Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956 USA)

The Thing From Another World birthed the alien invader film, and the theme proved so popular it quickly became its own genre. Where most of these, especially The War of the Worlds, showed aliens arriving en masse in gigantic spaceships to obliterate humanity from the face of the Earth. The Thing From Another World and its ilk took the same basic idea and ran with it to more invasive places. And Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the finest example. At the time it was made, it was the most terrifying alien invader film to emerge. There are other worthy examples but few have unsettled audiences like this dark and eerie work.

Jack Finney wrote The Body Snatchers as a serial, then expanded it to a novel. The book is an efficient read but Don Siegel makes a more interesting story out of it. Indeed The Body Snatchers is such a fertile idea it has been adapted into a motion picture no less than four times. Not to mention spawning dozens of imitators. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is the local GP of Santa Mira. Coming back from an out-of-town conference, his patients come to him with the same story. Friends and loved ones no longer seem like the same people. They look the same. Talk the same. But on the inside, they’re different; or more accurately, something is missing. Miles is sceptical, until a friend brings him a featureless replica of himself. Miles realises an alien influence is slowly taking over Santa Mira.

Many people have read into Invasion of the Body Snatchers as an unconscious metaphor against McCarthyism and Communism. Siegel and Finney have always denied this, although screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring had Hollywood run-ins with blacklisting, so there may be something to that; besides, what else are you supposed to think when the lead actor’s last name is McCarthy? Political overtones aside, I just liked the film for what it is, a chilling horror story. The film gains its effect from the way Don Siegel brings the invaders into the story and just waits for the audience to catch on. In fact he’s so successful at this that the film didn’t really need Miles providing an ominous voice-over (but more on that later).

In the first scenes at Santa Mira, Siegel establishes the apparent normal routine of the town with everybody going about their business as if it were any other day. But the invasion of Santa Mira has already begun, and Siegel litters the film with clues from the beginning. For instance, a little boy running into the path of an oncoming car as if he is trying to get away from something. Or a man mowing the same patch of lawn over and over again. None of these things are conclusive, but as the story presses on, these things become harder to ignore. People think there’s something weird going on, and then retract their spooky claims. And when featureless clones of the townspeople start appearing in cellars and basements, the clues all point to something we hadn’t even considered; an alien invasion.

Director Siegel structures this like the film-noir thrillers he made his name in previously. Harsh silhouettes, long shots of cramped corridors, tight closeups, an edgy piano score. One of the most effective tricks he springs on us is where the film stops in the midst of it, and tries to convince the characters (and I think the audience too) that none of this is real, and we’re imagining the invasion of Santa Mira. The duplicates that cropped up in the cellar are now suddenly gone. They didn’t leave any fingerprints so there’s no proof they were ever there. And when the film brings in a psychiatrist and explains with calm rationalism that we’re all part of a shared delusion, its something that almost succeeds in making you rethink yourself.

Of course that type of second-guessing doesn’t last for very long, but it was great while it lasted. When some unusual sea-pods crop up in Miles’ greenhouse, giving birth to a replica of himself, you realise you were right the first time. Siegel saves his scariest scenes for the second half, when Miles and his girlfriend Becky go into hiding. One of the eeriest 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. That scene stays with me more than anything else in the movie. Equally creepy is the pod-people trying to reason with Miles and Becky, telling them it’s so much better this way. Ultimately they don’t have a choice in this. Siegel refuses to compromise except at the end.

Miles and Becky are forced up into the hills and when they separate for a moment, Miles looks into Becky’s eyes and sees nothing there. When the reality sinks in that she’s been took over, it’s as scary as it is tragic. But Siegel even manages to top this with that classic scene with Miles getting to the highway screaming about the oncoming invasion, and being dismissed as a lunatic. That would have been a fantastic ending. But, unfortunately, the studio was quite taken aback by this and forced upon him an ending that promised hope to the audience: Miles is relating his story to a therapist, who calls in the FBI to deal with the threat. It’s an extremely silly anticlimax. But Jack Finney didn’t get it right either. The book ended on the ridiculous notion of the aliens giving up on world domination plot and returning home. In spite of that, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a timeless classic. Its so-called metaphors are easily dismissed in the face of such an absorbing icon of genre cinema.

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