Gonna go back in tiiiiiiiiime!
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956)
Director: Don Siegel
Writer: Daniel Mainwaring, Jack Finney
Stars: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates
A small town doctor returns from a conference and meets an old flame of his, also recently returned from a long trip overseas. They both start witnessing that the townfolk aren’t what they used to be…
I’ll state this here and you don’t have to agree but The Body Snatchers is the number one most important movie in the entire history of horror cinema. The fact that I had only seen the 1978 remake (and others) before seeing the original is a an unforgivable oversight. There’s a reasoning behind this and it all boils down to Jack Finney’s novella “Body Snatchers”, which is also one of the most important pieces of sci-fi/horror literature we have today. Here’s why.
From 1950 to 1956, the United States saw their second red scare, with Joseph McCarthy going through every talent in Hollywood and other “left-wing” branches of entertainment, to find communists. Americans were scared that their neighbors could be Commie bastards. The government made damn sure to force everyone to tell on everyone else and report anything different, anything “pinko-communist”. Five years after celebrating the might of American power as a united front against the Axis of Evil in World War 2, you had John Q afraid of everyone around him. Naturally, writers and screenwriters wanted to show how scary the idea was, to live in a world where everyone can turn on you for being different, at the drop of a hat. Naturally, in order to not be persecuted for it, they had to disguise their work.
We ended up with works like Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters and Jack Finney’s Body Snatchers. Works that replaced at times communists with aliens and at other times, McCarthyism “Patriots” as the aliens. One could say that Heinlein’s work is a right-wing view of the thing, with the military fighting “reds” aliens, while Snatchers is the same story seen from the “artsy, sentimental” left-wing being crushed by the unfeeling right-wing agenda. Either way, the sentiment of paranoia and loss of trust in your fellow men is something that, along other important works (such as The Day of the Triffids) inspired George A. Romero to write and make Night of the LIving Dead. It’s as simple as this. Without Invasion, there’s no Night. Without Night, there are no zombie movies. Invasion is that important.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is so important that it has been remade three times: In 1978 with Donald Sutherland, in 1993 with Gabrielle Anwar and in 2007 with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. You could even argue that movies like The Astronaut’s Wife and The Stepford Wives also heavily borrow from this story. And why not? It’s a perfect story: cynical but knowledgeable man who doesn’t believe in paranoid nonsense has to come to grips with the fact that dangerous things are taking over his town and that he might have discovered this too late. Moreso, everything he has grown to rely on is longer available and every person he depended on might now be his enemy and there is no clear way to know what is what anymore. Well, they found a way to find out in The Thing, the Carpenter remake of the 1951 movie The Thing from Another World; a remake borrowed more from Body Snatchers than the actual movie they were remaking. Though it could be argued that even in this situation, the solution didn’t help anyone in the long run.
But enough about why the movie is important. What you want to know is if the movie has aged well and more importantly, if it’s any good. And obviously, I wouldn’t be so detailed about this review if I hadn’t liked it. It is very good; I would even say it surpasses the 1978 remake but not by much. The fact that it was made in the 1950s makes it even more horrifying in my opinion! In the 1978 remake, we see a lot of cynicism, a lot of “anti-hero” qualities to Donald Sutherland’s character. The city is also darker, more with the times (which, in the seventies, weren’t doing too great). In the original, you see the story unfold in the squeaky clean fifties, with its fanatical optimism and bright picket fences. Knowing that behind these malt shop faces are aliens bent on domination makes it even scarier. Even if the movie ends on a positive note ― something the remakes don’t tend to do ― it’s still a considerably dark movie, a lot more serious than other sci-fi/horror pieces of the same decade. No wonder it’s gotten next to no hype when it came out and only gained popularity as years went by (and eventually generated over four times it’s budget in profits).
Audio quality is still good (depending on the copy you find; it was fine on Netflix). Acting is… well, it’s 50’s campy but good nonetheless. Locations and lighting are clear, something that was sometimes hard to achieve in the fifties. The only negative point I’d give the movie is how it doesn’t explain the transition between alien seed and replaced town folk. In the remakes, it’s assumed that the seed shapes itself as the form it’s trying to take over, then kills the original. In this version, you see seeds taking shape, so you assume for most of the movie that the same thing happens here. But later on, you see a replaced person and there’s absolutely no way that this person has been replaced by a pod (there were none around). The voice-over then states that this person is now a host to the alien parasites found in the seeds. Okay? Then why are the seeds taking the shape of humans, if they’re taking over the originals? That bit didn’t make much sense and the voice-over seemed like someone realized this and quickly tried to reason out why said person had been replaced.
Still, it’s a great movie and it definitely needs to be seen. Rare are the movie adaptations of such books in any way equal or superior to their source material (1994’s The Puppet Masters was so-so and 1962’s The Day of the Triffids was just horrible).
SPEAKING OF WHICH. I have early editions of both The Puppet Masters and The Day of the Triffids novels, from 1953 and 1951 respectively. I’ll be looking for an early edition of Jack Finney’s Body Snatchers. If you know anyone willing to part with one, let me know!
An easy four glasses of bourbon in every scene out of five.