Famously passed over by indifferent critics on its release in 1956, Don Siegel’s enjoyable sci-fi horror Invasion Of The Body Snatchers has since been re-appraised as a subversive work that addresses – depending on whose opinion you read – the spread of Communism across the United States, the dangers of McCarthyism, the rise in post-war small town homogenisation or even concerns over the sudden ubiquity of television sets. There is certainly a degree of evidence in support of each of these allegorical readings, and even though the ironically-named leading man Kevin McCarthy felt that any political statements were unintentional, Siegel later confirmed ‘the … 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’. The director’s words clearly lend more weight to the idea of a McCarthyism subtext, but the other theories shouldn’t be dismissed as irrelevant.
Siegel’s film, routinely referred to today as one of the great paranoia-driven 1950s sci-fi movies, takes place almost entirely in flashback and is set within the confines of the fictional Santa Mira: the kind of reasonably affluent, predominantly white Californian town where everybody on Main Street knows each other (and also knows each other’s business). However the film opens somewhere else, with a ‘present day’ scene that introduces Dr. Miles Bennell (McCarthy), a seemingly crazy individual who has been detained in a hospital.
Following this intriguing beginning Siegel and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring (adapting Jack Finney’s pulp novel The Body Snatchers) drip-feed details that explain why the doctor is so animated and insistent. We go back in time and see him as he arrives in Santa Mira after a short time away. Oddly, several members of the community reported feeling unwell while Bennell was out of town, but they have all subsequently retracted their statements and are claiming to feel fine. Other residents are apparently suffering from the Capgras delusion, and are convinced that close relatives have been replaced by identical imposters.
Though his film is only 80 minutes long Siegel refuses to cut to the chase, and instead slowly adds layer after layer of increasing weirdness, following Bennell and love interest Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) – another character returning to the town having gone through a divorce elsewhere – as they come into contact with various oddly-behaving townsfolk. When the otherworldly threat behind all the strange events in Santa Mira is first revealed there’s more than a whiff of Frankenstein’s monster as a featureless being lies immobile on a billiard table: this creature is an example of a ‘body snatching’ alien lifeform that hatches from seed pods and takes on the features and identity of whatever human happens to be sleeping nearby, except for their emotions. The focus hereafter, as Bennell and Driscoll realise the extent of the invasion and the speed that it is spreading, is on the pods: a much simpler and cheaper solution for a budget-conscious effects department, and the most obvious link to the ‘spread of television’ theory mentioned above.
The real tension in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers comes from a middle act where it is often unclear which residents of the town are still human and which residents have been ‘duplicated’ by the alien race; there’s little reliance on special effects, and in using the façade of apparent normality to mask an evil force, the influence of the story and Siegel can be seen in the later work of a range of directors, from Wes Craven to David Lynch. The basic idea here has been recycled repeatedly, most obviously in the equally-gripping 1978 remake starring Donald Sutherland, but also in films like The Faculty and The World’s End, while Abel Ferrara (Body Snatchers) and Oliver Hirschbiegel (The Invasion) have also adapted the source novel; on TV the idea has been used in shows like V and the more recent version of Battlestar Galactica. Understandably it feels a little tired today, but one can only imagine how it felt to American audiences during the 1950s.
There are a couple of twists as typically reliable figures of small-town society, such as the cops, are revealed to be duplicitous aliens. One excellent scene suddenly exposes the true extent of the problem, as Bennell watches an early morning gathering of the majority of the town’s ‘fake’ residents, and realises the pods are being distributed outside of Santa Mira. By this point the lead characters, fuelled by paranoia, a lack of sleep and amphetamines, are on the run. The mania builds until we flash forward to Bennell urgently ranting in the hospital, his earlier craziness now perfectly understandable. It’s here that, disappointingly, a chance for a sucker punch finale is missed: originally the film was to end on a flat, pessimistic note, but executives at Allied Artists insisted on an optimistic epilogue, against the wishes of Siegel and producer Walter Wanger. Eventually the pair conceded, and in truth the ending doesn’t spoil the movie, as the fate of mankind is precariously left hanging in the balance.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers holds up well today, even though its horror is now considered tame enough for a PG rating. It’s a simple, compact film, but its thrills are numerous and its multi-layered story has helped to ensure longevity. Siegel went on to make bigger (and arguably better) movies with Clint Eastwood in the 1970s, but this earlier foray into sci-fi is one of his best achievements, an enjoyably paranoid romp that largely steers clear of the camp silliness prevalent elsewhere during the 1950s.
Directed by: Don Siegel.
Written by: Daniel Mainwairing. Based on The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney.
Starring: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones.
Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks.
Editing: Robert S. Eisen.
Music: Carmen Dragon.
Running Time: 80 minutes.