Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Director: Don Siegel
Screenplay: Daniel Mainwaring (based on the Collier’s magazine serial by Jack Finney)
Stars: Kevin McCarthy (Dr. Miles J. Bennell), Dana Wynter (Becky Driscoll), Larry Gates (Dr. Dan “Danny” Kauffman), King Donovan (Jack Belicec), Carolyn Jones (Theodora “Teddy” Belicec), Jean Willes (Nurse Sally Withers), Ralph Dumke (Police Chief Nick Grivett), Virginia Christine (Wilma Lentz), Tom Fadden (Uncle Ira Lentz), Kenneth Patterson (Stanley Driscoll), Guy Way (Officer Sam Janzek), Eileen Stevens (Anne Grimaldi), Beatrice Maude (Grandma Grimaldi), Jean Andren (Eleda Lentz), Bobby Clark (Jimmy Grimaldi)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1956
Country: U.S.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers Signature Collection Blu-ray
Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Early in Danse Macabre, his wide-ranging 1981 survey of all things horror, author Stephen King writes about one of the essential elements of the horror genre, what he calls “phobic pressure points”: “The good horror tale will dance its way to the center of your life and find the secret door to the room you believed no one but you knew of.” He then notes that, beyond the personal, there are national and cultural phobic pressure points—“fears which exist across a wide spectrum of people. Such fears, which are often political, economic, and psychological rather than supernatural, give the best work of horror a pleasing allegorical feel.” King then suggests that these cultural phobic pressure points are best exemplified in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, an low-budget classic that welled up in the heady turmoil of the McCarthy-addled mid-1950s, a period that say the decline of the horror genre and the ascension of science fiction. The film’s brilliance lies in the way it splits the difference between the two genres, turning the potential wonders of outer space into a nightmare about inner space—that is, the nebulous world of our minds and souls and what would happen if they suddenly disappeared. The film’s horrors aren’t external and physical (there is no grotesque, rampaging monstrosity on display, although there are some gooshy alien pods); rather the horrors are internal and psychological, drawing on the Freudian notion of the uncanny to unnerve us with the idea of seeing something “normal” but knowing that it isn’t.

Based on Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, which was originally serialized in Collier’s magazine in 1954, and directed by B-movie auteur Don Siegel (Riot in Cell Block 11), Invasion of the Body Snatcher is set in the fictional northern California town of Santa Mira, which is presented as a perfectly ideal, perfectly normal, perfectly ordinary small town. The story begins in chaos, as a wild-eyed physician named Dr. Miles J. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), who is being held by the police at a hospital, spins a wild story to a psychiatrist about how his town has been taken over by alien pods hatched from interstellar spores. These aliens have usurped the bodies of all his friends and neighbors, turning them into unfeeling automatons. We see this unfold in flashback, with Miles’s voice-over narration lending the film a distinctly noir-esque sensibility (like the best film noir, the story begins at the end so that we can witness the inevitable unfold, which casts its characters not as active agents, but as unwitting pawns in a design far outside their ability to control). Miles is called back from a conference by numerous patients complaining of people in their lives seeming strange or not themselves. In the process, he is reintroduced to Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), a childhood girlfriend who has recently returned to town after getting a divorce (which the film subtly implies by letting us know that she has been “in Reno,” where Miles himself was five months earlier).

Miles and Becky soon learn that his patients aren’t crazy, but rather are recognizing that their loved ones have been replaced by alien replicas, an idea that digs deep into our longstanding belief in the Cartesian mind/body split. The film’s premise is that bodies can be duplicated exactly—right down to birth marks and recent wounds—as can the brain’s gray matter, full of memories and intimate knowledge that can be immediately recalled. This process takes place when the person sleeps, during which time a full likeness grows inside a giant seed pod nearby. The body itself, until it is fully formed, is a strange amalgam of fetus and cadaver, both newly born, yet seemingly dead. Once the process is complete, though, there is no physical distinction from the original. However, the soul—the personality, the spirit, whatever you want to call it that makes each person a unique individual—cannot be duplicated. Instead, it is replaced with a conformist nonpersonality that is fundamentally unfeeling, an idea that is constantly reinforced via the dialogue: Becky speaks of “humanity slowly draining away,” and a woman notes that “there’s something missing” in her Uncle Ira, “a special look in his eyes.” That “special look” might be thought of as the human spirit—the soul—that which can never be replicated because it is what makes us fundamentally human. The horror of Invasion of the Body Snatchers isn’t necessarily the idea that aliens are taking over the world (although that is happening), but rather that we are individually disappearing, losing ourselves to an ambiguous mass conformity.

