When Dr. Miles J. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns to his small hometown, some things just seem a bit off. Slowly but surely, Bennell and his love-interest Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) will discover that a malignant entity is taking over the town, replacing its population one by one with alien duplicates.
The theme of an alien/foreign entity occupying/replacing the bodies of those nearest and dearest to us has been utilized in horror cinema as early as 1927 with Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ and has persisted throughout features as plentiful and varied as ‘Planet of the Vampires‘ (1965), ‘Invaders from Mars’ (1953 & 1986), ‘It Came from Outer Space‘ (1953), ‘It Conquered the World‘ (1956), ‘I Married a Monster from Outer Space‘ (1958 & 1998), ‘The Stepford Wives‘ (1975 & 2004), ‘The Thing‘ (1982), ‘The Faculty’ (1998) and many more. It also plays upon the same string as zombie cinema’s oeuvre, with former friends/family left shambling, absurd masquerades of humanity. But it is producer Walter Wanger’s 1956 production of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’, executed with such clarity and urgency, which has come to exemplify the concept. Originally serialized in Collier’s magazine in 1954, then published by Dial in 1955, Jack Finney’s classic novel ‘The Body Snatchers’ cast into words an intangible fear that has plagued mankind for ages. Not death or destruction, but rather dehumanization, where the individual is deprived of feelings, free will, and moral judgment. Where we, in essence, stop being “us” and start being “them.” It’s no wonder that scholars and critics have found Finney’s story and its four official film adaptations perfect subjects for social commentaries-a-go-go. From Communist red scares to anti-McCarthyism screeds, from self-preoccupied “Me Generations” to militarized mindsets, the shoe continues to fit each and every generation, the underlying fear of losing one’s identity having lost not an iota of its potency.
Finney unfolds the tale of quiet burg Mill Valley (located 15 miles north of San Francisco), whose occupants are being replaced by perfect physical duplicates grown from plantlike pods of extraterrestrial origin. Even more disconcerting, the transformation occurs while the human subject sleeps – when the duplication is complete, the original organism is reduced to dust. The only observable difference between the original and its parasitic copy? “There’s no emotion. None. Just the pretense of it. The words, the gesture, the tone of voice, everything else is the same, but not the feeling.” An immediate success upon publication, Wanger secured the film rights in 1955 and promptly set about assembling his creative task force to bring it to the silver screen. Daniel Mainwaring was charged with adapting Finney’s prose, with Don Siegel – whose knack for muscular screen action had caught Wanger’s eye – tapped to direct. Kevin McCarthy assumed the lead role of Dr. Miles Bennell, paired opposite the lovely Dana (pronounced “Dah-na”) Wynter. Then there’s King Donovan. Having appeared in two 1953 sci-fi romps, ‘The Magnetic Monster’ and ‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’, he was cast as pipe-smoking author Jack Belicec. Donovan’s onscreen wife was played by 1953′s ‘House of Wax’ alumni Carolyn Jones, soon to be immortalized as the ghoulishly sexy matriarch Morticia in TV’s ‘The Addams Family’. As a woman convinced that her Uncle Ira is not her Uncle Ira, Virginia Christine creates an initially tragic, then sinister supporting character. (Fellow fiends might also remember Christine as Princess Ananka, evocatively emerging from Louisiana bayou mud in 1944′s ‘The Mummy’s Curse’.) Sam Peckinpah, who appears briefly as Charlie the gas man, also served as Invasion’s dialogue director – though self-perpetuated claims of his script “improvements” have been widely denounced.
Wanger and Siegel had hoped to lens the film in Mill Valley itself, but the 20-day/$350,000 schedule and budget proved too tight for location shooting so remote from Hollywood. Consequently, the southern California village of Sierra Madre stood in for the fictitious “Santa Mira,” with the majority of scenes filmed at Allied Artists’ Los Angeles studio. (The oft-used Bronson and Beachwood Canyons provided the surrounding hills where Miles and Becky flee their pod-infected community.) The giant seed pods were created by future master mask maker Don Post (‘Halloween III: Season of the Witch’, 1982), while Bill Beaudine, Jr. (son of infamous exploitation director William “One Shot” Beaudine) served as assistant director. Composer Carmen Dragon’s final feature film score is chock full of ’50s sci-fi music cues, with brass, string and piano refrains effectively heightening the mood. To avoid confusion with Val Lewton’s 1945 Boris Karloff vehicle ‘The Body Snatcher’, Allied Artists and Wanger sought alternate titles for their feature. Suggestions included “Evil in the Night,” “They Came from Another World” and “Better Off Dead,” with Siegel and McCarthy’s personal choice being “Sleep No More.” Ultimately, in keeping with the rise of drive-in programming for younger crowds (and let it be remembered, this was a relatively low-budget “B” picture from the start), the sensationalistic ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ moniker was decided upon, much to the cast’s chagrin. Released February 5, 1956, the film immediately met with critical and financial success.
Produced as it was during the politically charged Cold War ’50s, the subtextual fear of conspiracy teemed beneath Invasion’s surface. When Bennell queries what could be causing these doppelganger delusions within Santa Mira’s community, the local psychiatrist replies, “Worry about what’s going on in the world, probably.” Many viewed the film as an indictment of communism, with characters transformed into unfeeling doubles if they failed to “wake up” to the encroaching Red Threat, while others saw in the pod populous HUAC’s ruthless witch hunting name-namers who looked like friends but sold you out when the opportunity arose. Still others viewed it as a metaphor for bland conformity in post-war America. Though Finney, Siegel, McCarthy, Mainwaring, and Wanger have all gone on record stating they had no specific allegory to impart, it is this hyper-malleable “fear of the other that looks like us” that has lent the film its venerable staying power. That, and the simple fact it is an artfully constructed thriller, one that ratchets up the pressure until we find ourselves nervously wondering about the person sitting next to us.
