From the DVD case:
Something evil has taken possession of the small town of Santa Mira, California. Hysterical people accuse their loved ones of being emotionless impostors; of not being themselves. At first, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) tries to convince them they’re wrong, but they’re not. Plant-like extraterrestrials have invaded Earth, replicating the villagers in giant seed “pods” and taking possession of their souls while they sleep. Soon the entire town is overwhelmed by the inhuman horror, but it won’t stop there. In a terrifying race for his life, Dr. Bennell escapes to warn the world of the deadly invasion of the pod people! Remade in both 1978 and 1997, this chilling combination of extraterrestrial terror and anti-conformity paranoia is considered one of the great cult classics of the genre. (1956, b&w)
I’d never commit myself to this, but Invasion of the Body Snatchers may be my all-time favorite sci-fi/horror film of the 1950s. I love the idea of society slowly being invaded by unfeeling creatures that look just like you and me. The story is based on a Collier’s Magazine serial by Jack Finney.
A lot has been said about the cold war symbolism in this movie, with the “pod people” representing either communists or McCarthyists. Because I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this aspect, let me quote Director Don Siegel’s take on this interpretation:
I think that the world is populated by pods and I wanted to show them. I think so many people have no feeling about cultural things, no feeling of pain, of sorrow. I wanted to get it over and I didn’t know of a better way to get it over than in this particular film. I thought I shot it very imaginatively. And I was encouraged all the time by [producer] Wanger. The film was nearly ruined by those in charge at Allied Artists who added a preface and ending that I don’t like.
The political reference to Senator McCarthy and totalitarianism was inescapable but I tried not to emphasize it because I feel that motion pictures are primarily to entertain and I did not want to preach.
Alan Lovell: Don Siegel. American Cinema. London 1975, S. 54
So there you go.
The preface and ending that Siegel mentions are the opening scene where Dr. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is being held as a mental patient, and the final scene where Bennell’s story is corroborated. Allied Artists did not want a negative ending and so the preface and conclusion were tacked on later. Bennell’s narration of the story was also added to help the viewer follow the plot (we are such idiots). Though I am accustomed to the Allied Artists version of the film, I certainly would be interested in a DVD that presents both renditions of this movie.
I’m not going to retell the story, as most of you have seen some version of this film already (if not the original, the 1978 or 1997 remakes). If you haven’t seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers in any of its incarnations, use the DVD description above as a synopsis.
However, I will discuss the talented actors that bring this story to life. Kevin McCarthy (The Howling) is perfect in the role of Dr. Miles Bennell. When playing the part of a human surrounded by pod impostors, it’s important that the human comes off as feeling and vulnerable. Dr. Bennell, as evident in his choice of profession, is a person who genuinely cares for other people. I love how he interacts with his nurse Sally, played by Jean Willes (Abbott and Costello Go to Mars). Their conversation is playful, almost flirty, and they obviously feel a great respect for one another. Dr. Bennell isn’t perfect, though. We learn that he is recently divorced, and perhaps devoted too much time to his work and not enough time at home.
Dr. Bennell’s love interest, Becky Driscoll, is played superbly by the ravishing Dana Wynter. Becky is also recently divorced, and finds herself in a rekindled romance with her high school sweetheart, Miles Bennell. The two actors work wonderfully together, and their fondness for one another is completely convincing. I always chuckle at this line Dr. Bennell uses on Becky as he opens a door for her:
Becky: Is this an example of your bedside manner, doctor?
Dr. Bennell: No, ma’am. That comes later.
The supporting cast is also impressive. King Donovan (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The Magnetic Monster) plays writer Jack Belicec, a man who finds himself duplicated on his own pool table. Carolyn Jones (1953’s House of Wax) is Jack’s wife, Theodora, who first notices the similarity between Jack and the body developing in their home. Also, featured in the preface and conclusion of the film, Whit Bissell (Monster on the Campus, I Was a Teenage Werewolf) plays Dr. Hill, a man reluctant to believe the ravings of an obviously disturbed Dr. Bennell.
Of course, Siegel’s direction is what gives Invasion of the Body Snatchers its classy feel. This could have been another 1950’s sci-fi/horror camp schlockfest, but Siegel was wise enough to concentrate on the story and acting rather than throwing money away on special effects. The money that was used for special effects (less than $15,000) was put to good use by production designer, Ted Haworth. Haworth produced some amazing work for such a small budget. The greenhouse scene impresses me to this day.
I would be remiss not to mention how much the music of Carmen Dragon adds to the movie. Right from the outset we are steeped in a sense of foreboding. As seemingly innocent clouds roll by, Dragon’s startling theme alerts us to something sinister afoot. Before the action even begins, the suspenseful tone is set.
The scene everyone remembers is the final sequence (well, it should have been the final sequence) where Dr. Bennell runs out into traffic shouting insanely, “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next! You’re next!” This would have been a fitting ending, and a warning to all of us to beware of becoming “pod people.” After all, there is a certain temptation to submit to the pod way of life. As one of the duplicates explains: “Love, desire, ambition, faith – without them life is so much simpler.”
But don’t be swayed, friends. Those pod folks are dull.
Scene to watch for: Dr. Bennell takes a pitchfork to the body replicas developing in the greenhouse.
Line to listen for: “I never knew fear until I kissed Becky.”
Trivia: Sam Peckinpah (who would later go on to direct the violent classic, The Wild Bunch) has a bit part as a meter reader in this film. He often claimed he was responsible for major script revisions, but when the screenwriter, Daniel Mainwaring, threatened to file an official complaint with the WGA, Peckinpah ceased his claims.
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! ! out of 5.