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."


Greg said...

I think the film succeeds, along with the atmosphere and mood you mention, because there is no explanation of what happens, where they came from, what the point is, etc. In this and the 1978 version the purpose is never revealed (I assume, somehow, they just need a sentient host and any old sentient being will do) and the bodies of the real person, at least in the 1978 version, wilt and crumble and vanish after the transer.

To make it too prosaic would render it unsuccessful because the point seems to be showing an inexplicable menace at work and how scary it is when you're battling something you don't understand. How does it work? What does it want? Not having the answers to these questions makes the atmosphere and mood work so much better.

Sam Juliano said...

One of the crowning glories of 50′s science-fiction, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, based on a short story by Jack Finney, still enthralls both genre buffs and those riveted by the notion of the fantastic seeming perfectly credible. The story of seed pods replicating living people and changing them into emotion-less conformists who communally work towards a world order without love or compassion, offers no obstacles to believability, and leads to the most unthinkable of nightmares. Allied Artists were themselves so caught up in the hopelessness of this “psychological siege” that they forced Siegel to add a prologue which intimated that mankind would be saved.

The film was re-made in 1977, with Phillip Kaufman at the helm, but it lacked the original’s brilliant pacing, which has the excitement building all the way to the denouement. Siegel employs a number of devices that keep the film in full-throttle, like characters always in motion, racing their cars, and spying each other through windows, blind and glass doors and reaching a level of unbearable tension in the scenes in the cave where the two lead characters hide beneath the wooden boards, after being chased up the steps of a long and very steep hill. Siegel employs subtlety to great effect too, like the scene when the fleeing couple attempt to feign transformation to the soulless beings that are taking over the small town, only to be betrayed by one’s scream as a dog is about to be struck by a car. The race against time and in the instance of this film, the struggle to stay awake, is woven into the fabric of it’s sense of urgency. No less an authority than Jean-Luc Godard quotes the film in his futuristic
451. It is even suggested by UCLA Film Professor Maurice Yacowar (whose running commentary on the Criterion laserdisc in the early 90′s was one of the famous and controversial ever recorded) that maybe even the great playwright Eugene Ionesco was thinking of the film’s fearful “pods” when he wrote his absurdist masterpiece Rhinoceros, where humankind turns into thick-skinned, insensitive, conformist rhinos–pods on the hoof.
In a number of interviews Siegel insisted that the film was intended to be an entertainment, and that it’s message was relatively tepid, intimating that people were becoming ‘pod-like.’ But as Professor Yacowar exhaustively argued in his LD commentary, the film has long been the topic of critical debate for its underlying political implications. The Joseph McCarthy witch hunt is at the center of the allegorical context, but the cold war certainly gave flight to the film being fervently anti-communist, with it’s ‘communal’ suppression of all sensibilities and beliefs that might advance the concept of individuality. Hence, the ‘pod people’ represent a completely regimented society. The idea of these pods growing by first planting seeds is one that is associated with revolution. There is actually a scene late in the film when the pod people are assembled in the town square, where a loudspeaker reads off the day’s orders–it is a powerful symbol of 50′s socialism. The simile that without freedom of thought people are essentially “vegetables” is suggested again by the growth of the pods.
Obviously you suggest much of this here with exceeding eloquence, and this review is as exhaustive as I've seen on this childhood favorite that I've probably seen more than any other film in my entire life. In the 60's this film really ruled.

Ed Howard said...

Greg, it's not that I necessarily wanted the pods explained, but just to feel that there was a coherent explanation out there somewhere. Instead, the pods and the doppelgangers introduced in the first half seem somewhat inconsistent with the second half's emphasis on the transformation that occurs if you fall asleep for a mere second, like when Becky transforms. It's not a big deal, and I agree that the mood and atmsophere are far more important, but it's a little distracting.

Sam, you obviously love this film! It was a childhood favorite for me as well but this is the first time I've revisited it in years, and it certainly holds up well, and as with all good movies, proves to contain unforseen depths that went over the head of the kid who loved it as Siegel seemingly intended, as a thrilling entertainment. It succeeds on both levels, of course, with its increasingly unbearable suspense and action, and also its obvious social commentary, which can be interpreted as either a generalist rejection of conformity and emotionlessness, or a more specific parable about the 50s terror of socialism. Clearly the socialist reading was intended most forcefully, but I prefer to read it in terms of conformity in general, as an image of what happens when people give up their free will and individual thought processes.

