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Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956,USA)

01/09/2011

Director: Don Siegel    Starring: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates

I doubt that the novelist Jack Finney would have dreamed, when he penned The Body Snatchers in 1955, that it would prove so popular among filmmakers that it would eventually be adapted for screen no less than four times and ripped off to some degree or another countless times more. Don Siegel was the first director to get to grips with Finney’s alien pod people on screen and it remains one of the better versions, although Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version starring Donald Sutherland remains to this day the most palpably scary telling of the tale.

Taken at face value, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers seems like fairly standard issue B-Movie fare. A doctor in a small town is alerted to a growing hysteria among his patients that members of their family are not who they claim to be and despite looking the same and having the same memories as their loved ones there is something intangibly wrong about them. Sceptical at first, Dr. Miles Bennell (McCarthy) soon has some real evidence that something is amiss when his friend Jack (King Donovan) finds a partially formed replica of himself at his home. Miles soon discovers that he is in the minority in the town as most of the population have been replaced by alien ‘pod people’ – identical copies of the townsfolk grown from strange alien plants. Unable to turn to the local authorities and unsure how deeply the aliens have infiltrated society, Miles and his girlfriend Becky (Dana Wynter) hatch a plan to reveal the invasion to the outside world but who will believe them?

Dripping with Cold War era paranoia it plays on the instinctual fear that people are not what they seem and that there are hidden agendas working against you. As if the fear that the people you thought you knew were actually agents for some malignant power wasn’t enough, it amps up the discomfort by casting doubt over the integrity of the various agencies you would turn to for help. Despite being in a town surrounded by people Miles and Becky are isolated and alone, unable to trust anyone apart from each other. Much of the tension is driven by the fact that it is impossible to definitively tell the difference between a real person and a ‘pod person’ and even more difficult to convince somebody else that these otherwise normal seeming people are actually invaders from another world.

The allusions to McCarthyism are obvious but there is more at play here. A much more contemporary fear of being stripped of inidividuality and consigned to life as part of the hive, the eradication of personality (that trait we worship so highly in this day and age) and the loss of any personal significance are perhaps greater fears in this day and age than the notion of an insidious invasion of alien doctrine. Everyone spends so much time these days trying to define themselves as special and unique that perhaps the thought of being assimilated into a society where individuality is entirely reduntant is the real horror of the Body Snatchers.

As always, a setting where there are no mobile phones adds to the power of the situation. How do you phone for help when you have to rely on a switchboard operated by a human being who may or may not be an alien replacement for the genuine operator? Not only will you not get the help you need you will betray your intentions to the enemy and reveal yourself as a threat. It’s a bleak situation that seems hopeless. So hopeless in facts that studio executives forced an additional scene on Siegel at the end of the movie, designed to give some hope for humanity. This is the primary reason that the ’56 version was outclassed by Kaufman’s ’78 rendition, the latter version being bereft of hope for humanity and sporting an ending that actually gave me nightmares when I first saw the film.

As it stands, Siegel’s version is good but feels a little bit neutered by this almost upbeat ending. That said, it’s still an excellent film and one of the higher grade B-Movies of the fifties. With a story this good it is hard to go terribly wrong (although Abel Ferrara gave it a go in the early nineties and the 2007 Daniel Craig/Nicole Kidman version looks like it might be the worst attempt to date) and The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is certainly great entertainment. I would recommend though, for a version of the tale that will stay with you for a long time afterwards, seek out the 1978 version and watch that instead.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 01/09/2011 22:59

    A great film, but like you I prefer Kaufman’s version. I love the skewed angles of the streets, the weird sound mix and the unsettling background visual non sequiturs.

    I read the book in 1978 when the Kaufman film came out. As I remember it Jack Finney had re-written bits to make it more contemporary, so he would have at least begun to suspect that the story would outlive him.

    Grand review as always Andy.

    • 02/09/2011 00:11

      Kaufman’s version is that rarest of things, a film that I find genuinely frightening. I was probably too young to watch it when I first saw it but it really captured my imagination with its nightmarish paranoia. It all comes down to the strength of the core story though. I must get a hold of the book.

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