INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS
dealing with a five decade multi-film phenomenon, it pays to go back to where it
all started. In the case of the Body Snatchers movie saga, that start was
director Don Siegel’s 1956 INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. It’s an acknowledged
classic, even though (in my view) it isn’t the best film of the cycle.
The concept of malevolent aliens taking over human
bodies was utilized in many classic sci fi novels, most notably John W.
Campbell’s WHO GOES THERE? (1938), Robert Heinlein’s THE PUPPET MASTERS (1951)
and Jack Finney’s THE BODY SNATCHERS (1955). Body snatching held a particular
appeal during the 1950s, as it could be made to stand for the apparent Communist
infiltration of America (which was how Heinlein saw it) or the spread of
McCarthyism, which many commentators claim was the late Don Siegel’s intent in
this film adapted from Finney’s tale...although the filmmaker himself always
denied that. Siegel of course was a longtime master of tough, efficient
thrillers, whose thirty year-plus career gave us classics like THE KILLERS
(1964), THE BEGUILED (1971), DIRTY HARRY (1971) and CHARLEY VARRICK (1973).
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, starring Kevin McCarthy
and Dana Winter, is a quintessentially fifties product, but has endured
nonetheless. It’s inspired countless imitations and three honest-to-goodness
remakes, the first by director Philip Kaufman in 1978 (in my view the best of
the BODY SNATCHERS flicks), the second by Abel Ferrara in 1993 and the latest by
Oliver Hirschbiegel in 2007. (WHO GOES THERE? and THE PUPPET MASTERS have
inspired their own respective film cycles, though neither is as extensive as the
BODY SNATCHERS series).
A raving man is admitted to a psychiatric hospital one
night. The nut turns out to be Miles Bennell, a once-respected doctor from the
sleepy California town of Santa Mira. Bennell relates the bizarre tale of how
he came to be in his current predicament: a few days earlier several of his
patients claimed that beloved relatives “weren’t themselves”. Bennell
disbelieved the claims and tried to reassure the patients (by administering
In the first of many inexplicable events, Bennell is
called to a local bar to examine a cadaver without facial features or
fingerprints. After Bennell leaves the body forms itself into a replica of one
of the town’s citizens. Later that night Bennell discovers another suspicious
cadaver...with the guise of his own wife!
The next weird occurrence takes place in a greenhouse,
where Bennel discovers several large pods that break open to discharge malignant
goo that forms into human bodies, including one identical to Bennell himself.
He comes to realize the truth of what’s happening: beings from outer space are
taking over the minds and bodies of Santa Mira’s residents while they sleep! To
escape them Bennell and his wife will have to stay awake as long as possible,
and behave like emotionless drones so as not to stand out in the now completely
A classic this film may be, but that doesn’t mean it’s
without flaws. The superfluous wraparound segments are foremost among the
irritations, with the main character telling his story to psychiatrists (which
makes little sense considering he spends large portions of the film offscreen),
which were apparently forced on Siegel by studio executives. There’s also the
fact that the narrative relies far too much on coincidence and happenstance:
nearly every major plot development is relayed simply by having protagonist turn
up in the right place at the right time. And the overall pacing is a bit
off--in contrast to most fifties fare, it’s too fast. Don Siegel began
his career as an editor, and this 80-minute picture reflects that fact with its
wildly pared-down, almost montage-like cutting.
But the film has endured for a reason--several reasons,
actually. For starters, it has fine, noirish visuals; notice the way the camera
angles and shadowy lighting grow increasingly baroque as the horror increases.
This was very much a “B” Picture, but has the look and feel of an A-movie.
There’s also Kevin McCarthy in the lead role, whose descent into hysteria is
unforgettably portrayed. Quite simply, there are very few performers alive or
dead who can match McCarthy’s ability to act crazy onscreen (check out his turn
as a virtual living cartoon in the Joe Dante segment of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE
MOVIE, easily one of the best things about that uneven project).
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS will also hold a special
place for fifties movie buffs due to its climax, which takes place in LA’s
Bronson Canyon, the setting of countless horror/sci fi movies of the time. This
sequence is topped by the unforgettable sight of McCarthy in the middle of a
crowded freeway raving to drivers about the coming menace, which originally
ended the film--and if you ask me still should!
INVASION OF THE BODY
Republic Entertainment Inc.
Director: Don Siegel
Producer: Walter Wanger
Screenplay: Daniel Mainwaring
(Based on a novel by Jack Finney)
Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks
Editing: Robert S Eisen
|Cast: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones,
Jean Willes, Ralph Dumke, Virginia Christine, Tom Fadden, Kenneth Patterson, Guy
Way, Eileen Stevens, Beatrice Maude, Jean Audren, Bobby Clark, Sam Peckinpah