Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956)
Director: Don Siegel
Starring: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan
Unless you live 107 light-years away on the planet Fattybollox you’ve probably at least heard of this ‘un but I’m guessing you’ve all seen it and there’s no need for me to tell you this movie is ace. May contain a surprise in the greenhouse, we’re not talking mutant hellebore either, and spoilers…
Frustrating. I’m adamant (not the bloke who sings Prince Charming) that at some point in the past I have seen Invasion Of The Body Snatchers without the pat on the head, ‘there, there, diddums, did Uncle Don scare woo, awww…’ – that is, the prologue and epilogue. Naturally, I was most displeased at receiving this version from Lovefilm, a disc which helpfully offers one the option of watching a ‘colourized’ print rather than the standard b/w. No, ta. Would it not have been more commonsensical to include the two different beginning/ ending versions instead? So incensed, I scrambled around the attic for half an hour searching for a Scotch tape I was sure contained Invasion taped many lunar perambulations ago off Alex Cox’s excellent Moviedrome series and, having found it, stoutly guarded by an incredulous looking spider (and I’m telling you, it’s almost impossible for a spider to look incredulous – that’s how incredulous it was), discovered that it was the same ‘diddums’ version of the flick. Alex, you’ve let me down, mate…
Anyway, you know what I’m on about, a demented Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) in the hospital, getting a sit-down chat with a fellow physician (and a wibbly transition)… I understand it was shot some time after the movie wrapped, the studio insisting on a degree of hope for the audience (and thereby unconsciously, fittingly, becoming the pods depicted in Siegel’s film). You can nearly see their point though; Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is a remorseless piece of work. The early scenes are deceptively nonchalant, flippant. Even when old flame Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) encourages Doc Bennell to go and see her cousin, Wilma (Virginia Christine), there’s no particular urgency or serious worry. Wilma is deadly insistent that Uncle Ira isn’t Uncle Ira anymore. He clearly is, in every way… except for one thing; “There’s something missing… there’s no emotion!” After telling her she isn’t going crazy, Bennell mentally orders the rubber wallpaper and packs her off to the resident shrink. And again, even he, Dr. Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates) waxes cheerfully offhand about the psychosis sweeping Santa Mira, affecting adults and children alike. Then again, maybe he’s already…
The tone takes a turn for the uncanny at the Belicec residence, home of Jack and Teddy. Jack (King Donovan), all studious pipe and cardie, has interrupted Miles and Becky’s hot date for apparently no reason; nobody is sick or in need of medical attention. What’s Jack’s game, eh, doesn’t he realise Miles is itching to demonstrate his ‘bedside manner’ on Becky? But there is one thing… a body on the pool table (top Carmen Dragon music cue on reveal). It’s a curious kind of body, featureless, no fingerprints, blank… in many ways a genetic facsimile awaiting only a stamp of identity to be complete. Teddy (Carolyn Jones – Morticia!) remarks on the height/ weight of the body and how it pretty much matches her husband’s overall physique. Wow, where’s she off to on that train? Needless to say, Jack isn’t keen on the destination, particularly sans caboose. Here, the lack of urgency will probably have you screaming at the telly, as Bennell wonders idly if there’s a link between this and the ‘mass hysteria’ swallowing Santa Mira whole but hey, y’know, it can wait till morning. Back home in her hallway he tries to snog an understandably distracted Becky (who appears to be taking things more seriously than he) but what’s this… her father emerging from the cellar. What’s he doing down there at such a late hour, huh?
