Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Could be worse...could be an Aundrey II...or a Triffid...I'm just sayin'...
Could be worse…could be an Aundrey II…or a Triffid…I’m just sayin’…

John W. Campbell Jr. published the novella Who Goes There in 1938 and went on to inspire the next generation of alien invasion stories, usually involving duplication, replacement, and the resulting paranoia. Who Goes There escaped the printed page in 1951 and became The Thing from Another World. That same, year Robert Heinlein published The Puppet Masters, which non-Heinlein fans might facetiously describe as “Who Goes There v. 2.0.” (If we want to be dicks about it.) Two years later, our “friends” at 20th Century Fox chose to distribute a little independent horror movie called Invaders from Mars. The year after that, Collier’s Magazine began serializing a novel from 5 Against the House author Jack Finney called The Body Snatchers.

With all these other Alien Invasion films making such a big splash, Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures had to snatch up the film rights. It had no choice, having been around since 1931 and gained a well-deserved reputation for low budget Westerns (which weren’t all that bad), Bowery Boys comedies (which weren’t all that funny) and Bomba, the Jungle Boy adventures (which really were all that racist and then some). Like any small timer, Monogram hoped for some respect, and so transmuted itself into Allied Artists Pictures. It began fielding “B-plus” films with at-the-time-insane production costs, sometimes climbing north of one million dollars.

"Yes...yes...here you can see where they cut the budget: those cheap props? Shooting in Bronson Canyon? Yes, those are definetly the scars you'd expect..."
“Yes…yes…here you can see where they cut the budget: those cheap props? Shooting in Bronson Canyon? Yes, those are definitely the scars you’d expect…”

This helps explain why the film we now know as Invasion of the Body Snatchers – which was never destined to be a “B-plus” picture – suffered a hundred million dollar budget cut right out of the gate. The studio chopped a week off its shooting schedule and nixed the producer’s efforts to film in a real-life small, Northern California town, like the one Finny described in his novel. Suddenly, the  cavalcade of A-list (or at least B-plus list) stars proved too expensive. Everyone who did make the cut put in six-day workweeks and the production still managed to go three days over-schedule. The test audiences laughed in all the wrong places. The studio execs demanded a framing sequence to (a) spoil the ending and (b) leave the audience on an optimistic high note. (Wouldn’t want our “thriller” to “thrill” them too much now, would we?) And to top it all off, critics turned the film into a political football for their own pet causes. And yet…

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a personal favorite of mine, a movie where vision overcame budget restrictions by integrating them into its story. I never knew the (fictional) town of Santa Mira, CA, was a patchwork of three other cities (and two canyons – though I recognized Bronson, since it’s been filmed more times than most sex acts). I never knew this production cost a grand total of $382,000. And much as I’d like to live in a universe where Kim Hunter starred in this and Planet of the Apes, the use of (largely) TV actors means there aren’t any famous faces around to destroy the illusion that these are (exceptionally pretty, but still) everyday residents of Small Town America. There’s very little obvious evidence of the rushed production or low budget, and plenty of evidence that test audiences of the ’50s were as idiotic as they are today.

Honestly, I’m always surprised the film turned out to be this good, but the fact is it stands far out from its competitors and predecessors. At a time when Hollywood grappled with competition from upstart new media (when hasn’t it?) by trying to be BIGGER and LOUDER, Invasion stands out by trying to be a horror movie. They didn’t have the money to put on a grand spectacle, like Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, which brought the aliens down out of the skies and into our cities. Invasion, like Invaders from Mars, brought the aliens out of our cities and into one of the few environments Americans were supposed to hold sacrosanct: the small town. Might as well call it “our” town since it only exists in the fictions of our collective culture.

...the kind of town where the natives are never far from their pitchforks.
…the kind of town where the natives are never far from their pitchforks.

Santa Mira’s that kind of town, a place of farmers with roadside stands, aunts, uncles and fat traffic cops, where everyone knows everyone else. Here’s Dr. Miles Burnell (Kevin McCarthy), returning from an out-of-town conference to find everyone clamoring for him. Here he is ignoring most of them in order to focus on old college flame Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), whose cousin Wilma (Virginia Christine)’s come believe her Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden)’s been replaced by an imposter. “Someone who only looks like Uncle Ira.”

