Regular readers know that we here at Missile Test love us some schlock. Especially the ’50s kind, with its cheap sets, hammy actors, ridiculous monsters, and short ties. At first glance, 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers would fit right in. But, this flick ain’t schlock. Oh, no.
Directed by Don Siegel (who directed some excellent movies — including Dirty Harry), from a screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring, adapting Jack Finney’s novel, Body Snatchers tells the tale of a small town in California whose residents are being replaced by impostors.
The film follows local doctor Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), who just returned to the town after two weeks away. The first thing he notices is that half of his patients have canceled their appointments, claiming that whatever had ailed them has gotten better. Next, a strange psychosis grips some people in the community. They have become convinced that their closest loved ones are impostors. They can’t pinpoint exactly what has led them to believe so, as the family members have all the memories and experiences they should. But, as one character laments, it seems as if the impostors are only pretending to have emotion.
The impostor theory is confirmed when one of Bennell’s friends, Jack Belicec (King Donovan), finds his impostor unconscious and in an unfinished state. Bennell and the film’s romantic subplot, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) speed to Belicec’s to investigate.
When I wrote ‘unfinished state’ above, I meant it. The impostors are not human. They are some kind of lifeform that grows, then takes on the exact shape and memories of the target human. While the human sleeps, some form of psychic transference takes place, and the human vessel disintegrates. We get to see the growth part of the impostor, but the disintegration stuff is only explained with helpful exposition. That must have been where the effects budget ran out.
Whether or not the actual human’s mind survives the transference, or if the impostor is just imitating the human, is never resolved by the film, and at points there is contradictory evidence. It’s enough for viewers’ understanding to know that people are being replaced.
The big reveal is something with which film buffs will probably be familiar. I would love to get into more detail about the origins of the impostors, and how the whole process works. But, there are lots of people out there who have not seen this flick, and know little to nothing about the plot. This film is that good. I don’t want to spoil it too much.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a classic of sci-fi/horror, and film in general. It’s in the National Film Registry, and, as of this writing, sits at 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. There really isn’t much more I can say about the film’s quality. It’s a suspenseful and chilling film, with a great plot, good performances, and topical subtext.
Being released in the mid-50s, this is a Cold War flick, even if there isn’t a commie in sight. People being replaced with emotionless automatons and the fight against it, has been described as both anti-communist and anti-McCarthyism. No one seems to know on which side of the argument the film falls. Finney, for his part, claimed there wasn’t any Cold War subtext intended. He wrote it to entertain. Just like many other artists have discovered, Finney’s project grew beyond his intentions. It’s fascinating that subtext is something viewers or readers can create themselves, but it’s not like we do so from whole cloth. Finney provided the ingredients, and the times provided the context.
Of final note are bumper scenes at the start and end of the film. They feel like they were tacked on late in production, and they were. Apparently, the studio insisted on these scenes. They change the ending, removing ambiguity. It was a poor artistic choice by the studio, and seriously dulled the impact of the rest of the film. The film is better if a viewer disregards these scenes completely.
Even with the meddling, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is still a great film. Film fans owe it to themselves to check this one out. It’s in the National Film Registry for a reason.