A frightening and thrilling film, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers provides lessons for gossips, snoops and busybodies. Mind your own business, or else!
Coming out at the height of the communist scare of the 50s and immediately following the conclusion of the McCarthy hearings in Washington, Invasion of the Body Snatchers tells a frightening story of subversion and the takeover of the American lifestyle by people that look just like you or me. Paranoia and suspicion are the laws of the land where the pod people rule!
Kevin McCarthy’s freaked out character sends chills down the spine with his opening rant. Aliens from outer space have landed and they’re transforming themselves into people, absorbing their memories and thoughts while they sleep. McCarthy continues to yell at the audience, “They’re already here!” and “You’re next!” 1950s paranoia at its finest!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Invasion of the Body Snatchers tells a chilling and horrifying tale of the loss of self in a land where conformity is king. Dr Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is freaking out in a Los Angeles psych ward, screaming that he’s not crazy. Dr Hill confronts him and asks him to tell his tale. Bennell relates his story: After returning from a medical conference to his hometown of Santa Mira, California, he begins to notice some odd behavior in the people he has known for years. Patients who had booked important appointments while he was out of town, suddenly cancel without notice. A young boy, Jimmy Grimaldi, claims his mother is not his mother. And a friend of Miles, Wilma, claims her Uncle Ira has been abducted and replaced by an exact duplicate – that no one can tell apart except for her.
His colleague Dr. Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates) believes a number of townsfolk are suffering from mass-hysteria. But when Miles and Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) visit friends Jack and Teddy Belicec (King Donovan & Carolyn Jones) and discover a ‘blank’ body at their house that begins to resemble Jack, everyone starts to believe something more nefarious is going on. They retreat to Miles’ house for a barbecue and discover four giant seed-pods in his greenhouse. The pods burst open revealing a bubbly mess covering simulacra of the four friends. Miles realizes that they must stay awake, or they will be taken over.
Bennell tries to call the FBI, but quickly realizes that the local operator, and other members of the town have been already taken over by the pod-people. Jack and Teddy leave to find help in a neighboring town, while Miles and Becky hide out in his office. The next morning they seen truckloads of seed-pods coming into town and being taken by townsfolk to neighboring towns. They attempt to blend in with the disguised humans, but Becky accidentally gives them away and they are captured.
Jack and Dr. Kauffman arrive to convince Miles and Becky that it will be better once they’ve been absorbed. They won’t feel any emotion and things will work much better. Bennell dismisses this logic and uses some sedatives to knock out his “friends.” He and Becky run through the town escaping over a hill and into a mine shaft, all the while being pursued by a swarm of pod-people. After they evade the mob, Bennell leaves to investigate a strange song and finds a farm growing hundreds more pods. Upon returning to Becky, he realizes that she has fallen asleep and been transformed.
Things then change from a bad dream to a nightmare! Despondent at losing Becky, but with nothing else to hold him back, Miles runs into a nearby highway, running through the traffic screaming that “they’re coming” and that “you’re next!” They scene returns to the sanitarium from the beginning of the film as Miles concludes his story. Dr. Hill doesn’t believe the man, until a paramedic brings in the body of a man injured in a truck crash outside town. A truck that was carrying some strange type of giant seed-pods! Hill orders the police erect roadblocks and notify the FBI immediately that something is amiss.
“I’ve seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn’t seem to mind… All of us – a little bit – we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, how dear.” – Miles Bennell
History in the Making
The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers has withstood the test of time, remaining a chilling classic. It’s blending of horror elements with sci-fi creates a really good blend of the genres, more so than in Tarantula. What Body Snatchers does that so many films before hadn’t was the use off all parts of the filmmaking experience to enhance each other. It might have been a quick, low-budget film, shot in 19 days, but the the combination of lighting, camera angles, and musical score all coalesce to create a wonderfully tense film.
Something else that Body Snatchers did, that has yet to be seen in any films reviewed on Sci-Fi Saturdays, is the use of night-for-night shooting. The name is derived as the antithesis to day-for-night shooting, which involves filming night scenes during the day with a polarized filter and underexposing the film to make it appear as nighttime. To me this always looked like underexposed film, as the sky is bright while the shadows on the ground go dark, but it’s an inexpensive way to film scenes that would normally need a lot of light. Of course with modern cameras, many can film in low light without issue, but this was a necessary tactic in the early days of film, even up into the 70s. So Don Siegel choosing to actually shoot his night scenes after sundown was quite a feat. It adds yet another air of authenticity to this film. As a comparison, look at the “night” scenes in This Island Earth or Tarantula, and compare them the ones in Invasion of The Body Snatchers. I think you’ll see the difference.
But what was really import was the thematic subtext of the loss of individualism and self. Taken out of context from the events of the 1950s this is still a strong element of what makes the horror so effective. But in the context of the 1950s and the McCarthy/Communist witch hunts, the themes are much stronger. Director Don Siegel and writer Jack Finney, who wrote the original story that the screenplay was based on have both mentioned in separate interviews that there was not an overt political overtone in the creation of the story or the film. Basically, “any characters related to real people are purely coincidental.”
The introduction of the concept of “pod-people” and that particular phrase would become a standard phrase in the English language to depict soulless people, all thanks to this film. Body Snatchers was also one of the first films to show a subversive element within America, that was invisible to the casual observer, but evident to a select few, like the protagonist (and of course, the audience). This too was also one of the first alien invasion films by a non-humanoid entity. According to the original story, the seed pods were floating in space until a few of them landed on Earth. Apparently they can replicate the dominant or sentient species they come in contact with, which could lead to some interesting possibilities if any filmmaker wanted to continue the story.
