Starring Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones, Jean Willes, Ralph Dumke, Virginia Christine, Tom Fadden, Kenneth Patterson
Directed by Don Siegel
Expectations: Very high.
I can’t believe it took me this long to finally see Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I think at some point in my youth I did see it, but I was since replaced by a pod-person version of myself, thus erasing the memory of seeing this monumental film. I feel like I’ve actively avoided seeing this film in the years following this proposed switch. Even the other day when I decided to watch it, I only reluctantly picked it because it was expiring from Netflix Instant on October 1st. Well, whatever made me fight the stringent conditioning of the pod-brain I only just realized I have… Thanks! All kidding aside, I guess it wasn’t high on my priority list because I already knew the basic plot from beginning to end. I thought it’d be kinda crusty, too, with slow moments and charming but ugly FX. Boy, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a straight-up barn burner, even now almost 60 years on. The pace never once lets up. The film opens with Dr. Miles J. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) raving and screaming like a lunatic, rocketing us out the barrel and into the frenzy of living in a world inhabited by body snatchers. The cops get him to calm down enough to tell his tale, so the movie does the little underwater shimmering thing that they do in 1950s movies and we’re back at the calm beginning of Bennell’s story.
I should probably say that I’m going to spoil the movie, so if you’ve somehow stayed virginal to the plot of this movie that has seeped deep into America’s cultural consciousness, you might want to think twice about reading and instead go watch the movie. In fact, even if you’ve already seen the movie your time would probably be better spent re-watching it! Zing! Take that, me!
Anyway, the story begins with Bennell returning to his hometown of Santa Mira from vacation or something. Within minutes of arriving, he’s told that there are many townspeople urgently seeking medical attention, so no, you can’t just go home and put your feet up! But when he gets to the office, they’ve all cancelled their appointments and are going about their business around town like nothing was ever the matter. Something is clearly up, but it’s not clear to Bennell until multiple people come to him and say that one of their loved ones isn’t the same person.
From here the tension and the paranoia continue to build until we finally circle back around to Bennell yelling in the police station. I should note that originally the film was not to have these bookending segments, and while I think they work great, the film would have also been a lot more daring and shocking had they not been there. Yet another example of how studio tinkering is dumb. Anyway, in between these framing scenes is a thrilling 1950s sci-fi horror film without equal. I’ve seen many good ones, a few great ones, but Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a perfect one. Even the FX work sucked me into the story and made me believe in it more, instead of taking me out of it as I had expected.
So here’s the spoilers: the body snatchers are seed spores from space that are able to replicate any form of life. In the case of these Californian humans, the spores grow a human body template and when we’re sleeping they quietly suck our memories and our life away from us. It’s fucking awesome! And the best part is that we’re not just told about this sci-fi mumbo jumbo, we actually get to watch an entire seed hatching process. A frothy white mass cracks its way out of the huge seed pod and slowly bubbles and grows into a vaguely humanoid shape. I don’t know how FX men Milt Rice and Don Post did it, but it looked amazing! And the seed pods that get tossed around and handed off throughout the movie also look incredible. I’m not the kind of person that wants to own film props, but I would LOVE to own one of those seed pods. If for no other reason than to throw it in my trunk every so often while giving the neighbors suspicious-looking glances. Who says you can’t bring your love of 1950s paranoia to life?
Speaking of things that looked amazing, the B & W cinematography was so sumptuous that I wanted to slice it up and devour it. Thick shadows and juicy streams of light bathed the screen and made just about every shot look amazing. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is in a strange ratio — Super Scope’s 2:1 — and apparently it was actually framed with the idea that it would be projected at the standard ratio of 1.33:1, but despite these unusual circumstances the film still manages to look like a winner.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers sounds like a winner, too, with a fantastic score by Carmen Dragon (now that’s a name!). All too often I find classic film scores to be too overbearing or sappy, but the score here fits the mood perfectly. That’s not to say that it sounds especially different from a traditional ’50s score, but it does so without feeling dated (to me, anyway). I wouldn’t necessarily hunt for a soundtrack CD, but in terms of complimenting the visuals, Dragon’s score sings.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers easily takes a place as one of my favorite films of the ’50s, not just genre films but all films. While it may be lacking in things like character development, Invasion of the Body Snatchers entertains so fast and furious that you shouldn’t even notice. Not that it matters anyway! Who knew thinly veiled social commentary on the Red scare could be so much fun?