AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY [REGION ‘A’, AND REGION ‘B’ SPAIN] AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 80 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!
Psychiatrist Dr. Hill is called to the emergency room of a California hospital, where a screaming man is being held in custody. The man, Dr. Miles Bennell, recounts the events leading up to his arrest and arrival at the hospital. He returned from holiday to his home town of Santa Mila and met his former girlfriend, Becky Driscoll, who had herself recently come back to town after a divorce. However, he started to see some patients who suffered from Capgras Delusion [ where someone thinks that a person close to them has been replaced by an impostor]. Psychiatrist Dr. Dan Kauffman assured Bennell that these cases were merely an “epidemic of mass hysteria”, but, that same evening, Bennell’s friend, Jack Belicec, found a body with his exact physical features, though it appeared to be not fully developed….
Pretty much everybody has some films or TV programmes which terrified or even traumatised them as a youngster. Recalling such incidents tends to become increasingly warm and fuzzy as one gets older, and it often seems to be the case that those who were frightened greatly by things they watched when they were young end up becoming horror fans and folk who actually enjoy being frightened, which in a way doesn’t make much sense. I still recall like yesterday the evening I watched Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. I must have been around eight or nine years old. My mother and stepfather had friends around for dinner and I was watching this movie on TV upstairs. The thing chilled me right from the offset and I was distinctly unnerved when my mum came upstairs to get something. Then it came to the scene with ‘the kiss’ – every fan of the film will know what I’m talking about – and I switched the TV off I was so disturbed….though only of course to put it back on a minute or so afterwards. After it had finished, I went downstairs to get a drink, but figured that a pod would be lying in the kitchen, so only made it down a few of the stairs and went back up to settle for plain water out of the bathroom tap. And that night, I barely slept due to nightmares of being chased by everyone else on the planet, desperately trying to find a place to hide.
So I guess that my love for this film, and my opinion that it’s one of the scariest ever made, are in part personal , but luckily I believe that it’s a masterpiece too, a brilliantly economical, subtle and perfectly paced piece of filmmaking that modern filmmakers should study in how to get the best out a great premise, though a premise that wasn’t even that original – cinemagoers had already seen humans being taken over by aliens in Invaders From Mars [itself a pretty chilling picture, especially as it was largely aimed at kids] and It Came From Outer Space, while the idea of someone’s loved one being replaced by some duplicate probably dates all the way back to Metropolis. What Invasion Of The Body Snatchers did was take the concept and turn it into a full blown allegory about loss of humanity, without ever becoming heavy handed and detracting from its status as a paranoid science fiction thriller about aliens stealthily taking over the world. And a terrifying horror movie. It seems to be considered more science fiction than horror, but it’s just as much as….in fact it’s even more….a horror film. Fear that your friends and family aren’t the same. Fear of the mundane. Fear of going to sleep. Fear of loss of personality. Even fear of doctors. This film is rooted in relatable fears of all sorts, and that’s why it’s still so damn effective.
It was based on Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers which was serialised in 1954. Daniel Mainwaring’s screenplay followed the book surprisingly closely except for the ending where the aliens, who only have a lifespan of five years, flee to maybe return another day. The film version, which went through several titles including They Come from Another World, Better Off Dead, Sleep No More, Evil in the Night and World in Danger, had its budget cut, meaning that stars who were considered like Joseph Cotton, Dick Powell, Donna Reed and Vera Miles were abandoned in favour of lesser known performers, while plans to film in the actual Mill Valley had to be aborted and the film was instead shot in various places around Los Angeles and in the Allied Artists studio. Sam Peckinpah, who worked on the film as a dialogue coach and briefly appeared in it, later claimed he rewrote much of the script. Producer Walter Wanger unsuccessfully tried to get Orson Welles and Ray Bradbury to do an opening voiceover. Initial previews caused the studio to cut much of the humour, it apparently being Allied Artists’ policy not to mix humour and horror, and, against the wishes of Wanger and director Don Siegel, add a new beginning and ending so that the events of the story are related in flashback and that Earth just may be saved. The film was shown in 1979 in its original form but never since, which I feel is a great shame. The UK version lost a few seconds of references to Burke and Hare which were not restored until 1998.
The beginning does get us into the story into a nice way in the fashion of many film noirs, though of course we already know that our hero will survive. His narration, which returns at times during bits of the film, also works quite well and helps give the film that noir flavour, though I do feel that it could have done without it and it does slightly minimise the effect of one moment. Anyway, the story proper gets underway immediately and it always impresses me how quickly things begin to occur. Mainwaring and Siegel don’t really bother with establishing the environment of the small town setting, taking it for granted that the certainly American viewers would have visited many similar places in movies prior to this one and therefore such scene-setting just wasn’t necessary, though it wouldn’t surprise me if this is where the majority of the cuts in the film were made prior before release. Surprisingly, considering that it ends up being one of the emotional centres of the story, they don’t even spend much time on the romance between Miles and Becky, which tends to be given very short and direct screen time [with a bit of surprising innuendo] or if they do, it’s while they are doing their investigation into the strange goings-ons in Santa Mila. It certainly doesn’t bog matters down like in many other science fiction pictures from the 1950’s. I still always groan when, in the 1953 version of The War Of The Worlds, there’s all this interesting stuff going on about strange meteorites but everyone decides to go to a square dance so the hero and heroine can get better acquainted.
