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Invasion of the Body Snatchers Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 30, 2006

    Invasion of the Body Snatchers Review
    Welcome to another offering in the Retrofest, folks. As always, these movies are fondly remembered for their imaginatively vivid breaking of new cinematic ground, pushing of genre boundaries and iconic, immortal imagery. Undoubtedly, they helped shape the path of the films that followed, their legacies untarnished by the passage of time. Many of them are cult favourites and quite rightly cherished, others created mood and style swings whose influences are only now beginning to come to light. All are fascinating, thought-provoking and come laden with subtext, depth and intelligence - things that genre product these days struggle with. As I always state, I shamelessly love these films and, as a result, their awarding of high marks is virtually obligatory.

    The fifties, as I've mentioned in reviews for The Thing From Another World and Them!, were rife with propagandist paranoia about America being infiltrated by some insidious enemy from within. Obviously, it was the threat of communism that was the main concern for the good, God-fearing Constitution, but when Joe Public wouldn't be able to spot a Commie on Maple Street unless he was ten-feet tall, with a Stalin moustache and carrying a huge hammer and sickle, the floodgates were opened for cinema to exploit all manner of metaphor for the fears and delusions of a paranoid nation. Quite honestly, we should be thankful, for without such closed-mindedness of the press and the politicians and the bandwagon-jumping of the studios, we wouldn't have gained such genre classics as the two mentioned above, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Invaders From Mars and, of course, Don Siegel's immortal Invasion Of The Body Snatchers from 1956.

    “School isn't what upsets him. It's my daughter-in-law. He's got the crazy idea she isn't his mother.”

    Based on Jack Finney's smart, fast-paced novel, originally serialised in Collier Magazine back in 1954 as just The Body Snatchers, Invasion details the horrific consequences of small town America - sleepy, idyllic Santa Mira, California - as it bears the brunt of a sly alien occupation and take-over bid, normal everyday folk being assimilated and duplicated by ghastly spores that seek out their victims when they sleep, replacing them with carbon-copy doppelgangers without pity or emotion. At first this is just a handful of impostors - a child's mother, a friend's uncle - with no obvious evidence as to their alien identity other than an unnerving wrongness about them experienced by their nearest and dearest, but soon, more and more residents develop these odd suspicions about their neighbours and friends. Memories appear intact and day-to-day dealings still seem to carry on as they should, but there is, nevertheless, something odd and intimidating about these spore-born charlatans, yet Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), returning to Santa Mira after a medical convention, assumes the bizarre goings-on are just some form of mass-delusion, an epidemic sweeping the neighbourhood. A psychologist associate assures him that it will soon pass ... “Just the fear of what's going on in the world,” he supposes and, indeed, when those who had complained initially about this perplexing masquerade taking place begin to inform him that all is now well, this diagnosis appears to have been right on the money.

    Until he finds himself confronted with a mysterious body stretched out on the pool table in his friends' house, that is. Mysterious because it isn't properly formed, just like a human blank-page, awaiting the details of life and character to be filled in.

    Not dead, but not exactly alive either, its face is featureless and Dr. Bennell finds that it leaves no fingerprints. Yet, even as Bennell, his erstwhile old flame Becky (Dana Wynter) and their friends, Jack and Theodora (King Donovan and Carolyn Jones), try to calm their nerves with a drink or two, the body begins to take on form and definition. “How tall would you say that thing was?” Theodora asks, spotting vague but unsettling similarities between it and her husband. Then when a glass-cut on Jack's hand develops in the same place on the strange body, some very unsavoury clues begin to slot together. It is a marvellous set-up. The gradual sense of unease - the small-town mentality coming apart at the seams with unearthly distrust and an unknown fear and suspicion of loved ones - is deliciously well-handled, milking the mystery with drip-fed tension, little incidents and confrontations scratching away the veneer of cosy fifties Americana. But director Don Seigel then puts his foot down with the sudden shock sequence of Bennell's discovery of another still-forming body in the basement of Becky's house, this one with a face that he recognises all too well. The full horror of the situation surrounding him dawns as many more people suddenly seem changed, people in authority, and there is the frightening notion that they are all, somehow, working together to spread the infection beyond the small town. This plan already seems to be underway, with the alien impostors appearing highly organised and wasting no time in networking their gruesome pods for transportation around the United States. Little Santa Mira no longer feels safe or welcoming, its quaint, tree-lined streets becoming as sinister and cold as those of Haddonfield, Illinois two decades later, when Michael Myers would come home for Halloween. The common nightmare of those close to you turning into monsters becomes a stark reality for Bennell as he seeks to escape the clutches of the pod-people and warn the outside world of the threat.