Part Sci-Fi, part chase movie, part film noir, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers effortlessly holds the viewer in a grip of pure paranoia. It’s a chilling thing to behold as all hope is blow torched away from the dwindling number of bona fide humans while the pod versions of their friends and neighbours set up shop in the civic square, intercepting out of town visitors off the bus and loading fresh pods into trucks for distribution around the locale, and from there… well, Momma d’int raise no fools in dis house, hoss. Lensman Ellsworth Fredericks turns up the tension, a pod-POV in the greenhouse, of the humans preparing for a barbecue (and how nasty is it when the pods start to bubble and burst – blech!), Miles and Becky cowering in the shallow pit of a mine shaft as the feet of a massed search party thunder on the loose planks just inches above their faces and best of all, cramped in the doc’s anteroom as the light spills through a small window and onto the frightened upturned faces of the hiding duo. And then there’s ‘the kiss’…
‘The kiss’ has already been foreshadowed midway through outside the restaurant, “I’d hate to wake up some morning and find out that you weren’t you…” I’ve seen it labelled clumsy elsewhere but I think it pitches well enough (we see a similar bit of presaging with the walk from Bennell’s office to the street near the start – carefree the first time, second time it’s life or pod). Now, I’ve had numerous tidal exchanges about ‘the kiss’, some drunkenly screwball, some monstrously heated but I’ve never been satisfied with the eventual judgment in either scenario. The genesis of a pod has been clearly defined to us, right, yet there in the mine – and in the unlikely event you haven’t seen the film STOP READING NOW – we watch in horror as lovely Becky turns into an alien before our very eyes. I mean, she’s definitely the Becky he left in the mine after he goes to scope out a pod-farm because when he returns she’s initially babbling about needing to sleep at which point he bundles her toward the exit. Is this a case of pod-humour, her/ its request to sleep? But what pod where? It’s scruffy, mucky, messed up, sweaty Becky! Is it me or we going in reverse here? Somewhere on that alien allotment a pod has sucked out Becky’s humanity and Wi-Fi’d the pod-ness in? Down there rests a pod now containing the real Becky? My head hurts… But I think that’s part of Invasion’s greatness, the ambiguity of the transference.
Tell you what, though, for a bloke so intent on leaving town, why does Bennell ditch the car? Would it not have been more prudent to leave the pods in the trunk, sunshine? In all likelihood, the aliens expected you and Becky to tootle over the town boundary and then pull over for a snooze before presenting yourselves to the authorities fresh as spring snowdrops. But no, you opt for a public veg cremation… He even wastes time and incurs serious risk by detouring to nurse Sally’s gaff. Why, oh why, oh why? Mind you, tis here the winning chill-factor line occurs:
“Shall I put this (pod) in with the baby?”
“Yes. Then there will be no more crying.”
Eeeech! (Wolf shivers). There’s something clinical about Don Siegel’s direction and I’m sure it’s deliberate, a kind of dispassionate, documentary feel; it’s the tone that scares me, that ‘hey, maybe it ain’t so bad…’ Like when a voice out of the chasing pack in the mine shaft hollers “We’re not gonna hurt you…” – no, they just want them to go to sleep, so what’s so bad about that? It’s like Ant & feckin Dec, they ain’t gonna hurt you either but they’ve got a nation sleepwalking through their show. And you better watch the show coz, come work Monday morning, if you haven’t tuned in then you’ll not be part of the conversation – you’ll be ostracised by the pods. Siegel sings us a lethargy-lullaby ‘come on, it’s not so bad you’ll see, all you have to do is go to sleep (or watch Ant & Dec)…’ and then ‘the kiss’ goes boom and wakes us up. But by then maybe it’s too late.
Wrongly, I think, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is often aligned with the ‘Reds under the beds’ paranoia Sci-Fi of the era, although I’ll concede it can easily be read that way. But for me, the scene between Miles and Becky at his office after they evade the pursuing poddies tells you everything you need to know about where director Don Siegel is coming from:
“Only when we fight to stay human we realise how precious it is…”
Siegel is more fearful of apathy than Commies subjugating from within – indifference, creeping and insidious, hardening our hearts to the woes of the modern world, the loss of warmth and of love… the loss of what makes us human. It’s still pertinent today, maybe more so. Some days, I feel like Doc Bennell in that iconic moment at the finale, the proper finale, wild-eyed, spinning from bumper to bumper shrieking “You’re next!” at the unconcerned occupants of the tin can traffic, in fact screaming directly at us. We live in a world where a newborn baby girl is dumped in a plastic carrier bag to die. No gentle cuddle to send her on a journey she’s no right taking at only hours old, just a cold carrier bag. What’s it come to when the biggest gift granted to this species is discarded like left-over’s from a kitchen bin? I rip myself up inside watching the news some nights. It’s all I can hope for that she’s lapping it up in Elysium right now…
Anyway, before I go too far off on one… Kevin McCarthy sells the whole shebang, exhibiting a casual manner, then a dawning realisation reduced to doubt by Kauffman’s misdirection, – “You win. Pick up the marbles.” – to panic and finally crazed. He is immense. Of course he’s not without help ably assisted as he is by Wynter, Donovan and Jones, together they form a convincing little group. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is that rare beast – it spawned a remake that is actually on a par with, if not better than the original (Alex Cox thinks it’s better; I’m not so sure but it’s eons since I’ve seen the remake). There’s certainly no ‘diddums’ waiting at the very end of the 1978 flick is there! And neither should there be.
I’ll give it 4 Screeching Donalds out of 5