Shot on a shoestring budget of approximately $350,000, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) has since become one of the most successful independent movies ever made. The film’s enduring legacy is largely due to its perfectly timed initial release; coming as it did at the height of the Joseph McCarthy witch hunts and Red Scare and, better still, at the crux of America’s burgeoning atomic age fascination with fanciful tales about cosmic terrors from outer space. Many postmodern critics and political historians have reinterpret Daniel Mainwaring’s screenplay as an indictment of declining individualism in America, linking the mysterious consumption of human beings by cloned pod people to the perceived communist threat gripping the nation.
According to Don Siegel, nothing could have been further from the truth. At the time the film went into production its producer Walter Wanger was persona non grata in Hollywood, following a private incident involving his wife, actress Joan Bennett and her lover, Jennings Lang into whose crotch Wanger had attempted to pump a bullet. Released from prison after a four month stay for his crime of passion, Wanger quickly realized that his professional cache accrued before his incarceration was gone. No longer thought of as an A-list producer, Wanger turned his energies into making quality B-movies with an edgy underbelly instead.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an adaptation of Jack Finney’s 1954 novel, simply titled ‘The Body Snatchers’. Allied Artists, the studio distributing the film, thought the title too close to the 1945 Val Lewton horror classic, ‘The Body Snatcher’ and asked Wanger and Siegel to come up with alternatives. None of their suggestions proved satisfactory however, and eventually the studio simply added ‘Invasion of’ ahead of the novel’s original title for the film.
Wanger had wanted to shoot the film in Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco. As this proved too costly, the film’s fictional town of Santa Mira was cobbled together from location work done in Sierra Madre, Chatsworth, Glendale, Los Feliz, Bronson and Beachwood Canyons, as well as incorporating some studio back lot magic. After a pair of disastrous sneak previews Allied Artists ordered all of the more light-hearted material cut from the film.
They also decided that a pro- and epilogue were needed to preface and close the story on a more optimistic note. Wanger tried like hell to convince Orson Welles to do it and failed. He also had desperately wanted Gig Young or Joseph Cotten as his star. In the end, Wanger settled on relative unknown Kevin McCarthy instead – paving the way for one of the truly iconic sci-fi performances in film history.
In hindsight the pro- and epilogues, as well as the voiceover narrations that bookend the film do alter the impact of the story; arguably to its own detriment. They diffuse the immediacy of the narrative to that of a tale told in retrospect and with a seemingly open ended resolution that nevertheless implies the imminent danger to mankind has been narrowly averted.
Our story opens in the emergency ward where Dr. Hill (Whit Bissell) is called in to treat a hysteric brought in by the police. The man in custody is also a doctor, Mile Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), who has just been through a harrowing and fantastical ordeal in his hometown of Santa Mira. It seems that Bennell has witnessed the takeover of his quiet town by an alien race; pod people who are identical to the humans they have consumed, but lacking in any sort of emotional response.
Understandably, Dr. Hill is a sceptic. But he asks Bennell to relay his story for the record anyway, and so, both Hill and the audience regress into the extended flashback from Bennell’s memory that began at the start of the weekend just ended. We see Bennell, a kindly local physician returning from a medical conference to find his former flame, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) concerned over her cousin, Wilma Lentz’s (Virginia Christine) sudden paranoia. Wilma claims that their Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) is not who he claims to be – or more to the point, that he has somehow ‘changed’ from his usual self.
Wilma’s fears are not so easily quelled or dismissed by Bennell, especially after he experiences multiple cases of the same strange behaviour cropping up in some of his regular patients. Psychiatrist and close personal friend Dr. Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates) assures Bennell that the cases are merely some odd passing hallucination, possibly infectious, but from which the sufferers will ultimately awaken just as easily after their fleeting anxiousness.
Bennell and Becky attempt to rekindle their romance. But that same evening Bennell’s good friend, Jack Belicec (King Donovan) implores him to come to his house. Arriving at the private residence, Bennell and Becky are shown a body discovered by Jack that has begun to vaguely take on the contents of his own physical form. Jack’s wife, Teddy (Carolyn Jones) is understandably terrified. Bennell takes Becky home. Later he telephones her, but becomes alarmed when she does not answer his call. Bennell then rushes to her home where he finds a likeness of her being grown from a pod in the cellar. Awaking the real Becky from her slumber, Bennell takes her to the Belicecs to telephone Kauffman. But by the time the doctor has returned both corpses have vanished.