One thing that America wasn’t ready for with this film was the ambiguous and downer of an ending that was originally presented. The filmmakers started the film with Miles returning to Santa Mira from his conference, and ended the film with him running crazy in the streets. The story goes that executives at Allied Artists didn’t like this and necessitated the frame story be tacked on, which dampened the power of that original ambiguous ending. Body Snatchers might have been made “as is” in the 60s, but in 1956 America just wasn’t ready for a film that didn’t wrap up the plot. With the introduction of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) television series, ambiguous endings were par for the course and became a staple of many classic sci-fi and horror films, partially for shock value, and also for the potential of a sequel.
Due to its popularity, this story has been told several times, most notably in a 1978 remake (starring Donald Sutherland in the Kevin McCarthy role). There was also a version called Body Snatchers in 1993, based off the original novel, but containing none of the characters, and The Invasion (2007) which takes place in Washington DC. Other films that delve into this phenomenon of aliens masquerading as humans, including the 1953 It Came From Outer Space (which was not yet been covered in Sci-Fi Saturdays), the television mini-series V (1984), The Thing (1986), They Live (1988), The Faculty (1998), The Host (2013) (based on the Stephenie Meyer’s novel, not the Bong Joon-ho South Korean monster film), and the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg film The World’s End (2015). However aliens impersonating humans doesn’t exclusively mean they’re here for nefarious purposes, as seen in Starman (1984) and even portions of the recent Marvel Studios film Captain Marvel (2019). The popularity of films of this sort is due to the thematic issues discussed which boil down to explaining about what it means to be human.
The biggest reason for the popularity of Body Snatchers has to come from the thematic elements related to its central depiction on the loss of individuality and the self. The film explores the character of a man who is presented with the offer to remove the burden of emotion and all of the consequences and pain that comes with that. Miles’ colleague Dan, who has been absorbed/replaced/reincarnated by one of the seed pods tells him “Love, desire, ambition, faith – without them, life’s so simple, believe me.” Miles flatly rejects this thesis. His feelings are echoed by Becky who injects “I don’t want to live in a world without love or grief or beauty, I’d rather die.” And that is the main point of the film: that even though emotion causes pain, it can also bring joy and beauty. You can’t have one without the other.
Subsuming the individuality into the collective, for the betterment of society is the pathway for the pod-people. The audience is never let in on the reason why. It’s just the reason that they are “alien.” What would happen if the world was actually overrun with these knock-offs of humanity? The film never answers this question, but just as a parasite consumes the host, the spread of the ‘body snatchers’ destroys the human race. And while the film is firmly rooted in 50s Americana (small town, friendly neighbors, community spirit), it never takes a side and says that the issues presented are purely American, as many other sci-fi films in the 50s do. There is a more global message of humanity and individuality that is expressed. Even the poster for the film has an image of a palm and fingerprints; the most personal and unique depiction of the self.
While many people see the themes in Body Snatchers being intricate parallels to the Communist witch hunts of the mid-50s, both the writer and director have denied any overt political agenda. It is eerily a film of its time, but the themes, as discussed above, are bigger and more universal than just the issues that plagued America. The hearings of Joseph McCarthy, and the pressure for many, including many people in Hollywood, to “name names” of suspected Communists does lend itself to an interpretation of this film. To become one with the collective sure seems like Communist propaganda, which America was still recovering from. But the pod-people in the film can be seen as any outside force consuming the will of the individual. It could be read as Communism, or the blind-following of a political party, or even the cult-like behavior of some religious doctrines. The film inspires viewers to follow their own path, and think for themselves, lest they lose the ability for love, joy and beauty.
The Science in The Fiction
Being more akin to a horror story, there’s not much by the way of science in this picture. The way in which the seed pods replicate the human hosts, from the tissue creation (including recent wounds), to the absorption of memories while the subject sleeps is never explained. It’s an alien process, which is good for the horror aspects. The closest thing that the audience gets to science is the depiction of mid-50s American medicine. The town doctor having his own stash of pills and medicine to be used at his discretion. Which works out fine, when you’re being attacked by clones of your friends and need a quick sedative!
The Final Frontier
Kevin McCarthy would continue making films, but gained a whole new following in the 1980s when he started showing up as a regular cast member in the films of Joe Dante, including The Howling, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Innerspace, Matinee and Looney Tunes: Back in Action. He also had a cameo as a “running man” in the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, basically reprising his role from the 1956 film screaming “they’re coming” and “you’re next!” Carolyn Jones is better known for, and had bigger role as, Morticia Addams in the long running comedy series, The Addams Family, while director Don Siegel would have a strong career up into the 80s as well directing such films as Dirty Harry, The Shootist and Escape From Alcatraz.
Besides the earlier inspirations and remakes this film spawned, other nods in television and movies continue to show up. Most famously the town of Santa Mira is seen in Halloween III: The Season of the Witch (1982), in which it’s the home base of Silver Shamrock, the evil corporation selling tainted halloween masks. Pods have shown up in films such as Waxwork (1988) or in the 80s version of The Twilight Zone. And the film is referenced whenever there is discussion of someone not behaving as themselves.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers continues to be topical film due to its global themes, strong acting and fine filmmaking. And while remakes, reboots and rip-offs will continue to spawn from it, the original film is in no danger of going anywhere soon!
Coming Next Week
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.