INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS —–“They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next, You’re next…!”
Jack Finney’s 191-page book “The Body Snatchers” was impersonated in 1956 by this 80-minute sci-fi classic, adapted into a script by Daniel Mainwaring, directed by Don Siegel, and produced by Walter Wanger for a modest $416,911. Earning at least $3,000,000 (Cogerson has it doubling that, coming in 49th place for the year), the little chiller struck nerves and later spawned theories as to what it actually was supposed to mean, pod-castings that have continued to spur discussion over the ensuing six decades and via three remakes. *
Panic-stricken ‘Miles Bennell’ (Kevin McCarthy), once an easygoing doctor in the bucolic northern California town of ‘Santa Mira’, relates how he got into such an agitated state: the citizens of the town, including his friends and a loved one, have been victimized by what initially seemed to be mass hysteria. We wish, as they’ve actually been cloned by an extra-terrestrial life form that duplicates, absorbs and remembers everything about them, but dumps feelings and emotion in the bargain. An unwary nation, busy watching American Bandstand and This Is Your Life, wondering what the flock an ‘Elvis’ is, lies ripe for assimilation. **
With a ’50s chiller’ score by Carmen Dragon (a name to conjure with) and noirish black & white cinematography courtesy Ellsworth Fredericks, director Siegel gets ample suspense out of the insidious set-up, and good work from his cast. McCarthy and co-starring love interest Dana Wynter (old flame ‘Becky Driscoll’) have to wade through flat and unconvincing romantic goop, but they deliver well in the fret & frantic zone, and the 25-year-old actress (pronounced ‘Donna’) is one cool and elegant beauty. Luckily, McCarthy was cast instead of Richard Carlson or, pod forbid, John Agar. The once-icksome special effects come off on the quaint side today, but there are some fond nostalgia jolts to be had when those bubble-slicked pod people pop open their eyes…
With the familiar and welcome era-faces of King Donovan, Carolyn Jones, Larry Gates, Virginia Christine, Jean Willes, Whit Bissell, Ralph Dunke, Richard Deacon and Dabbs Greer. Future director-legend Sam Peckinpah has a bit part, age 31: he was a dialogue coach on the production. The fictional town of Santa Mira was suggested by filming around once-bucolic areas of greater Los Angeles, like Chatsworth, Glendale and Sierra Madre. Movie buffs will recognize the Bronson Canyon ‘cave’ location, which has figured in movies as far apart in substance and quality as The Searchers and Robot Monster.
* Other 1956 faves keeping Invasion Of The Body Snatchers company: World Without End, Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, Forbidden Planet, It Conquered The World and the US debut of our friend from Japan, Godzilla, King Of The Monsters.
The soul stealing space spores created by author Finney and made famous by this movie could be linked to scare-seeking stories written earlier: John Wyndham’s 1951 “The Day Of The Triffids”, Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Puppet Masters”, from the same year, Ray Bradbury’s story treatment “The Meteor” which turned into 1953s It Came From Outer Space and Philip K. Dick’s “The Father Thing”, from 1954.
** This venerated oldie still has people passionately argue that it subtexts-the-well out of the pervasive 50s fears of either Communism (sneaking in from abroad to somehow seduce us) or McCarthyism (rotting away our civic morality via homegrown viruses), but the writers, director, producer and star dismiss all that pseudo-brainy foofoo–and, hey, they just made it, so what could they possibly know? Siegel: I think that the world is populated by pods and I wanted to show them. I think so many people have no feeling about cultural things, no feeling of pain, of sorrow. […] The political reference to Senator McCarthy and totalitarianism was inescapable but I tried not to emphasize it because I feel that motion pictures are primarily to entertain and I did not want to preach.” The good McCarthy, Kevin, felt the material was maybe an indictment of Madison Avenue. I humbly direct the reader to Glenn Erickson’s writings over at CineSavant, for a much more informed look at the film and How To Take It. Me, I’m just wondering who the heck is in the basement this late….and…where’s Becky….?
Meanwhile, the soulless pods are here. And millions of them will vote in the next election….