It’s odd how sometimes, out of commercial considerations rather than artistic ones, great pieces of art can be forged that leave a lasting impact on the human psyche. Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”, for example, was a contractual piece written without warmth by the composer. David Lean chose to make Lawrence of Arabia over Gandhi because he didn’t think a story about an Indian would result in big box office – and we know how those turned out. Similarly, we have Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), originally conceived as just another run-of-the-mill alien invasion B-movie already commonplace within the Cold War context of the 1950s. But this film would soon become one of the most influential (and still terrifying) works in the genre’s history, to the extent that it would be remade more than once – and at least once in superior form.
With the communist witch-hunts of loose-cannon senator Joseph McCarthy in 1950 still in full swing, the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was black-listing everyone from U.S. Army soldiers to other senators; members of the State department; members of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations; and even Hollywood actors, screenwriters (including Spartacus scribe Dalton Trumbo) and directors. All were accused of being secretly in league with the Soviet Union (“Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the communist party?”). This was unlike the first two World Wars, in which tangible enemies with clear political agendas were present. The “Red Scare” was a far more insidious social conflict, stripping many innocent Americans of their lives and destroying the careers of several prominent and honorary figures – some even committed suicide following their loss of public respectability – in an attempt to pacify the nation. It didn’t seem to matter whether or not any American who was indicted of communist status was guilty – neighbour would be turned against neighbour, both privately and publicly, with inflated right-wing assumptions that even your buddies from just across the street could be secretly associated with a communist cell.
It was only natural that movie artists working in the blossoming genre of science-fiction – at that point way beyond Flash Gordon, John Carter and Frankenstein – would approach the topic from a maturing, psychological standpoint. Films such as The Thing – From Another World! (1951), Invaders From Mars, It Came From Outer Space (both 1953), and The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) had already broken ground with their intelligent takes on comic-strip character Pogo’s statement “We have met the enemy and he is us”. But it wasn’t until after Jack Finney’s novel, The Body Snatchers, was serialised in Colliers Magazine in 1955 (under the tagline “The Nightmare That Threatens the World!”) that the film world would receive its most fondly remembered and feared icon – apart from perhaps The Blob (1958) – of cinematic extra-terrestrial xenophobia.
Producer Walter Wanger – whose credits include the classics Stagecoach (1939) and The Wolf Man (1941) – was seeking new material to reclaim financial ground lost in the wake of his 1948 Joan of Arc with Ingrid Bergman. Finney’s novel – despite some harsh criticism directed at it by contemporary genre authors including Damon Knight (“To Serve Man”) – showed great commercial promise, and could be adapted with minimal expense. Don Siegel, who had previously helmed a number of film noirs (and who would later direct Clint Eastwood in both Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz) was hired to direct, and actors including Kevin McCarthy (Death of a Salesman, The Misfits), Dana Wynter (The List of Adrian Messenger, The View From Pompey’s Head), and Carolyn Jones (House of Wax) were cast in lead roles. All this was achieved on a budget of less than $400,000 and with a production schedule of only nineteen days (ultimately stretching out to 23 days), including extensive night-time shooting, during which McCarthy was sore for weeks afterwards from his running in the chase sequences alone, as was his co-star Wynter doing it in high heels. Although the film that emerged was a sleeper hit, grossing $1,200,000 during its first month and nearly $3 million by the end of its run despite mixed reviews, it would go on to earn far more respect in the sixty years that followed, primarily due to its subject matter and the endless opportunity for debate over its actual context/subtext.
The story concerns Dr. Miles Bennel (McCarthy), who returns from a medical convention to his hometown of Santa Mira (actually Sierra Madre) to find some of his patients are complaining that their friends and relatives are exhibiting strange behavior. Some believe that said friends and relatives are actually imposters. His ex-girlfriend Becky Driscoll (Wynter), recently divorced, shows up with her distraught cousin who expresses similar concerns. Soon enough the plot thickens, as Bennel’s friends Jack and Theodora Belicec (King Donovan and Jones) discover a body in their basement that seems like a distorted replica of Jack. Romance re-blossoms between Miles and Becky, and soon Miles is forced to rescue Becky from a similar body double that attempts to replicate (and replace) her while she’s asleep. The number of complaints from concerned residents begins to strangely dwindle rather than escalate (as would normally be expected in the wake of an emerging crisis).