With its paranoid sensibility, concerns about dehumanization, and release in the mid-1950s, it was virtually guaranteed that Invasion of the Body Snatchers would be viewed as some kind of allegory about communism (Jack Finney always found it amusing that so much was read into the story, because he has claimed in the interviews that his source novel has “no meaning at all”). The fact that it can be read as either an anti-McCarthy screed (with the pod people representing all the Americans willing to accept political conformity and individual suppression if it means safety from the Reds) or as an anti-communist screed (with the pod people representing soulless communists coming to take us over) is indicative of how thematically and politically complex the film is.

At its core, whether you see it as anti-McCarthy or anti-communist or some confused hybrid, the film plays on the fear of our institutionalized social systems turning against us. Note, for example, how authority figures are some of the first to become pod people—police officers, doctors, community leaders, etc.—so that, when everyday would-be heroes go to them for help, they are faced with the demise of all that they had previously relied on. From a paranoid perspective, it seems only natural such authority figures would “turn” first because they were corrupt anyway; it is just a transformation of one form of corruption to another. The film also goes out of its way to subvert the authority of psychiatrists and psychiatry in general, which constantly and mistakenly attempts to locate the change in the person who has not been replaced. Psychiatrists can only come up with explanations of “mass hysteria” and “hallucinations,” when the truth is something far outside their purview and much, much worse. The medical profession constantly locates the problem in the wrong mind, thus blinding themselves to the greater reality.

Despite being a masterpiece of its kind, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is not exactly perfect. I have always been bothered by its lack of consistency and physical detail about how exactly the duplicating process takes place (a problem that is inherent to Finney’s novel). What, exactly, happens to the original after it has been duplicated? There is suggestion that it is somehow “destroyed,” but nothing more is given (Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake supplies an answer, with the human body collapsing into a pile of dust after it has been duplicated). There is also no rhyme or reason regarding how long it takes for a person to be duplicated. Instead, the duration seems to be wholly reliant on the mechanics of the plot: If they need to draw out suspense, the process might take all night; if a sudden shock is in order, then it might take 10 minutes.

The film is also hampered by its ending, as a studio-enforced frame narrative that ultimate suggests that all will be set right by the authorities undermines what had been an absolutely nightmarish descent into the inevitable. The film should have concluded as it was originally intended, with Miles, wild-eyed and hysterical, running along the highway, banging on car windows, screaming, “They’re coming! They’re coming! You’re next!” Instead, we get the sequence at the hospital, which includes a ludicrous deus ex machina moment in which all the authorities are given reason to suddenly believe Miles and run to the phones to call the FBI. It tacks on an unearned sense of hope that the invasion will be stemmed, but more disastrously, it undercuts the film’s successful bid to alienate us from our reliance on legal and social systems as a source of salvation. In the end, a film that made us fear literally everything suddenly wants us to have faith that none other than the FBI will make everything right. It’s par for the Eisenhower-era course and not out of keeping with other science fiction films of its era (see, for example, 1954’s giant-ant thriller Them!), but its enforced existence gives the film’s ending, which could have been a truly nihilistic freak-out, a sense of optimism that just feels wrong.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers Olive Signature Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio2.00:1
AudioEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround
  • Audio Commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith
  • Audio Commentary by actors Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter and filmmaker Joe Dante
  • “The Stranger in Your Lover’s Eyes” two-part visual essay with actor and son of director Don Siegel, Kristoffer Tabori, reading from his father’s book A Siegel Film
  • “The Fear is Real” video interview with filmmakers Larry Cohen and Joe Dante
  • “I No Longer Belong: The Rise and Fall of Walter Wanger” interview with film scholar and author Matthew Bernstein
  • “Sleep No More: Invasion of the Body Snatchers Revisited” featurette
  • “The Fear and the Fiction: The Body Snatchers Phenomenon” featurette
  • 1985 archival interview with Kevin McCarthy hosted by Tom Hatten
  • “Return to Santa Mira” exploration of the film’s locations
  • “What's In a Name?” featurette
  • Gallery of rare documents detailing aspects of the film’s production
  • Essay by author and film programmer Kier-La Janisse
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • DistributorOlive Films
    Release DateOctober 16, 2018

