The challenge in reviewing the original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is, as with any film this seminal, to find something new to say. Click any random sampling of the forty-odd reviews listed on the IMDb and you'll find a lot of the same words used: "classic," "atmospheric," "suspenseful." Those things are all true, but too often the people who write about the film focus so much on the picture's influence and subtext that they forget to mention how much fun it is to watch. Leave behind all those theories you've heard about the movie's subtle warnings about the Communist party (or McCarthyism, or television, or whichever axe you want to grind) and concentrate instead on the important things in life pretty girls, '50s fashion, and a concept so eerie your skin starts crawling all on its own.
"Ready for my examination, Doctor."
Town physician Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is called back to the fictional town of Santa Mira, California from a medical conference. McCarthy may not seem at first like '50s leading-man material, probably because his older self was such a scruffy fixture on network television in shows like "Matlock" and "Murder, She Wrote." However, his slightly-less-than-square-jawed looks actually help the part not only in creating a character with whom the audience can identify, but also with the role's transition from man in charge to man on the run. By the film's end McCarthy is thoroughly disheveled and panicked, emotional states at which a man with sturdier features would have been less convincing. McCarthy is a large part of the film's success despite the tiresome voiceover narration an artifact of the film's adaptation from Jack Finney's novel.
"He was raised by wild birds."
Upon his return, the patients who so desperately wanted to see Bennell abruptly cancel their appointments, but the doctor quickly notices signs of an apparent epidemic of mass hysteria townspeople who fearfully insist that impostors have replaced their closest relatives. These impostors are so good, claim the victims, that only those closest to them can tell the difference. Naturally, Bennell and the town psychologist dismiss the notion, but the cases persist and then resolve themselves without explanation. At the same time, the newly-divorced Bennell resumes his romance with high-school sweetheart Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), who spent five years abroad with her husband before getting a divorce of her own. This is charmingly referred to as "spending time in Reno."
Bennell: I guess that makes us lodge brothers now - except that I'm paying dues and you're collecting them.
"I'm just calling the fire department
in case your hotness sets the
place on fire. Mrrrrrow."
Bennell and his gal do their best to ignore the warning signs of a danger too incredible to be real, but physical and emotional evidence builds to a tipping point. The small-town paradise becomes increasingly sinister until Miles and Becky discover the truth: the people of the town are being replaced by alien duplicates that hatch from giant seed pods, assume human form, and then soak up the minds of the people they replace while the unfortunate humans slumber nearby. As the number of authentic humans in town dwindles, Miles and Becky desperately look for a way out of Santa Mira to warn the rest of the world without becoming alien infectees (later known in popular culture as "pod people") themselves.
Next on Iron Chef.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers does its voodoo by exploiting two basic emotional concepts: first, the instinctual certainty that we can detect the emotional and spiritual truths of those closest to us even when they deceive us on an intellectual level; second, the frightening feeling of helplessness that arises when your entire environment conspires against you. The combination of the two feelings displayed most distressingly when a young boy is convinced that a stranger is impersonating his mother empowers this movie like few others. The picturesque "normalcy" of small-town life in the '50s (beguilingly embodied in the person of Dana Wynter, whose shoulder-baring wardrobe is too often overlooked by other critics) provides stark contrast for the fantastic scenes that unfold in humble places like greenhouses and root cellars. Many a zombie flick director would do well to study the art of setting a scene of everyday life before jumping headlong into the bizarre.
He really hates hay.
In many ways this story is only plausible in a setting of (relatively) primitive technology were such an invasion to be staged today, the "hysteria victims" would form online support groups and upload phonecam pictures of seed pods to their web pages. The invaders would have more work to do than to simply recruit a few cops and a telephone operator to effectively isolate a small town as they do here. Were they able to do so, however, the feelings of helplessness would be even more severe.
Life before home video.
Further selling this story is some first-rate dialogue (much of it lifted from the original novel, which was originally published as a serial in Colliers magazine), convincing effects, and a remarkable score. Its strongest asset, however, is one of the tightest story structures of any "Golden Age" science fiction film. At eighty minutes it is hardly the shortest of features, especially during a time when pictures were intentionally made shorter to fit more easily into double-feature screenings. Its economy of scene, however, is practically unbeatable. Nary a shot is wasted, nor line of dialogue uttered that doesn't advance the plot or reveal layers of character that will serve the story later. Amusing banter between the reunited couple serves to entertain the audience, certainly, but also provides the foundation for later surprise when events conspire to separate them. Even the famous wraparound sequence, which was added when test audiences found the original ending too depressing, is a model of Spartan storytelling. One might be tempted to call the screenplay nearly perfect . . .
. . . except for the gaping plot hole, through which one could speedily drive a Mack truck loaded down with giant alien seed pods. Near the film's end, a pod person switcharoo occurs that clearly violates everything we've learned about how the body snatching process takes place. It's a glaring (and now famous) error that completely blows the film's effectiveness for people who insist on air-tight stories.
"If you don't eat it now, it will
be on your plate at breakfast."
The only other misstep is a prologue/epilogue structure that was imposed on the film by the studio, prompted by test audiences who found the original ending to be too depressing. In the prologue we see Bennell at a hospital telling his story to two doctors, one played by Mel from "The Dick Van Dyke Show." (That same show later parodied the film in an episode called "It May Look Like a Walnut!") In the epilogue, which commences after the shocking scene of Bennell ineffectively trying to warn passing motorists about the pods, the doctors have all but consigned Bennell to the deepest, darkest padded cell they can find when they get news that the truck and the bus have had a collision and giant seed pods litter the highway. His story verified beyond a shadow of doubt, the movie ends with Bennell heaving a much-deserved sigh of relief. Though there have been rumors of the release of a home video version in which the wraparound is excised, director Don Siegel dismisses the idea citing such versions as existing only "underground."
The next time Invasion of the Body Snatchers comes up in conversation (and we're sure you're the kind of person who has conversations about b-movies all the time), someone will likely try to dominate the discussion by mentioning the film's supposed messages about communism and conformity. Gently but firmly assert your authority with a bit of trivia mentioning that Carolyn Jones (aka Morticia Addams of The Addams Family) had small roles in both Body Snatchers and The Man Who Knew Too Much in the same year should do the trick and then mention that such notions were largely read into the film by critics after the fact. If it's social commentary you want, however, look no further than the 1978 remake with Donald Sutherland. Along with permed hair and bell-bottomed pants, it has subtextual messages to spare.