Kevin McCarthyDana WynterVirginia Christine
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Medium: film
Year: 1956
Director: Don Siegel
Writer: Jack Finney, Daniel Mainwaring
Keywords: horror, SF
Country: USA
Actor: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones, Jean Willes, Ralph Dumke, Virginia Christine, Tom Fadden, Kenneth Patterson, Guy Way, Eileen Stevens, Beatrice Maude
Format: 80 minutes
Series: Invasion of the Body Snatchers >>
Website category: Horror pre-1970
Review date: 3 August 2002
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a classic, simple as that. It's an allegory for either McCarthyism or Communism, depending on who you listen to, but more importantly it's a tour de force of paranoia and They're Out To Get Us. Based on a Jack Finney novel, it spawned two remakes - one in 1978 and another in 1993. For once the genteel, stage-like visuals of the fifties black-and-white era work in a horror movie's favour, adding another layer of sinister irony to the takeover of the evil Pod People. We could argue all night about which version of the story is the best, but everyone should see at least one of its incarnations.
But we all know that, so let's start the comparisons. I haven't seen Abel Ferrara's 1993 film (simply called Body Snatchers), but I've read the original novel and I own the 1978 version on DVD. Start digging and you'll find quite a few interesting differences.
Don Siegel's 1956 cast is pretty good. Kevin McCarthy is saturnine but urbane as our hero Dr Miles Bennell (he'd have made a good villain), and Dana Wynter is fine as his love interest Becky Driscoll. Dana's slightly less pretty than Brooke Adams in 1978, but a tight-fitting blouse thoughout the film's second half makes the most of her assets. They're quite distracting, actually. The romance between Miles and Becky is refreshing - instead of the film building it into a plot thread (with the inevitable arguments, disagreements, misunderstandings, etc.) we simply see two likeable people hanging out together and becoming increasingly drawn to each other. It's all rather civilised and I wish the movies would do more like this.
Larry Gates has Leonard Nimoy's psychiatrist role, but thankfully abbreviated. Don Siegel's 1956 original runs nearly half an hour shorter than Philip Kaufman's 1978 version and one of the things we're spared is endless scenes of our heroes trusting this guy who's obviously a Pod Person. Perhaps Kevin McCarthy's Bennell is smarter than Donald Sutherland's? Jack Belicec is played by a rat-faced middle-aged guy instead of Jeff Goldblum, but you can't have everything. Broadly speaking, the cast here does a fine job and loses nothing in comparison with the famous names of the 1978 remake.
The script is a little careless. Where do the pods come from? What happens to you during the process of replacement? After seeing lots of carefully-shot pod people in the second act (nude but with their naughty bits obscured by foam or discreet camera angles) the third act makes it seem more like mind-snatching than body-snatching. The duplicates think they're the same people they were before, but improved. When someone gets body-snatched, we've got no idea where the replacement sprang from (there's no pod in sight) or where the original body went. One senses that the script saw a chance for a nifty plot twist and jumped at it without worrying too much about the whys and wherefores. The 1978 remake clears up these plot points, but that's a pretty lame get-out for something made in 1956.
The ending is completely different to that of Finney's novel, though in fairness Finney's ending is pretty daft. The pod people spontaneously give up and go home, basically. I believe all three Body Snatchers movies have diverged from that and I can't say I'm greatly surprised. This 1956 ending hammers home the Communist allegory pretty strongly... or is it McCarthyite? Whatever. You could read it either way.
More important than all that, however, is how the story resonates with us. Any Invasion of the Body Snatchers story will try to spook you out on at least two levels: (a) the horror of seeing your friends being replaced by evil duplicates who know everything they knew but are dead inside, and (b) the paranoia of being surrounded by increasing numbers of these invaders without any way of knowing who's who. The original Jack Finney novel was set in a friendly small town, as was Don Siegel's adaptation. Kaufman's 1978 film hopped across to the big city, making the horror less personal but adding a new twist to the paranoia. In a city, almost everyone you meet is a stranger. How the hell could you know who's been taken over? And then Ferrara's 1993 film went the whole hog and set it on an Army base. Hell, they're practically pod people to start with! (Did anyone else see the recent news item about Delta Force operatives cracking under the strain and murdering their wives? Apparently it's becoming a minor epidemic.)
This film is the most faithful to Finney's original and gains a lot from keeping its small-town setting. There's a lot of dramatic mileage to be had from undermining an initial cosy familiarity. Though having said that, even this 1956 film doesn't do a particularly good job of capturing the existential horror of being replaced by a soulless duplicate. For a masterclass in that kind of skin-crawling ewwww, watch The Stepford Wives. This is far more a study in paranoia. Your friends have turned evil and they want to make you JUST LIKE THEM!
This is a genteel, well-mannered little black-and-white film from the fifties... which adds its own twist to the screaming paranoia that eventually bursts forth. Note the subtle foreshadowings like "business turned down and I had to let the band go". Unlike the later versions, it's nice. You'd happily live in this quaint fifties world with Dr Bennell and Becky Driscoll, but then the horror begins. Heh heh.