The next two weeks see us delving into horror/sci-fi hybrids in my American Horror class; starting off with the 1956 Don Siegel classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I’ve seen every incarnation of this story, and find this and the 1993 version (named Body Snatchers) to be the best. The story has been done countless ways, but as the originator you can’t do better than this with its fears of Communism, McCarthyism, and nuclear war as evidenced by seedpods from outer space. Fans of classic horror or science fiction should have already crossed this off their “to-watch” list.
Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns to his home in the idyllic Santa Mira to find several residents fearing that their loved ones aren’t who they seem to be. Yes, these family members look the same, but there’s something wrong with them. As Miles starts to fall in love with Becky (Dana Wynter), the pair discover that Santa Mira is being invaded by mysterious seedpods that are replicating the inhabitants of the town.
Really, other critics have analyzed the themes and events surrounding this movie better than I ever will. Of course, the 1950s saw a dearth of science-fiction based horror films that sprang up, along with the Red Scare and the rampant nuclear testing during the era. Many of these features saw beings from other worlds coming down or, my personal favorite, the events of nuclear testing making animals and people really, really big. More domestic concerns of the time included the increasing gluttony around consumerism, and the fear that all of us buying the same things will make us spend-happy zombies. With the rise of literal zombie films/television shows today, have things really changed?
The background has been so well-tread that the actual movie kinda gets lost. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a good movie; a B-movie plot wrapped up with A-list acting and scripting. I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, per se. At 80 minutes (with a tacked on prologue and epilogue) the movie is the quintessential depiction of great narrative. You don’t have lengthy exposition, or need it, to know who these characters are. Miles Bennell is the resident man of logic, a medical doctor that people go to for everything. Many movies of the 1950s saw battles between men of authority (generally doctor vs. cop), and for the small town of Santa Mira that man is Miles. I think the only real heart-wrenching thing we hear about Miles, to break his idyllic façade, is that he’s recently divorced. That, in itself, is worth analyzing as the demise of the nuclear family and the increase in divorce was a real concern during this time. It’s only fitting that Miles finds his counterpoint in the beautiful Becky Driscoll, herself a woman whose been through a divorce.
The movie doesn’t waste time setting up the cracks in Santa Mira’s façade, starting with the fear that people aren’t who they seem to be. The idea that something insidious can come and remove people’s personalities screams of Communism, and for the most part we never see any of these pod people do anything malicious. It leads to a lot of fun debates in classes questioning: What’s the harm of these pod people? One of the key things that we see is that they’re free of emotions. There’s no war or conflict, but there’s also no love or connections with others, of any kind. The fear in the original ending is that there is no help, or any way to stop events. The seeds will take effect, and Earth will fall to
Communism the pod people. The addition of the epilogue undoes all that, as Miles gets someone to believe him and the FBI is called. Mind you, it seems to contradict earlier moments where Becky and Miles try to call various government agencies and can’t get a response. I was under the assumption that not only was Santa Mira cut off, but that the pods had taken control of those major cities. The coda at the end makes the audience believe that there are some democratic institutions left standing, and humanity can be saved. The original ending is scary and nihilistic; the new, optimistic and cathartic. Furthermore, it’s not well-developed the transformation from person to pod-person. In what I read, we’re supposed to assume that the pod person, now inhabiting a person’s personality, then destroys the original body. However, we never see any original bodies being destroyed. When Miles discovers Becky’s been turned, there’s no time for the Becky double to destroy the original body…so where’s Becky?
The acting in this is solid, but not award worthy. Kevin McCarthy has leading man good looks, but he’s not perfect like a Cary Grant. It’s believable for him to be a small-town doctor; he’s personable, but incredibly cheesy. Some of his pick-up lines to Becky are dated and ripe for a ripping from the gang at Mystery Science Theater 3000. Playing opposite him is Dana Wynter, who you could easily believe is a pod-person. She’s not terrible, just blah. When she finally succumbs to the pods she, ironically, shows more enthusiasm than she did prior. Other than those two, none of the other actors stand out. It must be intentional that these two are so isolated as it makes their escape from the other more poignant.
I enjoy Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I don’t love it, but it’s a must-see in the development of horror and science-fiction, and just plain fun. If you haven’t seen it already, I have to ask why you’re reading this review and not watching it.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.