Filmsite Movie Review
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
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Background

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is a thrilling, disturbing classic science fiction/alien film from veteran producer Walter Wanger. [Wanger had just been released from prison in the early 50s for attempted murder. He had been imprisoned for a short 4-month jail term for the 1951 shooting incident of the lover (MCA agent Jennings Lang) of his unfaithful movie-star wife, Joan Bennett. The incident provided an indirect inspiration for the Billy Wilder movie The Apartment (1960).]

It was originally based upon a three-part serial story written by Jack Finney that appeared in Colliers Magazine in late 1954, and then in 1955 was rendered into an expanded novel, The Body Snatchers. The screenplay, written by Daniel Mainwaring (who also wrote the script for the classic noir Out of the Past (1947)) was aided, according to some sources, with uncredited scriptwriting and dialogue direction by Sam Peckinpah (the great Western director who appears in a bit cameo part as a meter reader).

A quintessential, black and white B-picture, it was precisely-executed and packed with action by director Don Siegel, plus a scary musical score from Carmen Dragon. The subtle, low-budget film (at about $420,000) is very effective in eliciting horror with slow-building tension, even though there are no monsters (just indestructible plant-like pods), minimal special effects, no violence in the take-over of humans, and no deaths.

The film had a few preliminary titles: Sleep No More, Better Off Dead, and They Came From Another World before the final choice was made.

The theme of the cautionary, politicized film was open to varying interpretations, including paranoia toward the spread of a harmful ideology such as socialistic Communism, or the sweeping mass hysteria of McCarthyism in the 1950s and blacklisting of Hollywood, the spread of an unknown malignancy or virulent germ (read fear of annihilation by 'nuclear war'), or the numbing of our individuality and emotional psyches through conformity and group-think. Yet its main theme was the alien (read 'Communist') dehumanization and take-over of an entire community by large seed pods (found in basements, automobile trunks, a greenhouse, and on a pool table) that replicated and replaced human beings. And it told of the heroic struggle of one helpless but determined man of conscience, a small-town doctor (McCarthy), to vainly combat and quell the deadly, indestructible threat.

The psychological sci-fi film was re-made three times, as compared below. Although the remakes were inferior to the original, they were very well-made and philosophically thought-provoking and intelligent as well, earning critical accolades and solid box office:

Film
Director
Themes/Description
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Don Siegel An allegory for Communism and McCarthyism; the traits of being "one of them" is being cold, unable to express emotion or closeness. This original film would become more and more revered and distinctive as time passed; with an added prologue and epilogue by the studio.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) Philip Kaufman An allegory for the psychological revolution of the 1970's and self-help books; the traits of being "one of them" is secretive groupthink, being too close and intimate; the end of the 60's and the foreshadowing of the 80's; with Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams (and featuring cameo roles by Kevin McCarthy as a man running on the freeway now warning "they're here" rather than "you're next," and Don Siegel as a cabdriver) and set in San Francisco and nearby Mill Valley, with the tagline: "You'll never close your eyes again"; critic Pauline Kael of The New Yorker commented: "It may be the best movie of its kind ever made. For undiluted pleasure and excitement, it is, I think, the American movie of the year."
Body Snatchers (1993) Abel Ferrara With the original title of Jack Finney's; the alien attack is no longer a psychological allegory; it now resembles a foreign, terrorist siege that takes place on a Southern military Army base; with Gabrielle Anwar, Meg Tilly and Forest Whitaker.
The Invasion (2007) Oliver Hirschbiegel An updated adaptation of the Jack Finney story in which the invading aliens are a flu-like virus brought to Earth by a crashed space shuttle, turning its victims into cold, emotionless persons after they sleep. The film stars Nicole Kidman as Washington DC psychiatrist Carol Bennell, whose son is inexplicably immune to the virus, and Daniel Craig as her co-worker Ben Driscoll.

This relentlessly haunting film received no Academy Award nominations. It was originally released at 80 minutes, and then reissued at 76 minutes in 1979. The prologue and its unconvincing matching epilogue were not in the original shooting of the film and were later tacked on. (The studio-imposed footage was removed in the 1979 re-issue.) Allied Artists wanted to soften the paranoia of the original and provide a more hopeful ending with the framing device. Executives at the studio also forced Wanger to release the film in SuperScope - an anamorphic widescreen process that altered the original 1.33:1 ratio that the cinematographer had used.

