|The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956. Directed
by Don Seigel. Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones.
A week after I turned my attention to three of the key sci-fi movies of the fifties (Forbidden Planet, The War of the Worlds, and It Came From Outer Space), I ventured back into my stacks and decided to take another look at the film I personally consider to be the finest science fiction movie ever made: Don Seigel's The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
It is hard for me to imagine the shock The Invasion of the Body Snatchers must have generated when it debuted in 1956. It still generates that shock today. It is one of those rare science fiction/horror movies that never seems to age. It is as relevant today as it was the day it was released. It remains one of the most profoundly frightening films ever made. If anything, it has become even more frightening as time has passed, because our society continues to become more and more depersonalized and people have become more and more anonymous. The allegorical content in Invasion is complicated and open to many interpretations, but the central horror is unmistakable: We are becoming a society of automatons at the price of our humanity.
The film begins in a mental hospital, where the police have just brought in a raving maniac from the highway. The maniac demands to be heard before it is too late: His story opens with the maniac, Dr. Miles Bennett, returning to his sleepy home town, Santa Mira, California, to set up a practice. There is a girl there he is in love with and he knows almost everyone in town. But something is wrong in the town. Portions of the town seem to be falling into neglect, and some of the town's denizens seem to be afflicted with a curious paranoia. Their friends and family, they say, don't seem like themselves anymore. They are cold and distant, like human feeling inside them has died. Bennett writes it off as mass hysteria, until, one night, his best friend has a crisis: he has found his exact double in his basement. The double vanishes before the authorities can be notified, but Bennett hasn't seen the last of it. The next evening at a dinner party, Bennett and his friend find a quartet of alien seed pods in the greenhouse, when the pods open, more doubles are revealed. The town, it seems, is being taken over by these alien pods. They replace you while you sleep. Soon, Bennett and Becky Driscoll, his girl, are the only humans left in town, the only ones left that can escape and warn the rest of the world. On the run, Becky falls asleep for an instant and is replaced. Bennett, half crazed from sleep deprivation, makes it to the highway and begins to rant at the passing vehicles: "They are coming for you, and you, and you," he raves. He spots a truck filled with alien pods. His story ends, and the attending physicians are sure he his insane, except for a police report of a truck that has overturned, spilling pods onto the highway. The doctor and the policeman go to a phone to notify the authorities. Disaster, it seems, might still be averted. Fade out.
Don Seigel wanted to end the film with Kevin McCarthy raving on the highway. Seigel's version would have provided the world with the first truly apocalyptic horror movie, in which order is not restored and the audience is provided no catharsis. Paranoia would rule the day. His cut of the film so horrified the producers that they demanded that he film the framing sequence, else the film would not be released. The movies would have to wait another decade for a movie that matched Seigel's intent. In his later years, Seigel took to referring to unimaginative film executives as "pods." I suspect he never forgave them for adulterating his best movie. But even as compromised as it is, Invasion packs a hell of a punch.
The real power of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers lies, I think, in its setting. It is so utterly ordinary, it is such an archetypal American small town, that when the ugliness of the sub-rosa events eventually shows itself, it is thrown into stark contrast. Part of the horror is the eradication of a way of life, a process that was actually a reality even without alien pods hastening the process. This aspect of the movie was a salient characteristic of Jack Finney's source novel (I mean, how much more American small town can you get than a name like "Becky Driscoll?"). Don Seigel was a particularly appropriate director for presenting this sort of thing. Seigel's movies are unflamboyant -- not plain, mind you, but possessed of a hard-nosed no-frills approach that disdained pretention and valued substance over style. This is an important part of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, since it convinces the audience of the film's absolute reality.
Invasion presents the disintegration of small town America as a peripheral horror, but it is important to the central horror, since small town life is traditionally the product of individuality. It is significant that the 1978 remake of the movie loses a great deal of the original's power by transporting it to San Francisco. The central horror in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is dehumanization. It has been suggested that the film is actually anti-Communist, with the soulless collective replacing small town America, but the process of dehumanization is as much a part of the progress of big business in America as it is a part of Communism. Regardless of the political approach one takes to Invasion, its horror remains valid. It is universal.
The actual mechanics of the invasion is the stuff of nightmares. The pods get you while you sleep. Pulling the covers over you won't help. They will get you when you are most vulnerable. The pods themselves are, perhaps, the best aliens anyone ever came up with. They are alien in the truest sense of the word. They are beyond our understanding. The sheer weirdness of them works in their favor. There are no flying saucers in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, no unbelievable special effects. The true monsters in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,as in life itself, are us. And, really, what could be scarier than that?
One final note: The version of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers that I watched for this review was the excellent widescreen laserdisc version put out by Republic Pictures some years ago. The aspect ratio of this movie is a surprisingly wide 2.35:1. As you might expect, this film is harmed by pan and scan editions. Insist on widescreen.