||When American author Jack Finney wrote a magazine serial entitled The Body Snatchers, he had no idea what he was starting, but the story's big idea, that people are being taken over by an alien presence which replaced their consciousness with an unfeeling, unemotional facsimile, has proven irresistible to filmmakers from the nineteen-fifties onwards. It is such a modern idea as we see apparently ordinary people fall victim to beliefs that, if not exactly robbing them of their humanity (though it's been known), can dominate their way of thinking to an extent that they seem like a different person, be that an adherence to conspiracy theories or a fundamentalist religion.
Not that the aliens of 1956's Invasion of the Body Snatchers were involved with any kind of crazed beliefs, they were all too measured in their reasons, which gave them the appearance of a polite, relentlessly insistent cult that will not take no for an answer to anyone who questions the sense of their way of life. If you can call it life, their obsession with propagating their strain of existence compared to any kind of political system that had no room for dissent, and were willing to enforce that with all the means at their disposal, which in the fifties for many audiences meant Communism. Though many involved denied this, some of the dialogue can't help but make you think McCarthy.
That's not Kevin McCarthy, the leading man who took the lead role of Dr Miles Bennell in the movie, it was Senator Joseph McCarthy, who saw such personal gain in building up the Communist threat in America that he was utterly focused on flushing out any insurgents, whether they were authentic threats, or, more often, were innocent people who just didn't happen to agree with him ideologically. This desperation to conform to an increasingly narrow frame of thought was not unlike what was happening in The Soviet Union and China, though any irony was lost on McCarthy and his supporters; by the time he was exposed as the political huckster he was, it was too late.
But back at Invasion of the Body Snatchers, is there any way of discerning what side it was on for definite? You could have asked those involved, except they were more often denying any politics were involved, they were simply creating a quick science fiction B movie, and had no real desire to promote left or right in the warp and weft of its plot. And yet, it seems so apt when you are watching it that it's difficult to view the film with innocent eyes, since its message, whether intended or not, does not merely appeal to the nonconformists among us, but to anyone who has felt alone in a crowd, as if the whole world has taken a wrong turn somewhere and they don't know what do.
The fantastical premise was chilling in its simplicity. At first, when Miles returns to the Californian smalltown of Santa Mira after some time away, he is amused at the sudden spate of citizens acting strangely - only they aver that it's other people who are acting strangely, there's nothing wrong with them, only, say, their mother, or uncle, or friends. They don't appear to be themselves anymore, despite all evidence to the contrary. Miles' psychiatrist friend Danny Kauffman (dedicated character actor Larry Gates in his finest role) assures him this is akin to a craze, a form of mass hysteria, where an idea is passed on between a community curiously like an infection, as we would now term a meme.
But after one night, Miles is not too sure, and he and his old sweetheart Becky Driscoll (Anglo-German star Dana Wynter, her accent explained by being away in Britain for a while) are called out to their friend Jack (King Donovan) and his increasingly panicky wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones, best known as Morticia on The Addams Family sitcom, here blonde and losing her cool) because they have made an unusual discovery. Laid out on the billiards table, it looks like a dead body of a man, but he has no real form to his features and - gasp! - no fingerprints, almost as if it is in the process of being created. Which it is, of course, as we quickly find out the presence of large seed pods in the town, pods that crack open and birth blobs that hone themselves into replicas of those they wish to replace.
There has been some confusion about the precise nature of how they do this, does the original pod become the replacement or once it is perfected, does the pod person psychically take over their victims? In this telling it could be both, as we do see either method being implemented, but whichever, it makes for some of the most memorable scenes in all of fifties science fiction, the perfect film to encapsulate the paranoia of the day where conformity had turned into a religion, unlike in the twenty-first century where setting yourself against a real or imagined rival is the dominant mindset. But there is conformity in that too, and this is why Invasion of the Body Snatchers never feels dated in its subject, its fear is something palpable for it is something anyone can relate to, unless they believe they have never been wrong. That it was remade many times, and inspired variations, is testament to its power. Director Don Siegel did not stay with this genre, but his talent for thrillers is a strong reason the '56 movie continues to gather fans.
[The BFI release this on Blu-ray with a host of special features, as seen below:
Newly recorded audio commentary by filmmaker and film historian Jim Hemphill (2021)
50th anniversary commentary with stars Dana Wynter and Kevin McCarthy, and Gremlins director Joe Dante (2006)
John Player Lecture: Don Siegel (1973, 75 mins, audio only): Don Siegel looks over his career with Barry Norman
Sleep No More: Invasion of the Body Snatchers Revisited (2006, 27 mins): a look at Body Snatchers' production history. Includes clips from interviews with Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, John Landis, Mick Garris (Sleepwalkers), and science fiction historian Bob Burns
The Fear and the Fiction: The Body Snatchers Phenomenon (2006, 8 mins): considering the film's themes and critical interpretations
What's In a Name? (2006, 2 mins): a short video piece about the title of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and some of the changes that were made to get it right
Return to Santa Mira (2006, 13 mins): a look at the locations where key segments from Invasion of the Body Snatchers were shot
A selection of complementary archive films, with British propaganda short Doorstep to Communism (1948, 11 mins) and ground-breaking botanical cinematography in Magic Myxies (Mary Field , F Percy Smith, 1931, 11 mins) and Battle of the Plants (F Percy Smith, 1926, 11 mins)
Original theatrical trailer
Trailers From Hell: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (2013, 3 mins): Body Snatchers fan Joe Dante celebrates the film
**FIRST PRESSING ONLY** An illustrated 40 page booklet with new writing by Dr Deborah Allison, Charlie Bligh, and Katy McGahan, and an archive piece by J Hoberman.]