The original 1956 film version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is widely regarded as a classic, one of the great science fiction films of all time, and with good reason: it’s a powerful black-and-white portrait of individuals losing their humanity as they are taken over and replaced by emotionless duplicates (commonly called “pod people” because they emerge from pods grown from seeds from outer space). And yet, throughout most of its existence, this film has been a mixed bag, one that raises interesting questions about how we judge films: do we value them according to what’s actually up on screen, or do we employ some more nebulous system, a combination of rose-colored memories and the author’s intentions (whether fully realized or not).
The movie works in large part because, despite the science-fiction label, it has few visible genre elements. Instead, director Don Siegel films the events as if he were making a film noir thriller, concentrating on the characters’ increasingly frantic reactions to the gradually escalating conspiracy, which eventually engulfs them like an unstoppable nightmare.
Things begin calmly enough with Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returning to his practice in the small town of Santa Mira after being away at a convention. There seems to be a strange syndrome spreading through the community: people convinced that their friends/family/neighbors are no longer really their friends/family/neighbors but duplicates. At first Bennell dismisses these complaints, until one of his old friends discovers duplicate bodies growing from pods in his hot house. Bennell and his old flame, recently divorced Becky Driscoll, try to warn the town, but it’s too late: everyone’s already been snatched. They sneak out of town by acting as if they, too, have been taken over, but they betray themselves when they react to the sight of a dog almost being run over. They run to the hills and hide in an old mine shaft, but Becky falls asleep (the final step that allows the duplicates to replace the original) while Bennell is looking for help. Bennell manages to get to the main highway, but his cries for help are seen as the ravings of a lunatic, and he catches a glimpse of a truck carting pods toward the big city…
This is a neat, compact little thriller, without a lot of fat. Without much in the way of production values or visible horror, Siegel manages to wring an enormous amount of suspense out of the script(written by Daniel Mainwaring). The one overtly graphic moment occurs when the seed pods are discovered, disgorging their duplicate bodies amidst a gurgle of gooey bubbles; it’s mild by modern standards but still effective enough to make you queasy.
Otherwise, the film relies on the old stand-by: audience empathy. We fear for the characters, and that’s what makes the film scary. The cast is strong, even when the characters sometimes seem to be a bit slow reacting to the initial stages of the invasion (for example, after discovering an anonymous body — actually, a half-formed pod person — they decide to wait and see what happens, instead of calling the police immediately). McCarthy and Dana Wynter (as Becky) make a great on-screen couple, and it not only frightens — it really hurts — when she is “snatched” near the end.
The climactic shots of McCarthy running down the main highway futilely trying to warn drivers speeding past is a stunning piece of filmmaking that reaches a fevered pitch of near hysteria. “They’re here already! You’re next” he cries, while cars whizz by, ignoring him as if he were nothing but a hopeless nut-case. There have been two remakes (and the 1978 version with Donald Sutherland is not bad), but neither one comes close to achieving the excellence of the original, which remains one of the great paranoid nightmares of cinema.
Unfortunately, the film is not quite as perfect as it might have been…
BODY SNATCHERS is a compromised film. The studio that financed it did not like Siegel’s original downbeat ending, with Kevin McCarthy helplessly running down a highway, unable to divert disaster. A prologue and an epilogue were added, along with a voice-over narration so that the whole story unfolds as if Miles Bennell is telling the story in flashback to the police psychiatrist (Whit Bissell). Afterward, the shrink is prepared to dismiss him, until a convenient piece of evidence pops up to confirm Bennell’s story, implying that the alien invasion will be nipped in the bud.
As if this bogus happy ending were not bad enough, the narration is over-wrought and melodramatic, making the film feel more like a bad B-movie than the expert little piece of craftsmanship that it is. In particular, audience laughter inevitably follows one of the film’s most disturbing moments. Miles Bennell returns to Becky in the mineshaft and realizes she is not really Becky anymore when he kisses her passionately — even desperately — and gets no emotional response from her. The look of horror on his face, contrasted with her pitiless contempt, tells us everything we need to know. But then the narration ruins the moment with these words: “I had been afraid many times in my life, but I never knew real terror until I kissed Becky.” Even respectful viewers are hard-pressed not to titter.
For decades, everyone knew there was something wrong with the finished version of the movie (including Siegel himself, who objected to the revised ending and the narration, but directed the material anyway, instead of allowing another director to take over). Yet critics insist on ignoring the flaws — most recently, for example, when Time magazine’s Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel placed the film on their joint Top 100 Best Films list.
Why is this? Because we all know what director Don Siegel’s intentions were, and that is what we take away from the film when we leave the theatre. The feeling we carry around in our heads after seeing the movie leaves the studio-enforced alterations mentally erased, as it were.
Whatever its unfortunate flaws, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS was always worth seeing, because enough of Siegel’s original survives on the screen to make the film a genuinely creepy experience — a horror film not about death and bloodshed but about the loss of personality — the loss of one’s very self — which may in a sense be the ultimate horror, even worse than death: a sort of emotionless, zombie caricature of one’s former existence, drained of everything that gives life joy and meaning.
Therefore, BODY SNATCHERS remains a classic, even a masterpiece. Too often we hear older films praised for being made with low budgets in the days before computer-generated imagery and graphic special effects, but BODY SNATCHERS is an example where the praise rings true. Don Siegel’s resources may have been limited, but he managed to direct a film that works emotionally and dramatically on its own terms, so that there is never a moment on screen that makes you think, “If only they had a little more money…”
The film’s portrait of human beings gradually assimilated by an alien invasion of emotionless duplicates creates a profoundly disturbing sense of paranoia that seems somehow rooted in reality. Despite lip service to the science-fiction genre (a few dialogue references to seeds from outer space), this is a great piece of film noir that plays out like a Kafkaesque nightmare or a TWILIGHT ZONE episode expanded to feature length. Even today, frightened viewers cannot be blamed if, after seeing the film, they feel an irrational urge to check under their beds and in their closets, making sure no pods are waiting to snatch them.
The highway the leads out of Santa Mira in the film was actually shot at an overpass where the Hollywood Freeway heads north through the Hollywood Hills, just past the Hollywood Bowl, on the way to Universal Studios.
Despite being considered a classic, the film has an obvious plot hole: When Miles (Kevin McCarthy) returns from leaving Becky (Dana Wynter) alone in a mine shaft, he kisses her and realizes she has been “snatched” (i.e., she is now a pod-person duplicate, not the original) The problem is that no alien “pod’ was nearby from which the duplicate could grow, and even if one was hidden out of sight in the mine somewhere, there was not enough time for the pod-duplicate to destroy the original Becky’s body and put on her clothes. Of course, thematically, none of this matters: the mechanics of “body-snatching” are not important; the film derives its horror from the fear of losing one’s identity and turning into an emotionless pod-person, however that is accomplished. (The 1978 remake worked harder to justify this scene on a narrative level, showing Becky’s body disintegrate while the duplicate version appeared nearby, naked.)
According to the Internet Movie Database, the unwanted prologue and epilogue were removed from the film in 1979, yet the prints available for revival houses and film schools around this time continued to include these scenes, as does the DVD and the 35mm print struck for a tribute screening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ tribute to Don Siegel in 2005.
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956). Directed by Don Siegel. Screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring, from the novel by Jack Finney. Cast: Kevin Mccarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones.
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