Dr. Miles recommends Cousin Wilma see his psychologist friend, Dr. Dan Kaufman (Larry Gates), who rationalizes her paranoia away as a good ol’ garden variety delusion. Becky’s worried, despite being “in the capable hands of [her] personal physician,” but nevertheless accompanies Miles on a house call to the Belicec residence. There Jack (King Donovan) and his wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) reveal the half-formed-but-otherwise-recognizable Jack-duplicate they left on their pool table. Our dear doctor’s surprised, but not enough to recommend Jack call the police right the hell then. Oh no. Better wait until morning. Sure, Miles. Whatever.

That’s more than enough time for the creepy duplicate-Jack to open its eyes and send both Belicecs fleeing their house in terror. The better for Jack’s duplicate to sneak away while no one’s looking. And of course, no one bothered taking a picture of the damn thing while it was on the pool table. If they did, Dr. Kaufman and the authorities might actually believe them. Assuming, of course, that Dr. Kaufman and the authorities haven’t already been replaced.

Get up, stand up...stand up for your right...to use up planets like tissue paper and then move on to new ones..."
Get up, stand up…stand up for your right…to use up planets like tissue paper and then move on to new ones… Yeah, it doesn’t fit the rhyme scheme; sue me, I just woke up.”

Deciding there’s safety in numbers, Miles, Becky and the Belicecs hold up at the doctor’s house…and eventually discover four more pods growing out in the greenhouse. Deciding the creatures grow from space-born spores drifting into our atmosphere, Miles sends the Belicecs out of town in the hope of escaping their influence. After destroying the embryonic mass of foaming horror that would’ve eventually become his duplicate (but finding himself incapable of destroying the one meant to be be Becky) Miles and Becky attempt to separate the real humans from the pod people…only to end up the last two human beings in town, huddled in terror as they watch the duplicates get organized and begin to spread themselves across the state of California…and after Kal-ee-four-nee-ahh, the world!

These scenes easily lend themselves to political interpretation, though these days I tend to look at it from a socio-cultural angle. These Body Snatchers predate Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man by almost a decade, yet they create as perfect a state of “unfreedom” as you’re likely to find outside the Borg Collective: systematic, unemotional, and entirely detached from their project of replacing all human life with themselves. It’s just what they do. The already-classic-when-this-came-out SF trope of the alien conqueror who wants to end human suffering by stripping away human emotion allows them to rationalize their activities to our protagonists in a way the Martians couldn’t. They have no malice aforehand and they don’t want to decimate our cities or control our minds. All they want is to become us and they’re incapable of understanding why we might resist such a thing since, after all, we’ll still be…in them. They can’t feel, so they can’t know how creepy that idea makes us feel. And that’s awesome.

This makes them one of the most interesting alien invaders of the pre-Alien Era. In their cold precision, they resemble a certain breed of killer robot from the future that wouldn’t be invented for another thirty years (those two episodes of The Outer Limits notwithstanding), but with better personalities. They’re predators posing as domesticated Everyday Folks, as we see in the creepy scene where five of them sit around a living room with one holding a pod in his arms. “Should I put it in the baby’s crib?” The “mom” stands up and volunteers to do the job it instead, like that would help. It’s the kind of thing a paranoid schizophrenic would dream up – some down on his luck used car salesman in a dead-end, California suburb, watching life pass him by.

"Is he talking about...our litearary anticedents? That bastard!"
“Is he talking about…our literary antecedents? That bastard!”

Would it surprise you to know Philip K. Dick wrote a short story called The Father Thing in 1954? The Obligatory Kid in this movie, Jimmiy Grimaldi (Bobby Clark), seems to be a version of its protagonist. There seemed to be a lot of fake people wandering around in the early 50s, especially after they hanged the Rosenbergs and the mind control stories coming out of the Korean War filtered into the popular imagination. Makes sense, really: we all walk around knowing what we keep from other people. No telling what they keep from us…who they might turn out to be…what they might turn out to be…or when they might turn on us and try to siphon out our personalities while we sleep.

