Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
It's a classic of 50s sci-fi for a reason, of course. Invasion of the Body Snatchers remains as creepy and frightening today as the day it was made; it's a dark, terrifying satire of encroaching conformity and loss of emotion. It's crisply and economically directed by Don Siegel, who treats the film like one of his film noirs: dark shadows everywhere, engulfing this quiet suburban town that's being taken over by darkness, by the strange things lurking in its basements and back alleys, behind these seemingly ordinary picket fences and manicured lawns.
It's often been suggested that the film is a right-wing parable for the onset of Communism, for how easily ordinary Americans might be taken over, with no visible outward symptoms, by an alien and aggressive ideology opposed to human decency and human warmth. It's a convincing reading, of course, and hard to deny, but in many ways the film is far more affecting when such political subtexts are left out of the picture. It's a film, more than anything else, about what it means to be human, about how a being can look human, act human, even have the memories of a particular human, and still be lacking in that special, unseen emotional spark that really makes up the essence of humanity: call it love, or a soul, or whatever you want. In one of the best of the film's preachy speeches, the protagonist Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) compares the body-snatching aliens to the process by which some people, even without such outside intervention, allow themselves to become hardened and drained of emotion, to lose their humanity.
Bennell has returned to his sleepy suburban hometown after a month away, to find that everything has changed in subtle ways while he was gone. His nurse reports that numerous people from the town had been urgently calling for him while he was away, but that suddenly no one wants to see him anymore, with no explanation for what had been wrong. And several of the town's residents are complaining that people they know aren't actually themselves anymore, that there's something different about their loved ones. The film's terror is slow and creeping. At first, Bennell doesn't believe that anything's amiss, even though the accumulation of small signs and weird events begins to gnaw at his mind. When the horror does finally take over entirely, it happens suddenly; when Bennell, along with his love interest Becky (Dana Wynter), stumbles across some of the alien pods (which look like giant brussel sprouts) there's no longer any doubt about something strange going on here. It's questionable if Bennell and company, after seeing the pods oozing and bubbling, would so quickly figure out what's going on, but the sequence is perhaps the film's most disturbing anyway. The pods split open and bubble over with white ooze, forming almost fetal shapes, as though a baby were about to spill out of the pod's gooey interior. Instead, beneath the foam are entire human forms, duplicates of the town's residents, primed to take over.
Actually, the whole mechanics of how this happens doesn't seem to have been thought through very well; the film is rather vague about what's actually going on here, what happens to the human bodies once the doppelgangers take over and how the shift actually occurs. Plot isn't the film's strong point by any means. Given any thought whatsoever, the whole conceit more or less falls apart, and the film's script barely even attempts to develop the alien threat into a coherent concept. The reason the film succeeds anyway is that it's so good at developing atmosphere and mood, at escalating the horror, dread and paranoia the protagonists feel as they try to flee from a town that's being taken over and absorbed by the alien menace all around them. Bennell and Becky are increasingly frazzled and terrified as, more and more, they have nowhere to turn, no one to rely upon; all their friends and loved ones are relentlessly swallowed up by the alien "infection," one by one.
Siegel does an excellent job of portraying the couple's isolation and desperation, shooting them with long, narrow corridors stretching off into the distance in front of them, or hiding in shadowy dark rooms or caves. But the film's creepiest moment takes place in broad daylight rather than in these noirish settings. As Bennell and Becky observe from hiding in his office, three trucks pull up in the town square, and all the people of the town simultaneously gather there, moving inward as though compelled by some invisible signal, converging from all sides on this spot. The tarps on the trucks are pulled back and revealed to be full of more pods, and the doppelgangers start calling out names for certain people to come forward and get pods to replace the remainders of their families. It's a creepy scene because of how matter-of-fact it is, how casually this moment disrupts the seeming normality of an ordinary morning in this ordinary town, and how easily everything returns to the artifice of normality after all the pods have been distributed and the trucks have pulled away. It's as if, for just a few moments, the disguise has been dropped and the weirdness, the horror, of these creatures is revealed in the sunlight, before they go back to pretending that they're just typical small-town folks.
It's that weirdness, that slight tweaking of ordinary suburbia into something sinister, that makes Invasion of the Body Snatchers maintain its creepy, harrowing aura even today. Its itchy, under-the-skin horror even survives the studio-mandated framing device that somewhat dillutes the terror of it all, suggesting a slightly happier ending than the original concept, which ended with Bennell on the highway unsuccessfully screaming at passing cars, trying to warn the outside world. Even with the compromise, though, the final shot — a closeup of Bennell's desperate, warped face, on the verge of crying or laughing hysterically; it's not clear which would be worse — mitigates against any idea that this is a simple "happy ending."