Director Joe Dante, an ardent aficionado of 1950's science fiction and monster films would, among other genre films, reference Invasion of the Body Snatchers frequently. He re-used Kevin McCarthy in a number of film cameos: The Howling (1981), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Innerspace (1987), the comedy spoof Matinee (1993), and including an appearance reprising his Dr. Bennell character in Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), now elderly, clutching a seed pod and still muttering that everyone was next. Dante often included the seed pods in his films as well -- Dr. Catheter (Christopher Lee) clutches one in Dante's manic parody Gremlins II: The New Batch (1990).

The Story

ADDITIONAL PROLOGUE:

In the exciting opening prologue with extended narration, dishevelled physician Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), distraught and seeming to be psychotic and mad about alien invaders, shouts to an unbelieving group of nurses, interns, psychiatrists (including Whit Bissel as Dr. Hill), and doctors (including Richard Deacon as Dr. Harvey Bassett) in the emergency room of the city's Emergency Hospital where he has been brought by a police car, that seed pods are taking over the planet:

Doctor, will you tell these fools? I'm not crazy. Make them listen to me before it's too late.

General practitioner Dr. Miles Bennell explains, in a series of flashbacks from a few days earlier, the terrifying take-over of the town of Santa Mira, California. [Note: The fictitious town was first planned to be modeled after Mill Valley - a town in the Bay Area north of San Francisco. But then the town of Sierra Madre was chosen for filming, just northeast of Pasadena in the greater Los Angeles area.]


[This was the point where Don Siegel wanted the film to begin.]

ORIGINAL BEGINNING OF FILM -

After returning from a medical convention by train, Dr. Bennell is confronted with reports of strange behavior in the small community of his practice. In voice-over:

It started - for me, it started - last Thursday, in response to an urgent message from my nurse, I hurried home from a medical convention I'd been attending. At first glance, everything looked the same. It wasn't. Something evil had taken possession of the town.

In a mood of disquiet, he is met in the rural town of Santa Mira by his nurse Sally (Jean Willes) at the train station. She explains how his office has been besieged by patients in a near epidemic during his absence:

Miles: What's the matter with them?
Sally: They wouldn't say. You know, usually people can't talk enough about what's ailing them.

But strangely, only a few of Miles' patients appeared for their appointments, while many were cancelled. He hears examples of alienation from a few sources - each example includes suspicions that relatives have changed their identities or don't seem to be themselves. One is provided when Miles is visited by his intelligent ex-girlfriend/sweetheart-fiancee, now recently divorced, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter). Becky tells him that her middle-aged cousin Wilma Lentz (Virginia Christine) is suffering from strange delusions that her favorite Uncle Ira is an imposter and has been replaced.

You know her uncle, Uncle Ira?...Well Miles, she's got herself thinking he isn't her uncle. She thinks he's an imposter or something.

When he discovers that, like himself, she is recently divorced, he kids: "Well, I guess that makes us lodge brothers now...except that I'm paying dues while you collect them."

Later that afternoon, Miles is visited by the grocer's son, an hysterical small boy named Jimmy Grimaldi (Bobby Clark) who is brought in by his grandmother (Beatrice Maude). He learns of a second case of alienation. The boy is panicky and agitated about returning home, insisting that his mother is not his mother. Miles seems intrigued by the similarity between all the cases, but is skeptical that anything is wrong. He thinks to himself:

Sick people who couldn't wait to see me, then suddenly were perfectly all right. A boy who said his mother wasn't his mother. A woman who said her uncle wasn't her uncle.

Miles takes old flame Becky to dinner at a local restaurant, to rekindle their romantic love interest. In the parking lot, they discuss the similarities in the strange cases with the town's only psychiatrist, Dr. Dan Kaufman (Larry Gates). The indifferent doctor, who also has had a number of troubling referrals in the past few weeks, dismisses the cases of delusional paranoia as an "epidemic mass hysteria":

Dr. Kaufman: A strange neurosis, evidently contagious, an epidemic mass hysteria. In two weeks, it spread all over town.
Miles: What causes it?
Dr. Kaufman: Worry about what's going on in the world probably.
Miles (jokingly hoping they won't catch it, with the prophetic statement): I'd hate to wake up some morning and find out that you weren't you.

