by Sam Juliano
One of the crowning glories of 50’s science-fiction, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, based on a short story by Jack Finney, still enthralls both genre buffs and those riveted by the notion of the fantastic seeming perfectly credible. The story of seed pods replicating living people and changing them into emotion-less conformists who communally work towards a world order without love or compassion, offers no obstacles to believability, and leads to the most unthinkable of nightmares. Allied Artists were themselves so caught up in the hopelessness of this “psychological siege” that they forced Siegel to add a prologue which intimated that mankind would be saved.
The film was re-made in 1977, with Phillip Kaufman at the helm, but it lacked the original’s brilliant pacing, which has the excitement building all the way to the denouement. Siegel employs a number of devices that keep the film in full-throttle, like characters always in motion, racing their cars, and spying each other through windows, blind and glass doors and reaching a level of unbearable tension in the scenes in the cave where the two lead characters hide beneath the wooden boards, after being chased up the steps of a long and very steep hill. Siegel employs subtlety to great effect too, like the scene when the fleeing couple attempt to feign transformation to the soulless beings that are taking over the small town, only to be betrayed by one’s scream as a dog is about to be struck by a car. The race against time and in the instance of this film, the struggle to stay awake, is woven into the fabric of it’s sense of urgency. No less an authority than Jean-Luc Godard quotes the film in his futuristic Alphaville, and Francois Truffaut makes reference to it in Fahrenheit 451. It is even suggested by UCLA Film Professor Maurice Yacowar (whose running commentary on the Criterion laserdisc in the early 90’s was one of the famous and controversial ever recorded) that maybe even the great playwright Eugene Ionesco was thinking of the film’s fearful “pods” when he wrote his absurdist masterpiece Rhinoceros, where humankind turns into thick-skinned, insensitive, conformist rhinos–pods on the hoof.
The idea of dehumanization being a far more horrifying fate than death or destruction is argued by Carlos Clarens in An Illustrated History of the Horror Film (Capricorn, 1968):
“The ultimate horror in science fiction is neither death nor destruction but dehumanization, a state in which emotional life is suspended, in which the individual is deprived of individual feelings, free will, and moral judgement…….Nowadays man can become the machine himself. The automatoned slaves of modern times look perfectly efficient in their new painless state..From this aspect, they are like the zombies of old–only we never bothered to wonder if zombies were happy in their trance. Zombies, like vampires, seemed so incontrovertibly different; the human counterfeits of ….’Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ are those we love, our family and our friends. The zombies are now among us and we cannot tell them and the girl apart any longer.”
In a number of interviews Siegel insisted that the film was intended to be an entertainment, and that it’s message was relatively tepid, intimating that people were becoming ‘pod-like.’ But as Professor Yacowar exhaustively argued in his LD commentary, the film has long been the topic of critical debate for its underlying political implications. The Joseph McCarthy witch hunt is at the center of the allegorical context, but the cold war certainly gave flight to the film being fervently anti-communist, with it’s ‘communal’ suppression of all sensibilities and beliefs that might advance the concept of individuality. Hence, the ‘pod people’ represent a completely regimented society. The idea of these pods growing by first planting seeds is one that is associated with revolution. There is actually a scene late in the film when the pod people are assembled in the town square, where a loudspeaker reads off the day’s orders–it is a powerful symbol of 50’s socialism. The simile that without freedom of thought people are essentially “vegetables” is suggested again by the growth of the pods.
In the film, after the pods begin to take over the bodies of a number of people in the town of Santa Mira, including a number of children, the fear displayed is real, and not paranoia. I remember myself being raised in a school that was staunchly anti-communist. We were taught that communists had no feelings about life or death, and that they didn’t grieve when people died, a most frightening “revelation” at that impressionable time. The entire concept of communist ‘satellites’ which were established after aggressive military interventions, is chillingly conveyed in the scenes where trucks are lined up to bring the malignant pods to bordering towns and cities in southern California, with world domination envisioned by its budding population.
Of course, the position that the film is an allegory on McCarthyism is giving conviction in the warning that “if we’re not careful, oppressive forces in our society will force us into submission and conformity.” There are obvious overlaps in either interpretation, and it surely wouldn’t be all that unreasonable to believe that the film’s themes may have embraced both positions.
A sub-genre in fifties science-fiction is the “alien takeover” category, of which Invasion of the Body Snatchers, released in 1956, is the best. In Invaders from Mars (1953), It Came From Outer Space (1953) I Married A Monster from Outer Space (1958) and The Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) the takeovers didn’t have the kind of worldwide ramifications as Body Snatchers either because their fantasy was too far-fetched to believe (who for example would truly fear tentacled creatures with glass bubbles in underground spaceships camouflaged with quick sand or the preposterous idea that a crustacean monster absorbs the minds of its victims, and uses their voices and mental powers to lure other victims?) or their premise was bordering on the ludicrous. Of all the science-fiction titles with this similar central idea, perhaps Invaders from Mars is the most similar one, as, like Body Snatchers,
it contains the ‘realization’ that your own parents have been replaced. But the film’s extravagant set design mitigated the realism of Body Snatchers, which was reliant on the seemingly ordinary domestic events of life in a small town.
The Doctor Miles Bennell, the film’s erstwhile hero, played with an engaging common man and athletic verisimilitude by Kevin McCarthy (whose intermittent narration, delivered with small town twang is most effective) becomes the alienated loner in this conformist society. hence wherever people suppress their emotions and their character differences, you have the kind of ‘pod’ society that threatens here.
The fear is so acute and the ramifications so terrifying that the film’s bookends, illustrating governmental intervention seems like a wise decision by the studio, as the inference of a world takeover would have been a very disorienting and corruptive contention, back in the paranoia-infested years when the film was released, as well as the present, where the film’s believability would leave some deeply disturbed. Still, when the film’s ‘psychiatrist’ hears Miles’s story (which is actually the entire running time of the film) he is laughable when he intones to a group of orderlies and policeman “Alert All Cars, Call All Government Agencies.” What shrink commands those kind of powers?
As Becky Driscoll, Dana Wynter is a perfect companion and co-fugitive of Miles, and her cave transformation scene, when her face is first seen reflected in a puddle, is fear incarnate. Of the rest, the two friends Jack and Theodora, played by King Donovan and Carolyn Jones, are excellent, especially in comparing the before and after. The director Sam Peckinpah plays a bit part as a gas station attendant in the film for trivia buffs.
Ellsworth’s Fredericks’s black and white cinematography seems unremarkable, yet it’s precisely this intended texture of small-town, uneventful existence that is given flight here, and Fredericks is adept at using lighting, shadows and reflections to great effect. Carmen Dragon’s music is most effective in the big chase sequence near the end, but is effectively employed throughout in a minimalist chord.
Over 50 years after it made it’s mark as a B drive-in movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, has outdistanced it’s re-make as a film that brings time and place to the forefront with an incomparably chilling message. It’s one of the great 50’s films in any genre.