Eventually, during an evening barbeque at Miles’ house, Miles, Becky and the Belicecs discover giant marrow-like pods secretly installed in the greenhouse, capable of duplicating human beings organically, obviously intended for the main protagonists. During their attempts to destroy the Pods, Miles and Becky interact with the pod replica of one of Miles’ most trusted colleagues, who explains the process: the Pods, which took root on earth following a space voyage, each duplicate a human’s physical state perfectly, minus their emotional intelligence. Although individuality is lost, so are hatred, aggression, misery and other negative emotions that compose a substantial percentage of the human condition. According to this pod replica, the contrasting feelings of love and pleasure are a small price to pay in the switch. Discovering the Pods’ plan to take their invasion nationwide, Miles and Becky escape and attempt to warn the outside world…
A number of significant changes were made from Finney’s story apart from the title expansion. Unlike the novel’s original optimistic ending, in which Miles and Becky burn a few pods causing the rest to shoot back into space, screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring and director Siegel, under Wanger’s approval, opted for an even creepier and nihilistic set-up. This included a horrifying twist on the romance between Miles and Becky and the equally legendary overpass scene in which the sleep-deprived Miles warns passing, ignorant drivers of the invasion: “You’re next!” Said liberties proved to be highly disturbing and depressing to audiences during the first pre-release screening (including fainting from several audience members), and distributor Allied Artists demanded a more upbeat ending. Siegel, Mainwaring and McCarthy ingeniously encapsulated the narrative in a new frame story, in which an exhausted, hopelessly defeated Miles tells his tale to a skeptical non-Pod doctor. A sudden road accident revealing a truck transporting Pods from Santa Mira makes his story plausible. The narration, written by Siegel’s dialogue coach Sam Peckinpah (who has a bit part as a meter reader, and would later direct The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs), was incorporated as a finishing touch.
Despite its budgetary and technical limitations, and the inclusion of the frame story, Invasion of the Body Snatchers still presents a nearly flawless paranoid depiction of alien invasion, and what it means to be (or not be) human. By choosing to focus on character development and noir-like atmosphere, Siegel and his cast and crew delivered an instant classic that still chills present-day viewers to the bone. All of this is aided by dedicated performances, and Ellsworth Frederick’s black-and-white cinematography in widescreen “SuperScope”, as well as the restrained practical special effects of Ted Hayworth that still hold up today (pods bursting open to ooze frothing and coyly nude Pod clones, actually full-size clay models with interior hydraulic pumps), and by emphasising the subtle horror that can lie behind such banal activities as lawn-mowing or a town square gathering. Even Carmen Dragon’s music hits the right notes, causing our blood pressure to rise as the tension and suspense escalates.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers was immediately interpreted as either a communist or anti-communist fable. While the idea of humans being replicated as emotionless doppelgangers could suggest USSR’s communist practices, the same could be said (perhaps even more perceptively) of inbred, jingoistic McCarthyism, which turned communities against each other in single-minded paranoia and stripped many Americans of their identities and lives. But if this film is a parable with a message, perhaps the message here is not so much political as it is psychological. It assesses the sad and shocking truth of how many are willing to surrender their individuality in order to “fit in” with the majority or “norm,” rather than struggle to keep it. This is a powerful truth, regardless of whether the film’s context is political or not.
In many ways, Invasion of the Body Snatchers seems to anticipate later influential horror films like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) or Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), which would use the horror genre as a medium to channel social commentary, usually in regards to the dark, twisted side of human nature lurking in social practices and institutions – government, religion, family, etc. – that are often protected and cherished. Although McCarthy, according to his widow Kate, always maintained that there was no overt political message intended and that the cast and crew were just making an entertainment (and certainly a compelling one at that, remarkable considering it was shot fast on a low budget), director Siegel (who considered this to be the best film he ever made) later offered his own interpretation of the Pod People and why the concept appealed to him. Here is his statement as quoted by interviewing author Stuart M. McKinsey in Don Siegel: Director:
“Many of my associates are Pods, people who have no feeling or love or emotion, who simply exist, breathe and sleep… To be a Pod means that you have no passion, no anger, that you talk automatically, that the spark of life has left you… The Pods in my picture and in the world believe they are doing good when they convert people into Pods. They get rid of pain, ill health, mental anguish. It leaves you with a dull world, but that, my dear friend, is the world in which most of us live.”