    “The words, the gestures, the tone of voice - everything is the same ... but not the feeling.”

    Kevin McCarthy is electric as Dr. Bennell. He starts off so self-assured - returning to his hometown with nostalgia and thoroughly good intentions - and very rapidly descends through the varying stages of paranoia until he becomes a babbling, incoherent wreck, the bearer of terrible knowledge, yet unable to know who to entrust with it. When Donald Sutherland took over the role for Philip Kaufman's fine 1978 remake he ditched the anxiety, assuming a character who, to nearly all intents and purposes, seems emotionless and in-control right from the very start, mumbling his way through many scenes with an attitude that is calm, and almost blasé - even when confronted with the horrors of the alien pods. Sutherland may be more naturalistic and in-tune with the 70's deadpan, and perhaps nihilistic, acting approach, but McCarthy somehow edges his performance into a heightened, yet more realistic examination of a man whose world has been turned completely upside down. However, perhaps fittingly, he essays the fear and anger of someone losing contact with a hamlet and a small population he knew intimately, whilst Bennell 70's style, is just a face in the crowd, already anonymous amid the swollen metropolis of the city, the uncaring ambivalence to the people around him just a sign of the times. Therefore the uncaring, anti-social ambivalence of man to his brother is the trick that the aliens can use to their advantage. But McCarthy's dilemma is much more acute. And, cleverly, Siegel skews his camera angles to aid the atmosphere of things-not-being-quite-right that McCarthy's face wholly exhibits. Suddenly there are more shadows filling the sets and locations, and the camera now lowers, giving a sense of the town growing around us. But the sequence regarding the body that appears on the pool table slightly infuriates me, with McCarthy's Bennell just not asking the right questions as to how it may have gotten there in the first place, or about Jack and Theodora's reactions when they came across it, etc. But this is a fault of Daniel Mainwaring's script and not of McCarthy, who still remains the anchor for the madness to follow. When the movie then shifts up a gear to two, McCarthy still seems in control, tense, but sure enough of his abilities to get himself and Becky out of there. Then when the pods begin to close the net and Bennell senses that his time is being wasted by someone who is not merely an inept telephonist, he confidently and quickly plans their escape and evasion. But, inexorably, we see his defences crack and crumble - like the skin of the victims who fall asleep in Kaufman's remake. The greater scale and implication of the takeover settles like a cloud of doom over the proceedings and it is a clever narrative jump that has much of the invasion taking place behind the scenes, happening as our attention, just like Bennell's, is diverted.

    “They're like giant seedpods.”

    The special effects designed by Milt Rice are terrific, too. The pods themselves are as icky and unpleasant as they are realistic, oozing their DNA-mimicking fluids with squirm-inducing obscenity. The birthing of the pod-people is pretty raw stuff for the time, with the celebrated scene in the greenhouse - a mass hatching, you could say - lifted wholesale for the first remake and only bettered because it was then enhanced with gloopy colour, still startling in its execution and shockingly suggestive. The sexual perversity of the situation, or rather the asexual perversity, is both beautiful and horrifying. There is something ghastly about seeing adults being formed, their blank, expressionless faces waiting to be etched with personality, the fashioning of familiar features as fascinating as it is unholy. Jack Finney was digging much, much deeper than mere pulp sci-fi when he came up with this stuff, he was tentatively exploring themes that David Cronenberg and Clive Barker would go on to fully exploit. And it is great, and a little surprising, that Siegel didn't just use expositional dialogue and a few fleeting frames to imply what is taking place - and you have to wonder what the young drive-in audiences of the time made of all this propagating-the-species subtext amid their excited necking-sessions. The Donald Sutherland version is even more uncomfortable in this department, supplying some horribly arousing moaning sounds from the newborns as their tendrils entwine around their hosts' bodies. There is a similar scene in John Carpenter's The Thing when the character Windows blunders in on his colleague Bennings as he is being absorbed by the alien shapeshifter - uncomfortable because it is akin to spying on some ugly, private sexual coupling. It is worth mentioning, as well, that when McCarthy's Bennell plunges a pitchfork into the fresh, glistening chest of his own developing replicant, the effect was so horrifying and violent that the remake allowed for Sutherland to recapture it - replicating his former self, you could say - with even more sickeningly squelchy gore.

    “Stay here ... and pray they're as human as they sound.”