    Olive Films’ new “Signature” release of Invasion of the Body Snatchers features a new high-definition restoration that is the best I have seen the film look on home video. Compared to Olive’s previous Blu-ray release, the image is slightly darker, but boasts better contrast and a noticeable improvement in fine detail (the bitrate is consistently higher throughout). It is not dramatically different, but it is noticeable at times and makes for an all-around improved viewing experience. The image is also virtually flawless, with no signs of age or wear. As with other home video releases of the film, it is presented in its 2.00:1 “SuperScope” aspect ratio, which is technically accurate since it reproduces the theatrical viewing experience; however, as most know, the film was shot for a 1.85:1 hard-matted aspect ratio, but Allied Artists insisted on the wider aspect ratio (which involved zooming in on the full-frame 1.33:1 negative, which actually results in a softer image). Thus, the wider aspect ratio actually makes some shots, especially close-ups, feel like they are cropped too tightly. Alas, that has been a part of the film since 1956, and I doubt at this point that we will ever see a version framed as originally intended (as far as I know, the original 1.33:1 35mm camera negative no longer exists, so those cropped portions of the frame are literally gone). The 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack also sounds improved, with better clarity, more spaciousness, and a richer low end. The gurgly, popping sound effects of the pods cracking open have never sounded better or grosser.

    Olive has put together an impressive array of supplements, some of which were newly commissioned for this Blu-ray release and some of which were commissioned for a Paramount special edition DVD release back in 2006 that was cancelled, leaving all that material to sit on a digital shelf for the better part of 12 years. These “missing” supplements have been long-rumored, and it is absolutely wonderful to finally get to see them, especially since several of the contributors, including stars Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, have since passed away.

    There are two information-rich and highly entertaining audio commentaries. The first, by film historian Richard Harland Smith, a long-time staff writer for Turner Classic Movies and Video Watchdog, was commissioned specifically for this release, while the second, recorded by McCarthy, Wynter, and filmmaker Joe Dante, was recorded in 2006 for the cancelled special edition DVD. A good follow-up to the commentaries is “Sleep No More: Invasion of the Body Snatchers Revisited” (26 min.), an excellent retrospective featurette that includes interviews with McCarthy, Wynter, and filmmakers John Landis, Mick Garris, and Stuart Gordon. All of those participants also appear in the featurette “The Fear and the Fiction: The Body Snatchers Phenomenon” (8 min.). “The Stranger in Your Lover’s Eyes” is a two-part visual essay with director Don Siegel’s son, Kristoffer Tabori, reading excerpts from Siegel’s 1993 autobiography A Siegel Film (Criterion offered a similar supplement on their 2014 Blu-ray of Siegel’s Riot in Cell Block 11). “The Fear is Real” (12 min.) is a newly produced featurette in which filmmakers Larry Cohen and Joe Dante ruminate on the film’s cultural legacy. “I No Longer Belong: The Rise and Fall of Walter Wanger” (21 min.) is an extended interview with film scholar Matthew Bernstein, author of Walter Wanger: Film Independent. We also get an archival 7 1/2-minute television interview with Kevin McCarthy hosted by Tom Hatten from 1985. Those interested in the filming locations will enjoy the 8-part featurette “Return to Santa Mira,” which allows us to see the film’s various locations and how little they had changed circa 2006. “What’s in a Name?” is a brief featurette that explores the film’s alternate titles. We also get a gallery of rare documents from the production, including call sheets and a proposed opening narration that Wanger wanted to hire Orson Welles to read, as well as an original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Olive Films

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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