Invasion eventually received acclaim on several “best films” lists, including those by the American Film Institute, and TV specials including Bravo’s 100 Greatest Shock Moments. As for me, having seen this film on American Movie Classics back in 1998 with my dad and brother (back when they were showing actual classic movies and not TV series like The Walking Dead, Mad Men and Breaking Bad), it still chills me to the bone, particularly with its original ending. But the frame story and alternate ending, initially added to alleviate the film’s sense of despair, is still only partially successful in its aim. In some ways there seems to be more ambiguity about the possibility of defeating these creatures in the alternate ending than there is in the original.
One thing was for sure – the Pod People would return for more onscreen time. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been remade three times (so far!): first in 1978 under its full title by director Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff), then in 1993 by Abel Ferrara (The Bad Lieutenant) as Body Snatchers, and finally simply as The Invasion in 2007, from Oliver Hisrschbiegel (Downfall). Oddly enough, the latest version, like the very first, was compromised, with the Wachowskis (the Matrix Trilogy) called in to oversee more positive changes in the narrative when Warner Bros. took a dislike to the original ending. And for those who want a laugh, there was also a 1992 Looney Tunes parody, Invasion of the Bunny Snatchers, with Bugs & Co. involved.
The three remakes present a unique take on the tale, each for a new generation. The ’78 version was an attack on the emerging, self-absorbed “Me Generation.” The ’93 version savaged the militaristic policies and effects of the George H.W. Bush administration on American values during and after the Persian Gulf War, particularly on the structure of the nuclear family (most of that film’s narrative is witnessed from the perspective of a rebellious adolescent girl caught in the mayhem with her parents), and added more action to escalate the panic. The 2007 rendition was undeniably a post-911/anti-George W. Bush campaign statement (which substituted a Quatermass Xperiment-like fungal spore infection in place of the giant Pods following a space-shuttle crash, perhaps as a kind of added accusation on the use of space-based biological warfare). It is possible to view these as separate visions of the same story rather than just remakes, and with each new version new perspectives are added to explore the metaphorical possibilities of the Pod People. The most recent version, with Nicole Kidman in a take on the McCarthy role, suggested the most horrifying notion behind the switch: that in order to avoid pointless future wars and conflicts in which many human lives might be lost, we might have to give up the most decent aspects of humanity along with the bad. For all its faults, the film showcases the dilemma of protecting the human condition and the capacity for choice.
Out of all the remakes, only the 1978 version, produced by Robert H. Solo (who would go on to oversee the ’93 version as well), under Kaufman’s trusted direction and with a screenplay by W.D. Richter, and with a healthier budget of $3 million, succeeds in equaling and in many ways surpassing the 1956 original. It does so by paying respect to its predecessor while being a groundbreaking genre masterpiece in its own right, with an even more visually disturbing and socially conscious indictment on human nature.
Relocating the tale to the smog-covered, population-infested San Francisco of the late 70’s, this version features McCarthy in a cameo (aged but again trying to warn the world shortly before being crushed by a car) and the original’s director Siegel as a cabbie. The main protagonists Bennel and Driscoll are now members of the Department of Human Health played by the great Donald Sutherland (Don’t Look Now) and Brooke Adams (Days of Heaven) respectively, with memorable supporting character standouts including Jeff Goldblum (The Fly) as arrogant poet Jack Belicec and Veronica Cartwright (Alien) as his sensitive sci-fi obsessed wife Nancy, this time running a spa. The late, great, original Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, even shows up as a pop psychiatrist. This time, and in keeping with the tradition of the new wave of counterculture horror films that emerged in the wake of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, there was no need to encapsulate the narrative in a frame story with a hopeful ending to reduce audience despair. And here, the Pod People were given ghastly new dimensions.