Kauffman encourages everyone to get some rest and suggests that perhaps Bennell has become infected with the same paranoia as his patients. But throughout the next day Bennell begins to sense that the town he has known and loved all his life has changed. People seem distant and unlike themselves. That evening Bennell, Becky, Jack and Teddy discover giant pods growing in the Belicec’s greenhouse. They conclude that the town has been overrun with copies of the men and women who used to live there. Unable to call for help, Bennell tells the Belicec’s to make a break for the outskirts of town, to drive all night if they have to and warn the outside world of what has happened to Santa Mira.
In the meantime, Bennell and Becky hide out in Bennell’s office to escape being found out by the rest of the town’s people. The next morning the pair witness the entire town square transformed into an epicenter for the transportation of more pods to neighbouring communities. Kauffman and Jack arrive at the office. At first, Bennell is relieved. But then he realizes both men are pod people who have come to claim him and Becky. After a struggle, Bennell and Becky manage to flee, are pursued by the town’s people – all pods – but make their way across the barren landscape on the outskirts to an abandoned mine where they narrowly avert being discovered by hiding under some loose floor boards.
Becky collapses from exhaustion and in her weakened, sleepy condition is transformed into a pod person. Forced to leave her clone behind Bennell takes off on foot for the main highway. He finds the road crammed with unsuspecting tourists headed back into the city…or have they already become pod people spreading their extraterrestrial demon seed to the unsuspecting neighbourhood communities? “They’re here!” Bennell insists, “You’re next!”
The film should have ended here. Instead, this scene dissolves back to the emergency ward. Dr. Hill remains as unconvinced as ever by Bennell’s fantastical narrative. Alerted to a highway accident by his nurse where the hospitalized ‘victim’ had been driving a truckload of pods, Dr. Hill suddenly realizes that Bennell is not crazy, reaches for the telephone and demands to speak to the FBI in order to put the surrounding communities on high alert.
This will probably sound like sacrilege to most, but personally I prefer the 1978 Philip Kaufman remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers starring Donald Sutherland. Siegel’s original is artfully shot, with solid performances. I really cannot fault the film on most levels. But it doesn’t seem to send that unsettling chill down my spine the way the ’78 version continues to do. I don’t believe my reaction to the remake has anything to do with its superior SFX either. In the original, the pods were made mostly out of paper and their ooze was little more than an air compressor making bubbles and suds beneath the surface, luminously photographed for maximum effect by cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks.
But the prototype ‘50s sexual politics seems very wrong, or at the very least, woefully strained throughout the film. All of the women are treated with a kind word and a pat on the head as though they already belong to some infantilized pod set of brainless sex kittens and pathetic wallflowers that need their husbands, casual mates or dates to guide them through this apocalyptic labyrinth.
Dana Wynter and Kevin McCarthy have a strange on screen chemistry. She seems infinitely more interested in him than he does in her – even on a purely platonic level. Frankly, I’ve never found Kevin McCarthy convincing as a romantic lead or otherwise on the screen and in this, arguably his defining moment in movies his glassy-eyed hysterics that cap off the show are less believable with each renewed viewing of the film. I can certainly appreciate Invasion of the Body Snatchers as the cultural artefact that introduced the iconography of ‘pod culture’ into our movie pop culture. But beyond that, this version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers really doesn’t do it for me: advanced apologies to pod aficionados all over the world.
Olive Film’s Blu-ray is an improvement over the various DVD incarnations, but it’s not perfect. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was shot in 1:85.1 aspect ratio and then reformatted during post production to ‘Superscope’ 2:00 screen proportions. When Wanger first saw this down-conversion of the image he was horrified by what he deemed as a softening and loss of fine detail. In truth I detected no such softening from my home viewing experience in Superscope. In fact, Invasion of the Body Snatchers looks quite sharp. Occasionally, some slight edge enhancement intrudes. On the whole it isn’t distracting but it is there.
Also, the telecine seems to have adopted a slightly greenish hue. But Olive has resisted the urge to tinker with the original elements, the result being a very film-like presentation without any digital manipulations. Grain looks like grain and age related artefacts have been lovingly preserved. Overall, image clarity takes a quantum leap forward. Contrast seems bang on too although black levels occasionally look a tad hazy. The audio is original mono in DTS and nicely cleaned up for a smooth acoustic presentation. No extras – not even a commentary, and that’s a genuine shame.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)