There’s a considerable chill about even the early section of the film, in particular the little boy who is spotted running away from home and is almost knocked down by Miles in his car. It initially seems like he just doesn’t want to go to school, but of course he’s actually terrified of his mother. It’s so quietly disturbing when, later on, parent and child are seen happily reunited because he’s now one of ‘them’. The accumulation of odd details, from none of those patients Miles has been told are queuing up to tell him about their fears returning when he’s actually back at work, to a once popular restaurant [though what do the Pod People actually eat?] being deserted except for the manager who doubles as a waiter, is very adeptly done. For quite some time, Miles just thinks it’s a form of mass hysteria, until he sees a body of his friend lying on a lounge table, its features not quite fully formed. I feel that the film makes a few slight missteps soon after in showing a few brief moments where the narrator can’t have been present at where Pod People set out to get the few remaining humans in the town, though these scenes would have worked superbly without the narration. In any case, the paranoia is further and further ramped up as it seems that only Miles, Becky, and their friends Jack and Teddy are the only humans around. Miles can’t even get hold of any authorities on the phone, and the Pods are being delivered to other places!
It all becomes a big chase, and it’s fascinating because the protagonists aren’t really fleeing from death at all. And then we get that moment, that moment which still creeps me out like few others, though almost as strong is the bit just before, where Miles, lured by a siren call, goes to investigate the source of some beautiful music which he thinks couldn’t come from any alien. Then Miles returns and kisses Becky and realises she’s no longer a human, the viewer seeing his terrified face before it cuts to a close-up of hers, and this is in spite of a line of narration “I never knew real fear until I kissed Becky”, which could have resulted in a chuckle and does perhaps slightly weaken the effect. Just having them kiss, and his horrified facial reactions, would have been enough. Still, the sheer dread of having someone close to you not be themselves any more has never been as powerfully realised. It’s been said that this is a plot hole, because we are told earlier on that a Pod has to be very near a human so it can assimilate his or her characteristics, but I’ve always assumed that Becky had become a Pod Person much earlier on. In any case, the fact that some things regarding the invaders [which were more concrete in the book] are left vague, adds to the effect. Why would Miles learn about lots of exact details anyway? This is also one of those movies which benefits from minimal special effects. The partly formed bodies are only partially seen which adds to the eeriness, though the major effects sequence where several pods in a greenhouse burst open to reveal the likenesses of humans is really well achieved. The actors had to have naked impressions of themselves made out of thin, skin-tight latex, and making the casts, which involved being submerged in the very hot casting material with only a straw in their mouths to breathe through, was incredibly gruelling for them, especially Carolyn Jones, who was claustrophobic.
Much has been made about Invasion Of The Body Snatchers being either an attack on Communism or McCarthyism, but Siegel denied this, and it’s always seemed to me to be more a warning against blind conformity and the mass drone-like behaviour of our race, things which make the film still very pertinent today, which makes it baffling that the last remake was so disappointing and in no way made the most of the premise. The script is astute enough to have scenes where Pod People say how good their life is now it’s devoid of human characteristics, and make the viewer wonder, if only for a second, if Miles should succumb, but the film never becomes too heavy, and a few humorous lines, such as “Watch out for yourselves” did survive the studio’s sheers. The film has a great look to it throughout, the often deep focus cinematography by Ellsworth Fredericks worthy of the very best of film noir, if slightly more subtle, in its ingenious use of light and dark, especially when Miles is shown in silhouette throughout, an interesting device considering he’s the hero, but oddly effective in underlying his vulnerability. One especially great shot has Miles standing in silhouette in the foreground by a body while everybody else is lit up in the background. He turns the light on, illuminating him and the body. Elsewhere, Siegel sometimes avoids conventional horror tropes. One of the most quietly eerie scenes is one that takes place in broad daylight, when some strangers from out-of-town are passing through, and as soon as they’re gone, the townspeople crowd in from all sides in perfect silence. It’s all so calm and almost easygoing….which is of course why it’s so unsettling.
Kevin McCarty is outstanding as Miles, having to run the full gamut from smug superiority to bafflement to curiosity to desperation to total and utter fear, though pretty much all the cast do fine in this terrific picture which hasn’t really dated very much at all except for perhaps Carmen Dragon’s score, which is maybe overly emphatic at times and is in some places where it doesn’t need to be, but is still appropriately tense. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers seems just as fresh, vital and important in 2016 as it was in 1956. Like much of the best science fiction [Blade Runner], deep down, it’s really about what it means to be human. And that ending? Well, the intended final scene of Miles getting onto the highway screaming about the oncoming invasion, and being dismissed as a lunatic, is as upsetting a finale as you can get. However, is the added ending much more positive? Sure, something conveniently happens that corroborates Miles’s story, and the FBI is rung, but who’s to say that the tentacles of the invasion haven’t spread to the secret service? Or indeed the hospital? All Miles had done is convince a few people that aliens are taking over the world, and all he’s probably achieved is delaying the invasion by a few hours.
My review of the 1978 Invasion Of The Body Snatchers Coming Soon!