In this new world order, there is no place for love or sex. Miles’ kiss of Becky outside the Sky Terrace restaurant officially rekindles their romantic relationship – in fact, via a sexy throwaway line, Miles indicates that this is how he knows Becky is Becky. An hour’s screen time later, that romantic gesture’s dark mirror is presented, with Becky’s pod kiss shattering her and Miles’ future forever. Note: Becky’s presto change-o transformation has been the subject of debate for years, as it seems highly unlikely that there was a spare pod squirreled away in the cave where they have taken refuge, not to mention that previous transformations have taken what appears to be an hour or so at the very least. However, since the shock effect of the sequence succeeds so mightily, with McCarthy’s horrified face retreating from his former paramour’s, viewers are willing to continue for the ride and refrain from calling the logic police. McCarthy’s committed central performance, building from blasé self-satisfaction to raving dementia with nary a false note, anchors the picture and lends it much-needed gravitas. Whether tossing off flirtatious bon mots, jumping from still-moving cars, or violently hauling Wynter up never-ending staircases, his character’s actions are never called into doubt. (By the way, the seemingly too-light weight of the pods as McCarthy removes them from his car trunk is straight out of Finney’s novel, which declared them “weightless as children’s balloons.”) The only false note arrives in the final “The End” shot, which holds on McCarthy’s overactive face just a shade too long for comfort before going to black, undermining his fear and relief at finally being believed. Speaking of the ending…
The film originally concluded with Miles fruitlessly attempting to alert highway passersby of the oncoming invasion, an ending that satisfied both Siegel and Mainwaring but whose downbeat tone spooked Allied. In response, the studio insisted on a bookending device that resulted in the central story becoming a flashback, as well as adding a last-minute highway accident involving an overturned truckload of pods to lend credence to Miles’ wild tale and imply hope for the human race. Despite oft-heard grumblings regarding this so-called “happy ending,” how happy is it really? Do we truly believe the FBI is going to jump on the case based simply on a truck full of pods and a lunatic’s testimony? Is that all it takes? Methinks humanity still has a serious uphill climb ahead. Besides, if we’re looking for cornball endings against which to smack our foreheads, one need look no further than Finney’s original closing pages, wherein the alien apocalypse is undone by Miles setting a single field of pods ablaze (which, incidentally, sputters out after cooking only a few of the suckers). Even with the entire town of Santa Mira under their control and reinforcements already sprouting via relatives in the surrounding areas, the pods take this single act of defiance as grounds for abandoning their entire scheme and fly off into outer space before Miles and Becky’s wondering eyes. Yes, Finney conjures an intergalactic fleet of vegetable dirigibles as his triumphant concluding image – let’s be thankful no one’s tried to put that on film… yet.
While we’re smiling, it’s probably a good time to point out that although much of Mainwaring’s script’s humor was excised at the behest of executives (the prevailing wisdom being “horror and humor don’t mix”), a few gems managed to elude the studio shears, including Donovan’s line, “Watch out for yourselves,” as the two couples split up. Another sly wink occurs in the Belicecs’ rec room, hanging directly above Donovan’s still-evolving doppelganger: an enlarged framed cover of one of Jack’s books, “Mirror Noir.” The pod people certainly represent a “black mirror” of their unsuspecting human hosts. Less effective is the studio-imposed voiceover, much of which heavy-handedly reinforces what we see onscreen, or worse, ends up gilding the emotional lily of McCarthy’s onscreen arc. For instance, imagine the opening scene of Miles returning to Santa Mira from his medical conference (2-3 weeks after the infestation has begun) minus the “Something evil had taken possession of the town…” overture – the sense of nothing-wrong-with-this-place would have been multiplied exponentially, allowing the mystery to unfold before our eyes. Luckily, while extraneous, the voiceover only rarely proves overtly distracting.
The legacy of the film has endured through countless theatrical reissues and television viewings, establishing itself as one of the high-water marks of ’50s sci-fi cinema. Its success also helped spur the ongoing genre craze which would dominate drive-in screens for over a decade. Despite waves of radioactive gigantism, Hammer vixens, Hitchcock thrillers and Castle gimmickry, reverence continues to be paid to a certain 80-minute paean to pod people. Nearly 60 years have passed since McCarthy first burst through that hospital door, begging us to believe his wild tale, and audiences are still compelled to listen. In Dean Koontz’s introduction to the book, ‘They’re Here…: Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute’, he explains, “One of the greatest strengths of Jack Finney’s work is his ability to describe and explore complex emotions in an admirably low-key fashion […] This is why his work is well suited to film – fundamentally an emotional medium. Fear, joy, loneliness, longing… Finney had a way with this material, and that was a gift of gold…” There’s another reason a half-century of filmmakers have continued to revisit and riff on the author’s seminal story about menace from the sky that looks like the guy next door: It’s an imminently good scary bedtime story, one that leaves us wondering if we’ll still be us in the morning.
Trailer on YouTube.
*portions of this review previously appeared in HorrorHound #31, Sept/Oct 2011