Again, the horror lies in the subtle signs of inhumanity, first with Driscoll’s boyfriend (Art Hindle, The Brood) being converted, then with the realisation that the majority of San Francisco’s population, as with that of most overpopulated metropolises, is already so alienated that it is hard to distinguish the Pod People from the human hosts. As Driscoll remarks at one point, “I keep seeing these people all recognising each other.” Later at an Asian laundromat, Bennel is confronted by the owner who babbles, “My wife sick… she wrong… that not my wife!”
The streets, tunnels and apartments of this saturated, polluted human environment are perfect grounds for the seeds to be sewn, the scenery shot with expressionistic angles, nifty hand-held panning and tracking shots and cut with a lightning speed rivalling that in Jaws (1975), all while maintaining the noir-ish feel of the first Invasion. Complete with an amazing title sequence showing the spores leaving their planet and traveling through space 2001-style before taking root as parasitic, albeit beautiful flowers, the film doesn’t let up in escalating the shocks, particularly in the presentation of the alien plants as they graphically duplicate humans in their sleep in a manner anticipating both David Cronenberg’s finest “body horror” films and Carpenter’s The Thing. The shrill animalistic screams that these creatures let our during their hunt for non-converted humans (then provided by sound designer Ben Burtt of Skywalker Sound) are of particular note, adding an immense amount of tension to the film.
Part of the delight of the scares lies in the performances of the lead actors – yes, there’s humour in some of the characters (“It’s a rat turd” utters Sutherland during his introduction inspecting a French kitchen) but also immense tension. Scariest to me still is the scene in which human Adams can do “the thing with her eyes” (rolling them like pool table balls within her sockets) to prove she’s not crazy. Then of course there is the famous monologue given by Pod Nimoy in the confrontation (inevitable given his Vulcan celebrity status) before he gives an even scarier scream:
“You’ll be born again into an untroubled world… There’s no need for hatred now, or love… Do not be trapped by old concepts. You’re evolving into a new lifeform. Come and watch. We came here from a dying world. We drift through the universe from planet to planet, pushed on by the solar winds. We adapt, and we survive. The function of life is survival.”
Of course, part of what makes this ’78 Invasion memorable and much-loved is its knowledge of the original and how to mould it for the times. It was released shortly after the assassinations of City Councilman and gay rights activist Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone (both San Franciscans) and the mass suicide of 900 people in the Peoples Temple of Jonestown, Guyana, thereby adding to its status, as described by the Village Voice, as a modernised “parable for an age of paranoia, conspiracy theories, psychobabble and the invasion of the will perpetrated by cult leaders.” While some of the ’56 Invasion’s scenes are replicated extremely well, others are altered, including the manner in which characters react to the threat, and everything we thought we knew about the first version is turned both diabolically and gleefully upside down. There’s more action and scope, even if Kaufman’s version is a bit slow in some places, while still capturing the intimate feel of the original. What was merely implied in the first film is depicted with fantastic practical effects work worthy of The Thing’s Rob Bottin that still holds up well today. Danny Zeitlin’s score does justice to the film while borrowing some notes from the Dragon score of the first Invasion. And by the time you have finished watching it, you’ll never listen to “Amazing Grace” the same way again.
All in all, the first two versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1956 and 1978 remain the best, but the others are worth watching, if only to see how far the legacy of Jack Finney’s work has gone. Along with the Thing, the Blob, and Godzilla, the Pod People remain some of the most memorable monsters to have emerged from the Cold War paranoia of the 1950s. With Halloween coming up around the corner, and with a new generation eager for big-screen scares with sociological meaning, it’s time to revisit Don Siegel’s original nightmare and see how the proper amount of thought and attention, given to what was once expected to be just another B-flick, could create something so powerful. If you’re getting tired of the overproduced remakes that come from Hollywood on a regular basis, usually with apathetic box office goals and zero originality, remember that on rare occasions even an uninspired commercial exercise can achieve something original. But please don’t fall back to sleep with whatever mind-and-body-violating extraterrestrial plant life has been snuck under your bed, otherwise we’ll get a fifth Invasion.
And always remember… “You’re next!”