Outstanding. It gets compared a lot to Invasion of the Body Snatchers
from two years earlier, but personally I'd have a tough time saying which of the two was better. They're essentially the same story, but going they're taking different slants on it. The Don Siegel film is scarier and more iconic, but this one finds new and arguably richer emotional notes and does something startling in humanising its aliens.
The reason it gets denigrated, of course, is the trashy title. Me, I loved that too.
The story is about a marriage going wrong. That's the emotional meat of it, underneath the SF trappings of alien abduction. We begin with a group of men in a bar, ignoring girls. The girls are miffed, but the reason for this odd-looking behaviour is a down-to-earth one... the men are spoken for. As one says, they're all married or in imminent danger of becoming so. Tom Tryon is going to marry Gloria Talbott tomorrow, so he ducks out early while everyone else is still downing the amber fluid and heads off to see her.
At this stage, the film's comparing marriage with the alternatives. One of Tryon's pals has a jaundiced view of marital bliss, while outside is a couple snogging in a car.
However the film's about to take a screeching right turn as Tryon meets Swamp Thing, or at any rate something that looks very like him except glowing and with tentacles. A nifty billowing smoke effect eats the original human Tryon, whereupon a substitute Tryon steps into his life and marries Talbott the next day.
This creeped me out. The appalling thing is that Talbott's so happy. It's her wedding day! She loves her husband. Tryon though has become an intense, tightly wound stranger with creepy eyes and an unconvincing half-smile. It's painful to see her waking up to this reality, since she immediately knows something's wrong but still wants to do everything she can to make it work. She buys him an anniversary present. We watch her happiness dying in baby steps... and for a little additional background, in real life Tom Tryon was gay. He'd got married a few years earlier, but this was the year he divorced and from then on it was men all the way. So in other words, this is a horror movie from a female perspective in which the monster is a husband who's turned into a emotionally disinterested stranger and has no interest in the so-called love of his life except as a means of producing offspring.
This is strong fare, especially for 1958. Even for many women today that's a documentary, not science-fiction. It's also far more intimate and emotionally rich than Invasion of the Body Snatchers
, though I love that too.
So already it's a strong film. What comes next raises it to another level, though. You see, these aren't just pod people. The aliens have personalities of their own, which furthermore are going to get warped by their human host forms. They act more like gangsters than spacemen, with an uncomfortably direct approach to problems that's liable to involve hammers, guns and strangulation. "Did you make many mistakes at first?" Tom Tryon in particular makes a wonderful alien... he's thin and chiselled, with an angular face and dark, intense eyes. The horror doesn't lie in the original Tryon having been taken away, as in Body Snatchers, but instead in the fact that Talbott's married to his sinister, twitchy replacement.
...and then Tryon changes. Just as Talbott finds out the truth and turns into an ice maiden, he starts getting the hang of humanity. Thus, ironically, he reaps what he's sown. Suddenly it's the terrified Talbott who's turned into an ice queen and it's Tryon who's being left out in the cold, as we find ourselves unexpectedly finding sympathy with the alien body-snatching killers. I loved this development. As a portrait of a marriage in a death spiral, it almost scared me. After all, it takes two to marry and both sides will feel the pain when a relationship turns bad, no matter where the original fault lay. After all, in the most fundamental way, Tryon doesn't understand himself. He's an alien in a man's body! It took him time to begin to understand humanity and he won't even have realised that he was being scary and aggressive.
Besides, the aliens arguably aren't even wicked. They've got a gold-plated justification for their actions (preventing racial extinction) and by the end, they've almost found nobility. The film's still clearly on the side of the humans (especially Talbott), but I'd never expected this much thematic richness and moral ambiguity.
The acting is mostly fine. Tryon is laughably bad in his reaction shot on meeting Swamp Thing, but he's perfect as the alien. Talbott does well. For what it's worth, she was a scream queen, with her other films of this era including The Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957) and The Cyclops (1957). Meanwhile Tryon ended up ditching a perfectly respectable acting career to become an equally respected novelist.
I really liked this one. It's not just "better than expected for its era" but actually, genuinely good. It's in black-and-white (yay!), the special effects are effective and there are some creepy directorial touches (e.g. the insect crawling over Mindless Tryon). These might also be the most convincingly written aliens of the entire 1950s, being neither rampaging evil nor idealised angels of perfection. On the contrary, they have rich inner lives and conflicts, plus an array of unexpected strengths and weaknesses (they don't touch alcohol and can't swim, but don't try punching or shooting them). The film omits a few plot details in the final act, e.g. why is Talbott so readily believed and what exactly was that human-identifying test they presumably came up with? However those I can live with. Overall this doesn't reach the paranoia levels of Invasion of the Body Snatchers
, but it's still no slouch in that department and it's got an entire additional movie's worth of themes and subtext all its own. Check it out.