The movie’s not very clear on the mechanics of body snatching, and that’s its most obvious flaw, obviously blamed on its sudden budget cut. It looks like all you have to do to become one of them is fall asleep, and that’s ultimately unsatisfying after all the build up lavished on this process. The budget also shows in Santa Mira’s widely variable population. Sometimes a simple jump cut can thin a crowd out by fifty, sixty…a hundred…how many people were in this town again?

Honestly though, I don’t care.  They saved all their money for the greenhouse sequence and it’s goddamn creepy, if not exactly viscous enough for modern gorehounds. And I don’t care about that either. Invasion‘s real strength lies in its ability to put you in the head of Dr. Miles Burnell. If this aspect of the movie failed, they could throw all the money in the world at it and it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference. Thank God it works, and it works because director Don Siegel sticks with Burnell like flypaper, even before the studio insisted on that framing sequence. (Incidentally, Miles tells his story to actor Whit Bissell, late of Dr. David Reed’s ill-fated expedition to the Black Lagoon).

Town meetings were never this cool in the MIdwest...
Town meetings were never this cool in the MIdwest…

I’ve heard some people, who happen to be professors, and therefore very smart and very worth listening to, describe this movie as a “Sci-fi Noir” picture, and they’re very right about that. As in any good noir, you nominally don’t know who’s working for or against Our Heroes and betrayals are always sudden, no matter how inevitable they might seem in retrospect. Kevin McCarthy gets to embody this. In the story-proper, he starts off a clean cut, smiling town doctor. The movie’s his journey from that guy to the raving, disheveled madman we and not-Dr. Thompson meet in the framing sequence. This tight focus on a strong, central character perfectly complements the atmosphere and by the end, if the movie’s done its job, its forced us to snatch Dr. Burnell’s bod without our even noticing. Like him, we’re left strung out from the constant threat of duplication and desperately hoping he’ll convince the outside world “They’re here already!” And “You’re next!”

Don Siegel, for anyone who doesn’t know, would go on direct Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Shootist, Dirty Harry, and Escape from Alcatraz, which just goes to show you never know who’s toiling away in some Poverty Row studio. The guy making the black and white, $380 grand alien invasion movie could go on to direct some of the best Action/Westerns of the 70s. You can see Siegel’s eye for empty streets and stark landscapes in the way Santa Mira changes (or doesn’t change) under the pod people’s management, and in Miles’ eventual flight across the parched, Serengeti landscape of So-Cal. You can also his his preference for psychologically-affecting camera angles and strong, ultimately isolated protagonists.

This last has the unfortunate side-effect of making all the other characters less than memorable, as they’re all basically pod people fodder. Except Dana Wynter’s character, since Dana Wynter’s stunningly unforgettable. And just as an aside: it’s interesting to see the Obligatory Love Story bloom between two divorcees…even though they have to use code words.

An old flame walks into your office with a hot new case? How much more noir could you get? I suppose you could set all this in San Francisco...
An old flame walks into your office with a hot new case? How much more noir could you get? I suppose you could set all this in San Francisco…

(So when did “I hear you’ve been to Reno?” stop being code for “I hear you dropped that sad bastard/dumb broad you stupidly tied yourself down to when you were still young and spry”?)

Too bad Becky’s not what you’d call dynamic. Hot though she may be, she responds to the Unknown the same way as most of her contemporary damsels: with lots ‘a screamin’. I almost expected Dr. Burnell to hook up with his hot nurse, Sally (Jean Willes), before I saw Dana Wynter walk in wearing that strapless dress. Can’t fault your decision there, Dr. Miles. I would’ve done exactly the same thing. Still, more nurse for the rest of us…

And so now I recommend this original Invasion of the Body Snatchers to you. Could it have been a little tighter? Yeah. Could it have used some more money? Hell, couldn’t we all? Despite that, it’s one of my favorite alien invasion movies of all time. It’s creepy, unnerving and effective as all hell. See it, show it to your kids, and spend their whole lives making “pod people” jokes with them behind other people’s backs. It’s done wonders for me and it might just do the same for you and yours. Besides, we all know they’re here already…and you’re next…don’t fight it…it’s as simple as going to sleep…

GGGHalf-G

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5 thoughts on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)”

  1. I really had no idea that Allied Artists was Monogram. It explains so much!

    Nice review. This is one of my all time favorites as well, and for years I’d randomly pick it up in the Fall during my “obsessive horror movie watching” season from a library, always thinking “I’ll buy my own copy soon.” I finally own that copy, but I wish it had the version I hear is out there that strips off the framing device and narration-I’d love to know if it really is better. I’ve always enjoyed the narration as it makes it more “noir” in my book, but I can see how unnecessary it is.