    Don Siegel is extremely aware of how laughable some of this could be if the wrong approach was taken, and he is careful to steer the film without resorting to pretentious hokum. We don't get dumb policemen or scaredy-cat damsels in distress - Dana Wynter tries to be a typical scream-queen but Siegel manages to rein her in. Nor do have lumbering pod-people (poddies, perhaps?) menacing our heroes with their arms outstretched zombie-style, as would surely have been the case had one of the many hack directors gotten hold of the rights to the film. For the point is that the enemy is not acting out of merely mindless aggression. They are not just monster-props. Whatever the aliens really want - and I think it is safe to assume that it is probably just the survival of their own race - they act with coherence and calm, implacable duty until the big mob chase towards the end, which is a little reminiscent of all those angry villagers pursuing the old Universal monsters. This is actually a neat spin on those archetypal set-pieces, as here it is our heroes who are the ones on the run. (Be sure to look out for the quick shot of a poddie putting his foot through the wooden planks that his still-human quarry is hiding beneath - I'm not entirely sure that it was intended to happen.) But the most frightening aspect of the scenario is the coming face-to-face with people who were once friends, now replaced by things that are utterly non-human. When Miles and Becky are informed quite matter-of-factly that the assimilation needn't be painful, and that the new condition is actually a much better way to live, it is hard not to think of the persuasive tactics of certain cults and organisations in gaining new devotees. And, of course, the doomed inevitability of “They get you when you sleep!” and “You've got to sleep, sometime,” adds a sly dread to the plight of those still unaffected. This tragic postponement of the unavoidable was also exquisitely utilised by George A. Romero for his celebrated Dead series. Yes, the passing-on of the zombie “disease” was via a bite - itself an extension of the vampire/werewolf myth - but the idea that an entire population could be transformed and would then hound down the last survivors until domination was complete is pure Body Snatchers. Siegel would later forge a successful movie-making relationship with Clint Eastwood, and even take the seeds from this sci-fi classic of non-conformity to the establishment, to a more realistic and dynamic degree with the all-time great Dirty Harry.

    On the downside, this version of the movie comes with the bookend scenes of Miles Bennell confessing his outlandish story to doctors in a hospital out of town. These two ill-fitting scenes, at the start and the finish, were additions made after the film had been previewed. It appears that American audiences weren't quite ready for the downbeat climax that Invasion had originally culminated in - the excellent sequence of a deranged Bennell standing in the middle of a highway screaming out his terrified warning to passing motorists. (Phil Kaufman staged a very effective homage-sequence to this with Kevin McCarthy's famous cameo in the '78 remake.) Sadly, these additions water down the effect of what we have already seen and my advice, as a direct consequence, is to watch the movie skipping out chapters 2 and 25 to retain the bludgeoning effect of the original apocalyptic ending. Also, the voiceover from Miles is a slight irritation - I'm not a fan of voiceovers at all, really - although I will reluctantly concede that it does sort of fit in with the growing sense of unease that he feels during the first act. The original novel was written in the first-person narrative, so again I suppose the voiceover is appropriate.

    “No-one in Santa Mira is human! You're next! Don't you see? They're here already!”

    Well, Jack Finney's classic pod-people drama certainly stands the test of time. Three remakes (including the forthcoming variation with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, The Visiting) and TV shows such as the atmospheric The Invaders from the 60's and the lousy Invasion from the noughties, prove that the plot and the paranoia can be lifted, transplanted and reworked to suit any era, any situation. The politics of the tale are apparent and pointed, but the horror and mystery of it all is still exemplary with vast amounts of suspense to be exploited. The themes of bodily corruption, loss of identity and increasing persecution of minorities are ones that will never go away. John Carpenter's remake of The Thing is the perfect vehicle for such unsettling notions, but Don Siegel tapped into the deep-seated fears of a society so afraid of its own shadow that ethnic cleansing of the Californian suburbs doesn't seem at all preposterous. With the West now looking inwards for signs of home-grown terrorism, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers regains an acute clarity. The suspicions raised against those deemed to be acting strangely should, perhaps, be taken seriously once more ... even if the enemy looks and sounds just like us.

    Fifties sci-fi, eh? It's not all flying saucers and bug-eyed monsters, is it? Invasion Of The Body Snatchers was mightily relevant back then, yet watching it now, it is clear that nothing in the real world has changed. It'll be very interesting to see what the new version makes of it all, now that the events of 9/11 have tainted every facet of our culture.

    Next time, folks, we'll have a look at Jack Clayton's awesomely atmospheric The Innocents from 1961.