Unknown said...

Great review and you really nailed what makes this film so special and why we're still talking about it 50+ years on. I particularly agree with you on the mood and atmosphere of this film. There is something about it, an almost noirish vibe at times, that gets me every time.

Craig said...

I've never seen the original in its entirety. But I am rather fond of Kaufman's remake, which wittily turns 'Frisco hippies into podded proto-Yuppies in suits. (If that wasn't an ingenious symbol for the "baby-boomer sell-out" in the upcoming Reagan Era, I don't know what is.) And the famous scream at the end still gives me chills.

I kind of like Ferrara's version too.

Drew McIntosh said...

Fantastic review, Ed. I remember watching this, along with the two subsequent remakes, with my dad in the span of a weekend when I was first getting into horror movies as a kid. The Kaufman and Ferrara version both work in their own right (both are quite suspenseful and well written), but Siegel's original is the one that always stuck with me; from the ominous photography and palpable sense of dread that you nailed to McCarthy's haunted face with those giant, expressive eyes that tell a story themselves as his character gets wise to what's going on around him.

I watched all three movies again around five years ago, and I'm thinking maybe it's time to give to give them another go; I really do like all three, though this one is really the only one I would consider a Great movie.

bill r. said...

I also love this movie, but I want to repeat something I've said elsewhere about the studio ending: I kinda like it. The reason I like it, tacked on though it may be, is because, goddamnit, I wanted someone to LISTEN to him for once. I wanted him to win. I really, really wanted that. So I was happy that he finally did.

The End.

Ed Howard said...

J.D., it's definitely a noirish style, which really suits the material. That's reflected in that image I used at the top of this post, which is also a sublime moment of suspense where the main characters are waiting to see if they'll be caught, and the little square of light on the door creates the textured shadows layered across them.

Craig, the original is the only one I've seen in its entirety, though I've seen bits and pieces of the later two. It's such an archetypal story, reflecting this deep-seated fear of the loss of identity and self, that it can be translated very productively into virtually any context.

Drew, great point about how the protagonist's face conveys so much. By the end of the film, it's a harrowing experience just looking him in the eyes; he's seen and suffered so much and the performance really gets that across.

Bill, I don't mind the studio ending too much because after everything that's happened, even the hope offered up at the end of the movie — which is still just hope and not a certainty of a true "happy ending" — seems kind of inadequate to completely undo the desperation and terror of the rest of the movie.

Richard Bellamy said...

Ed -
A delight to see this review! I share your love for this tremendous little movie that does so much with so little. I watch it three times a year with my three 8th grade history classes, studying film history, and I never tire of it. Each class finds it chilling even today. They are genuinely scared - all without CGI. One year, a girl remarked that she got a fright when she saw a truck loaded with nursery trees wrapped in burlap!

We discussed the mechanics of the pod transformation and how, as you say, Becky just has to fall asleep with no pod nearby, and she gets up all muddy and scratched, but SHE has been transformed. We reasoned that the pods are mutating and finding more expedient ways to transfer the pods influences to human bodies. Anyway, it's a good rationalization to cover up what might be a glitch.

I love the use of confined places - the hallway in the office is unusually narrow. Lots of dark alleyways. In black and white, the nighttime shots of the damp streets are awesome. The image of Miles and Becky running down the dark alleyway seems mirrored in Cloverfield.

Yes, this film is about what it means to be human versus pod-person, cyborg, clone, android, robot, or whatever - a theme explored in many subsequent sci-fi movies.

I visited that cave, tunnel really, which is at Bronson Quarry in Hollywood - and it's the same one used in the famous "Let's go home" scene between Wayne and Wood in The Searchers.

Steve said...

