Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Year: 1956

Production: Allied Artists

Director: Don Siegel

Starring: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Carolyn Jones, King Donovan

Screenwriter: Daniel Mainwaring, Sam Peckinpah

Based on The Body Snatchers (1955) by Jack Finney

80 minutes; B/W


Paranoia was the dominant theme running through much sf cinema of the 1950s. Nowhere was it better realized than in this subtle and sophisticated movie, directed by B-film veteran Siegel, about vegetable pods from outer space that turn into emotionless replicas of human beings, in the process replacing the usually sleeping originals. Whether the film reflects right-wing paranoia about a secret takeover by communists or left-wing paranoia about the increasing power of the McCarthyists has been much argued; either way, the theme is loss of individual identity and of human feeling. The original downbeat ending, in which the pods are victorious, was diluted by the addition of a prologue and epilogue set in the hospital, the latter showing the authorities finally believing in the existence of the pods. These scenes are often cut in modern prints. The film has been very highly praised: it is possibly the most discussed B-movie in the history of US film, and was the first of many 1950s sf films to be remade. (See Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Body Snatchers [1994])

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

One of the best (and best known) sf films of the 50s, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, though it has been read by many as anti-Senator McCarthy tract (and by others as the classic example of an anti-communist film of the period for its handling of the take-over from within theme), is far better and far more complex than such crude reductions suggest. Indeed, the film, with its attack on conformity and lack of feelings and its defense of emotions, highlights the fact that at such a generalized level anti-McCarthy and anti-communist films are remarkably similar. Of course, it's possible to read the movie along these lines but to do so is to omit consideration of the film's more pertinent concerns. In short, the strengths of Siegel's film are that it centers not on the social and generalizeable, but on the specific mystery of the difference between a human and an automaton-like existence. Rather than merely reflect America's paranoid fears of the times, in the manner of Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake which is best seen as a witty assault on the "me" generation, Siegel interrogates those fears.

McCarthy is the doctor who, on his return from a medical convention, finds his hometown disturbingly different and quickly discovers the cause, an invasion of parasite aliens (pods) that have the power to replace humans with soulless simulacra. Shot in Siegel's sober yet energetic style and using real locations for the fictional California town of Santa Mira, the opening sequence creates a strong sense of unease that turns to terror in the second half as the good citizens of Santa Mira start to send out the pods across America. The horror of the situation is all the more chilling for being so understated: a mother, holding a pod, to a nurse, "Shall I put this in with the baby?", "Yes, the there'll be no more crying".

At the heart of the film is the terrible mystery of the process of the take-over, marvellously realized in the sequence where McCarthy and his girlfriend (Wynter) are shown by Belice (Donovan) and his wife the "blank" pod that will become him, if he goes to sleep. McCarthy's instinctive reaction is equally revealing of Siegel's vision of otherness: with assistance from Donovan McCarthy frantically attacks the pods with a pitchfork, a scene made even more gruesome by the creatures' immobility and their closeness to humanity.

The result is one of Siegel's best films, despite studio interference. Against his wishes, in order to make the film more positive, a prolog and epilog were added and much of the humorous dialog of the first half of the movie (written by Sam Peckinpah who worked on the film uncredited) was excised. These alterations, however, don't diminish the power of Siegel's own ending, McCarthy staring wild-eyed into the camera shouting "You're next" as the cars and trucks with blank-faced drivers pass him by, taking no notice of his warning.

The Overlook Film Encyclopedia - Science Fiction

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