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INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS

When 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 Package
     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). 

The Story 
     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 drugs!).
     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 alien-infested town.

The Direction
     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!


Vital Statistics 

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS
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
 


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