I am glad I stumbled onto this blog and this conversation! I teach a number of Invasion movies in a high school film class. I was goggling AP Film Studies, wondering if anybody had thought of creating an Advanced Placement Film Studies course. Anyway, I like the pointed ambiguity of the original film, that it can be read simultaeously as anti-communist or as a criticism of American conformity in the 50's, which saw itself dreadfully reflected in communism, or as an expression of existential alienation. I like the liberal revisionism and the fantasic sound design of the '78 remake, where indeed the pods portend the coming of Reagan. I also like the short lived Josh Wedon television series, Invasion, in which the pods experience themselves as "born again."

Tony Dayoub said...

Fantastic review, Ed, which really demonstrates your fondness for the film on a personal level.

I really recommend you see the Kaufman and Ferrara version, also. They are each creepy and gripping in their own unique way. The story template really lends itself to updating every twenty years or so with insert-your-own-group-of-"others"-here serving as allegorical fodder.

And it works equally well no matter what side of the political fence you are on. Imagine a right-leaning version with fundamentalist Muslims moving into a neighborhood to build a mosque/pod hatchery. Or a left-leaning version exploring the growing Tea Party phenomenon from the perspective of your average liberal.

Uncle Gustav said...

Nice review, Ed.

I saw the "director's cut" theatrically in 1979. (Is it available on DVD?) It was without the Whit Bissell framing device, and had no narration. Unfortunately, being so familiar with the picture at the time, I truly couldn't guage its power over the studio version. But there was a stoic creepiness to the first twenty minutes or so, offering no explanation or comfort to those scenes of Kevin McCarthy quietly returning to town after his brief departure only to find so many friends and acquaintances apparently losing their minds.

When the Phil Kaufman version came out in 1979, I believe it was Carrie Rickey in the Soho News or Village Voice who recognized that film's brilliant use of San Francisco as "Pod City to begin with."

As the Siegel film was made before the American mainstream cinema's language changed, it now "looks" antiquated, whereas the Kaufman version (now thirty-one years old) still looks fresh.

Of all the versions, I favor Kaufman's. (It has my favorite line explaining a loved one's "change" as, "maybe they've become a Republican.") But Ferrara's and the more recent one with Nicole Kidman work rather well, which I believe has more to do with the subject matter than anything else. I've never thought much of Jack Finney as a writer (he reads too flat and mundane for me), but the concept of an intelligent force taking over our individuality is tough to dislike.

You may also want to check out Gene Fowler's similarly themed I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958).

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Hokahey, I love your story about how the film continues to be thrilling and frightening even to jaded modern audiences. Films like this provide great evidence that very powerful effects can be achieved through minimal means.

Steve, it's interesting that you're the second teacher here to teach this film to high school classes. I guess its openness, its multiple interpretations, and its filmic classicism make it a good choice for classroom settings.

Tony, I definitely should check out the other two versions one of these days. Very true that the basic premise can be very easily adapted to virtually any situation or political alignment.

Flickhead, the director's cut sounds very interesting - it sounds like it enhances the minimalism of the film by eliminating the voiceover, paring things down to just those stark visuals. I wouldn't agree though that the film looks dated, by any means. Those images are so striking and stunning, even now.

John said...

Ed, your points are well taken. The political aspects of course were very timely at the time of the film's release with the McCarthy witch hunts but to me the film always had to do with individuality and the attempt by surrounding external forces (the Government, Corporate America, your friends and neighbors even) "to be just like them" quoting a few words from Dylan's MAGGIE FARM. There is a need by people in power to have others fall in line thus in Siegel's allegory there is a need by whoever is in charge here to rid the world of thinking people replacing them with pods.
The mood, the atmosphere all contribute to the eeriness and Kevin McCarthy does a great job. It has been one of my favorites since I was a kid. Thanks for a great review!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, John. I actually agree with you, and as others here have said, the film's satire is extremely malleable, in that it can be applied to virtually any form of conformity and societal pressure on the individual to foresake individuality and difference. That's what makes it great, I'd say, and makes it resonate far beyond whatever specific ideas about McCarthy and communism might've been in the air when it was made.

Uncle Gustav said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DavidEhrenstein said...

Actually I've always taken itas a left-wing parable of what would happen if the right took over.

Recent events bear me out.