemed “too bleak” for the general public).
Miles has been on vacation for a few weeks and returns to his small town of Santa Mira, California, to find that things have been a bit strange in his absence. Plenty of folks have been getting sick, according to his assistant, Sally (Jean Willes), but everyone refused to see the other town doctor or tell Sally about their issues. To compound the mystery, Miles’ old flame, Becky (Dana Wynter), comes to him looking for help: her friend, Wilma (Virginia Christine), has somehow become convinced that her uncle, Ira (Tom Fadden) is actually an impostor. According to Wilma, Uncle Ira looks, sounds and talks just like he always did but there are small, almost imperceptible differences: namely, the “spark” seems to be gone and Ira seems strangely emotionless. Becky has tried to convince her friend that she’s being unnecessarily paranoid, to no avail: she wants Miles to use his authority as a doctor to set Wilma straight.
After running into his psychiatrist friend Danny (Larry Gates), however, Miles comes to realize that there may be more going on in Santa Mira than he originally thought: some sort of “mass psychosis” is causing people to believe that their loved ones are actually impostors. The shit really hits the fan, however, when Miles gets a call from his good buddy, Jack (King Donovan): turns out that Jack has found some sort of “unfinished man” at his house, a seemingly dead (or comatose) creature that looks just like a human, minus things like fingerprints and distinct facial features. At first, Miles and the others seem rather blase about the whole thing (the body is just kept lying on a billiards table and they all sort of poke around it, as if it were roadkill rather than an unformed body) but an overnight development suitably shocks them: the body now looks exactly like Jack, right down to a recent cut on his hand. When Miles finds a similar “double” of Becky, in her basement, one thing is abundantly clear: extreme strangeness is afoot.
Surprisingly, however, the police seem decidedly nonplussed by the whole thing, waving off Miles’ concerns and cueing him in to the fact that there might be a deeper conspiracy going on. Sure enough, Miles, Becky, Jack and his wife, Teddy (Carolyn Jones) are witness to something truly horrific: weird, alien seed pods are spitting out the half-formed proto-humans. Putting two and two together, Miles and the others realize that they’re in the midst of an alien invasion: somehow, the seed pods are cloning the residents of Santa Mira, replacing them with emotionless doubles like Wilma’s Uncle Ira. Who can the friends turn to, however, when everyone seems suspiciously emotionless? When everyone, including law enforcement, seem like alien clones, it’s up to Miles and the others to resist and get the word out to the rest of the world…before it’s too late.
Siegel’s version of IOTBS has always been hailed as a sci-fi masterpiece and there’s quite a lot to like here: the pod scenes are always creepy and suitably icky, there are plenty of well-staged, intense chase sequences (Siegel, after all, was the gritty action-auteur behind such classics as The Killers (1964), Dirty Harry (1971) and Escape From Alcatraz (1979)) and there are several pretty unforgettable images (one of the very best is the bit where Miles kills his own clone with a pitchfork). It’s also quite obvious that Siegel’s film has influenced modern-day filmmakers: the scene where Miles and Becky try to pass themselves off as “pod people,” in order to pass through the clones unnoticed, should be rather familiar to anyone who’s ever seen Shaun of the Dead (2004), while the notion of Miles and Becky taking pills in order to prevent falling asleep couldn’t have passed by Wes Craven unnoticed. The film maintains a fairly tense, claustrophobic atmosphere and Siegel’s original, “downer” ending may be old-hat in these pessimistic times but surely would have been a strong jolt of pure moonshine back in the mid-’50s.
While there’s a lot to like here, however, there’s also quite a bit that doesn’t work. The aforementioned wraparound story is fairly awful and clichéd, while the musical score is always overbearing and too “obvious”: in certain ways, IOTBS is scored like a silent movie, with all of the bombast that the descriptor entails. I also never felt like the romance between Becky and Miles caught heat: it always hovered somewhere between silly and (ironically enough) emotionless, which allows Becky’s latter-half declaration that “I want to love and be loved! I don’t want a world without love!” to come across as both sarcastic and kind of sad.
It’s also kind of difficult to figure out just what the “rules” for the pod people are: sometimes they’re emotionless, sometimes they form mobs of shouting, angry people…sometimes the clones act normal, sometimes they don’t…sometimes the very act of falling asleep is enough to get someone “replaced,” sometimes it isn’t. Without a clear establishment of these basic guidelines, IOTBS comes across much less like a “hard” sci-fi film and more like a drive-in feature (not necessarily a bad thing, to be honest, but still a thing).
Quibbles aside, however, Siegel’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is always entertaining and, frequently, more than a little creepy. The suffocating feeling of paranoia is a palpable thing and when the film is firing on all cylinders, it’s pretty unstoppable: the scene where pods are handed out to the town-members, in preparation of a larger scale invasion, is a real corker and there’s the very real sense that IOTBS features a fun-house warped version of a Norman Rockwell painting. Kevin McCarthy is a suitably fun, if occasionally over-the-top hero and if the rest of the cast ends up a bit generic, they all provide fine, consistent support. The black and white cinematography is also quite nice, if not quite as evocative as something like The Bad Seed (1956): it’s fairly workmanlike but gets the job done. As far as the various film versions of Finney’s story go, I’ve always been more partial to the 1978 version (they always have me at “Donald Sutherland”) but Siegel’s original is a close runner-up. If you’ve never seen the original, give it a shot: the film might feel a tad bit “old-fashioned” today (and that’s coming from someone who tends to place somewhat excessive emphasis on older films) but there’s still a lot of value here.
After all, as our world becomes smaller and more homogenized, it’s increasingly easy to see the notion of “pod people” as being a little too close for comfort: to paraphrase Pogo: we have seen the pod people and they is us.