This review is part of the 50’s Monster Mash Blogathon hosted by Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear. The blogathon runs from July 28th through August 2nd.
An allegory on the infiltration of communism in America? A metaphor for people turning a blind eye to the McCarthyism hysteria that was sweeping the country in the early 1950’s? An attack on the potential dangers of conformity and the stamping out of individuality? Don Siegel’s 1956 gem of a film, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” has been said to really be about any and all of these themes since its debut now more than fifty years ago. Siegel, who should know, never mentions any of this kind of subtext in his autobiography, “A Siegel Film,” so one can assume, all the reading into this classic SF film that has been done is just that, critics and filmgoers reading their own thoughts and ideas into a work of pop art…and there is nothing wrong with that! After all, isn’t personal interpretation one of the elements and joys of good art? Admirer, analyze, come up with theories, themes beyond what even the artist conceived.
The film is based on a serialized novel, written by Jack Finny, published in 1954 in Collier’s Magazine called, “The Body Snatchers.” It was produced by Walter Wanger (notoriously known for shooting talent agent, later a producer, Jennings Lang. Wanger believed Lang was having an affair with his then wife, actress Joan Bennett) and directed by low budget action director Don Siegel. Siegel already had ten feature films under his belt including “The Big Steal,” “Duel at Silver Creek,” “Private Hell 36” and “Riot in Cell Block 11.” Allied Artist agreed to back the film and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring was on board to adapt Finney’s superb novel.
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is an expertly made low budget thriller that slowly builds in tension and never lets up. Filled with perfectly executed cinematography, a pulsating music score (by Carmen Dragon) and top notch acting performances from Kevin McCarthy and the lovely Dana Wynters in a gallant battle to save the human race from dehumanizing pods. Despite the fact that we see no monsters or strange looking aliens, Siegel and company make us believe they are out there, ready to take us down. Not through any violence or massive destruction but simply by sleeping, sweet gentle sleep. They know we as humans, no matter how much we fight it, will eventually have to fall asleep, and then they will take us over.
Visually the film is a frightful delight. In his autobiography, Siegel explains how his head grip devised a dolly with wheels that would ride up a steep cement stairway. In the completed film the shot is superbly executed as we see McCarthy and Wynters struggling up the steep stairway attempting to escape from the now pod infested town folks who are chasing after them. Add to this, a brilliantly shot scene where McCarthy and Wynters are in a cave, hiding in an excavated underground hole covered with floor boards. In this shot, the camera is underneath the floor boards, with McCarthy and Wynters, shooting up thru the cracks between the boards watching the now vigilante like crowds rushing over the boards searching for the couple in vain.
Later that evening the couple, still hiding in the cave, hears music. McCarthy tells Wynters, the pods wouldn’t be playing music; he kisses Wynters and exits the cave in the direction the music is coming from. He quickly finds out his theory was wrong, the music is coming from speakers near a truck where pod-people are loading freshly delivered pods on to the truck. He quickly heads back to Wynters, still in the cave, who has fallen asleep. He wakes her up and kisses her. The camera focuses in on an extreme close-up of Wynters blank face. A quick cut to McCarthy, whose shocked expression reveals the horror. She is now a pod!
The studio, fearful of a simple minded public not being able to deal with a downbeat ending forced Siegel to add on a prologue with a more upbeat ending. The film originally was suppose to end with McCarthy frantically running on to a highway yelling at passing cars hysterically about an alien invasion, finally turning directly toward the camera in close up and screaming out, “They’re already here, You’re next!” Instead we are subject to an added on ending where McCarthy is picked up by the police, taken to a doctor’s office where no one believes him until they hear about an accident and a truck with pod like objects in the back. At this point, they call the FBI in as the film ends. Imagine for a moment how much more powerful the ending would be if the film had ended with McCarthy screaming into your face, “YOU”RE NEXT!”
Along with McCarthy and Wynters, the cast also includes King Donavan, Carolyn Jones (as a blonde), Larry Gates, Whit Bissell, Jean Willes and a young Sam Peckinpah who it is said to have contributed to the screenplay however, it is McCarthy, in a career defining performance, and the beautiful Dana Wynters, whose performances you won’t forget.
In 1978, the first of three remakes came out. Directed by Phillip Kaufman, with cameos by Kevin McCarthy, still running around hysterically on the highway screaming, “They’re here!” (instead of “You’re next!”) and original director Don Siegel as a cab driver. While not the classic the original is, Kaufman’s film is a fine worthy effort. Next was Abel Ferrara’s 1993 film, with a title very close to the original Jack Finney title, “Body Snatchers.” Again there are pod like creatures taking the place of real humans only this time on a U.S. Military base. The last version, so far, was made in 2007 and is called “The Invasion.” Again it is similar, yet different. An alien virus turns humans into cold pod like beings after they fall asleep. Kevin McCarthy’s general practitioner Dr. Bennell has evolved into Dr. Carol Bennell, a Government psychiatrist. I found this last version the worst of the four.
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” cautions’ us on the problem of being complacent with our lives; falling asleep is a danger, we are vulnerable, one loses touch with the world, and pods can quickly take us over. This fear is as relevant today as it was more than fifty years ago when the film was made, more so as pod like ideologues and followers swarm into the political mainstream. While the tacked on ending of the film gives a bit of encouragement that all will be alright, the real ending Siegel wanted, with McCarthy on the highway staring straight into the screen, gives us no such assurance.
The film opened in New York City as part of a dooms day “horror” twin bill in late April of 1956. The second feature was “World without End.”