Focus On Film: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
October 1, 2012 1 Comment
The second film to be screened at Dundee Contemporary Arts as part of Dundee University’s Focus on Film – Science Fiction, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was introduced by Dr. Brian Hoyle and Dr. Chris Murray, who also lead the subsequent discussion.
Upon returning to Santa Mira, California, local doctor Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is told by his secretary that there is a backlog of patients waiting to discuss urgent matters with him. When they arrive at his office, however, they are not met by an influx of complaints but two apparently unrelated cases of paranoid hysteria, in which individuals are convinced that relatives have been replaced by identical imposters. While at dinner with Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), a previous girlfriend who is now recently divorced, Bennell is called to a patient’s home to find an uncanny likeness of the man unconscious on his billiards table. Discovering the so-called “mass hysteria” to be an alien invasion, the survivors plan to escape Santa Mira and warn the outside world.
Adapted from Jack Finney’s 1954 novel, which itself began life as a three-part serial in Colliers Magazine, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers was to be the first of four big screen outings for the eponymous antagonists. Originally intended as a bleak B-movie, a framing device was added by producer Walter Wanger in order to alleviate at least some of the film’s considerable impact. You see, Hollywood was under the influence of its own mass hysteria at the time, with the fear of communism requiring directors to sign documents stating that they were not communists themselves. Unsurprisingly, as a result, the film is often perceived to be something of an allegory for the insidious spread of Marxism.
Whatever the historical context, however, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is just as powerful today. The pod-people could just as easily be proxies anything else, and have since been interpreted as metaphors for McCarthyism, AIDS and even consumerism, putting them up alongside the zombie hordes of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead as monstrous mouth-pieces. Perhaps what is most frightening about the film has nothing to do with invaders but simply the fear of helplessness and of being persecuted for your own beliefs. What could possibly be scarier than Capgras Syndrome: a genuine disorder that inhibits the expected emotional connection to loved ones, leaving your brain to deduce — perfectly rationally — that it is someone else instead? In the background, at least, it’s as much a psychological drama as it is a science-fiction-horror.
Such meta-analysis does the film’s director a great disservice, however, as it is Siegel who is ultimately responsible for the film’s endurance. After all, what could possibly be more preposterous than an armada of seeds growing on the outskirts of a small town, collected by plant-people and hidden in the basements of ordinary citizens? Just the sight of one of these pods, delivering a waxy doppelgänger in Bennell’s greenhouse, should be enough to kill the mood, but Siegel has created such an immersive world that you can’t help but invest in it fully. Almost fully, anyway. Through a series of innovative camera angles and McCarthy’s haunted narration, he sells his scenario completely. Of course, Carmen Dragon’s score helps too.
You can’t help but imagine how different a modern day adaptation would be. Indeed, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2007 film, The Invasion, managed the impressive feat of being somehow even more ridiculous despite considerable attempts to ground the plot in some semblance of reality. Dropping the concept of body-snatching pod-people (not just from the title, but the film itself), The Invasion instead focussed on extraterrestrial spores that targeted the brain directly. Everything has to be shown these days, the film peppered with trailer-worthy set-pieces and the film itself with exposition. Part of Siegel’s success comes from the fact that Daniel Mainwaring’s screenplay does little to demystify the events at its heart. All we need to know is that the threat is real to McCarthy’s doctor, and it is therefore real to us.
While the original ending — Bennell reaching the highway only to be ignored by commuters — is deliciously bleak, Wanger’s bookends do little to diminish the film itself. It’s a frenetic first scene, introducing the threat with feverish immediacy before taking a step back to let the story speak for itself. McCarthy is brilliant as Bennell, a likeable rogue who pursues women and always seems to have a drink in his hand. Giving a performance that still holds up today (proving substantially less histrionic than the protagonist of last week’s Metropolis), he ably carries the movie throughout, supported by Wynter’s likeable heroine and the horrifyingly blank faces of the rest of the town’s citizens. Even in the cop-out of an ending, he sells the realisation that the ordeal is not quite over yet.
A cult classic with more than its fair share of iconic images — while the sequence in the mine graces many a list of scariest moments, my own vote would be for Bennell and Driscoll’s observations of the townsfolk swarming new arrivals at the bus stop — Invasion of the Body Snatchers is as engaging, memorable and genuinely unnerving as ever.