    I’m kind of glad they didn’t have a bigger name cast….I’m sure budget would help, but as it is I feel like it just makes the whole thing feel more authentic. One of these days I need to read the novel…and some of the antecedents you’ve now clued me in on.

    1. The novel’s pretty much the book, though there’s an up-beat ending there, too. (Don Siegel seems to’ve been the only one involved with this story who wanted it to end on a good ol’ fashioned twist.) The Father Thing kicks mucho ass and it’s short enough to read in one go. Puppet Masters is…well, it’s like a transitional fossil between Heinlein’s Early and Middle periods. Meaning his language still falls into the stiff, ramrod-up-my-ass diction that makes his early work a chore to get through (when I was fourteen I started calling it “Beyond This Horizon Syndrome”)…but, by that point, he’d started letting his imagination run rampant, leading to biting social satire and some genuine moments of comedy that prefigure his later, sprawling social satires. Example: the new law introduced late in the novel that requires all non-possessed walk around naked to ensure no space slugs have latched onto their backs.

  2. so glad you’re back. And a review of one of my favorites. Creeped out by it now just as i was at 11. that’s a good movie. Keep writing.

  3. This is one of my comfort food movies that I pop in when I’m doing other stuff. I love it to death. Random thoughts on it:

    I love the sound of the alarm as MIles and Becky flee the town. That doesn’t sound like any public civil alarm I’ve ever heard. It sounds like a monster roaring. Unearthly! It adds to the feeling that the people chasing them aren’t people at all.

    I too got a kick out of the scene where Miles examines the corpse, and decides the best thing to do is for everybody to have a drink. A few minutes later, they say goodnight like nothing unusual is happening. Hilarious!

    The first time I saw this, I did so with one eye out for the political angle that everybody, especially my liberal arts professors, kept insisting this movie has. I found stuff that you COULD deem a political message, but nothing that was definitely so. I was scratching my head at that. Using my awesome Googling powers, I found that pretty much nobody involved in the movie saw this as a political message at all (in a bonus feature interview from 1985 on the DVD I have, Kevin McCarthy says so in plain English, and the interviewer says that Jack Finney said the same). And I find that gratifying. This movie works so much better as a straight-ahead thriller than it would as a political piece.

    Looking into the camera while screaming “You’re next” could easily be seen as the movie making a statement, but interpreted it as the movie making it obvious to us, the viewers, that nobody is gonna believe Miles when he tells his story, because the look on his face when he screams at us…..he looks like he is absolutely out of his mind. That’s what I thought that bit was going for.

    I didn’t find the tacked-on ending to be flat-out optimistic…..just optimisticer. As the cops scramble to shut down the highways, I still get the sense that Mankind’s not gonna win this one.

    The title is misleading. The title baddies are not an invading army with a battle plan. They’re a migrating organism with a life cycle. As you said, this makes them seem much spookier, because what they’re doing is not evil, it’s just what they do. When Miles now-snatched friends are reasoning with him and Becky while placing the pods in the next room, it feels like they really are as friendly to him as they sound.

    You’re right about the mechanics of body snatching being unclear. When Becky gets podded, for me that was a total Waitaminit moment, as there was no pod in sight, and it wasn’t her duplicate talking, it was still the Becky 1.0.

    This is where the 1978 remake shines. It patches up that plot hole, and does so with only the smallest necessary tweak.

    Finally, also about the 1978 remake, I feel that it is more believable than the original. Having lived in a small town (Ripley, West Virginia), a big city (Seattle), and points in between (Tulsa, Spokane, and the Oakland/San Fran area where I am now), I find the idea of pods taking people over without anyone noticing to be much more believable in a big city where you see a thousand people every day but don’t know the first thing about ANY of them, than in a small town where everyone knows everyone. In a small town, if Uncle Ira isn’t Uncle Ira, then Niece isn’t gonna be the only one who notices.

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