Their intimate dinner in the nearly empty restaurant is immediately interrupted by a call from intellectual friend Jack Belicec (King Donovan) who asks them to come over. He shows them a strange, corpse-like cadaver lying on his pool table - with an unfinished, half-formed, mannequin-like humanoid face and no fingerprints: "It's like the first impression that's stamped on a coin. It isn't finished." Awed, Miles guesses that the mysterious corpse approximates the size of Jack himself, "five ten...maybe 140 pounds." His description of a similarly-sized body startles Jack, causing him to drop a bottle and cut his hand.

Miles asks that they keep vigilant and call him if anything changes or happens. When he returns home later that evening, Jack arrives with his wife Theodora (Carolyn Jones), hysterical that the repugnant corpse has now cloned or turned into her husband and become totally identical to Jack, even down to the bleeding cut on the hand - and its eyes are open. (Earlier, the replica body awakened, took on human features, fluttered its eyelids, and acquired the cut hand.)

On a premonition that Becky is also in danger, Miles races to Becky's house, enters through a basement window, and in the darkness discovers a smooth-faced, replica "double" for Becky hidden in a bin - and obviously placed there by her father. Frightened, Miles wakes her from a drugged sleep state and carries her away to his house. By this time, Dr. Kaufman has been notified of the weird happenings, but he is skeptical and ridicules their fears, especially when the corpses disappear. He again explains everything away as mass delusion and hysteria.

Then for a while, things seem to calm down and return to normal. The troubles of Wilma and Jimmy appear rectified. But Miles uneasily wonders to himself that the recoveries are being play-acted for his benefit:

Driving home, I had a lot of questions and no answers. How could Jimmy and Wilma seem so normal now. Surely I had done nothing to cure them. Maybe they wanted me to feel secure but why?

At a barbecue at Miles' home in the famous greenhouse scene, with friends Jack and Theodora, they discover two giant seed pods that burst and explode open like rotten cabbages, with a milky fluid bubbling out [a mock birth scene]. In the terrifying scene, the disgorged pods reveal grotesquely duplicate similarities to their human counterparts - replicas covered with a sticky, sappy foam. Miles, who realizes that one of the 'blanks' looks like him, searches for lighter fluid, and then takes a pitchfork and stabs at the pods' hearts in a vampire-like killing.

They all speculate that there's an alien menace in their neighborhood. It may be that distant planet emissaries have sent giant seed pods to Earth. They are a kind of zombie-like alien invader that develops (or propagates) when a person is asleep (with a loss of consciousness), and alters the life force, being and consciousness of the somnolent victim with a new physical vehicle that is an exact likeness. When the duplication process is complete, the real person's body is destroyed and replaced by the zombie duplicate - "taken over" by the pod, without typical human emotions such as anxiety, love, faith, or hope. The replacement eliminates the human counterpart and bears only a physical resemblance to the former self - it is a loveless conformist or drone without personality or emotion that is only concerned with propagating itself (similar to plants):

Maybe they're the result of atomic radiation on plant life or animal life. Some weird alien organism - a mutation of some kind...Whatever it is, whatever intelligence or instinct it is that govern the forming of human flesh and blood out of thin air, is fantastically powerful...All that body in your cellar needed was a mind...

To notify the world beyond Santa Mira, Miles phones the FBI (in Los Angeles) and the state capital (in Sacramento), but the lines are suspiciously dead or busy. Miles realizes that they are cut off from the outside world and need to escape. Eventually, exhausted fugitives Becky and Miles end up cornered in his office where they are forced to hide, fleeing from the police. It appears everyone in town has been overtaken by the changeling pods and everything is threatened. To prevent them from going to sleep and being changed while their minds are least resistant, Miles dispenses stimulants. Miles describes to Becky, in an eloquent soliloquy, about how the bodies and souls of humans are being taken over by aliens, and how some people allow their humanity to slowly "drain away" - not realizing how "precious" it is until directly threatened:

In my practice, I've seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn't seem to mind...All of us - a little bit - we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, how dear.


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