by Norm Nielsen
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is solidly in the social-commentary-horror-film sub-genre, a sub-genre that includes George Romero’s Living Dead series and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later among others. On casual viewing, the plot of director Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is basic 1950s low-budget horror film fare. Seeds flying around in outer space land on earth outside the fictional Southern California small town of Santa Mira, take root, and produce large pods that take over victim’s bodies as they sleep, assuming the victim’s exact likenesses, memory, and most mannerisms. Local physician Dr. Miles Binnell (Kevin McCarthy) gradually becomes aware that people he routinely sees and socializes with are simply “not themselves.” Miles comes to realize that previously peaceful Santa Mira is being taken over by an alien force, doppelgängers who resemble their earthly counterparts in almost every way, save for a lack of human emotion.
Miles and his love interest Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) witness pods transforming into likenesses of themselves and friends and frantically try to alert county and state authorities to the danger. However, the two are thwarted by the “pod people” who want the invasion to advance unimpeded until everyone is transformed. Pursued by dozens of “pod people” Miles and Becky escape to the hills above Santa, but Becky falls asleep and becomes a “pod person.” Becky turns against Miles who then runs to a nearby highway in a panicked frenzy where he tries to alert people of the invasion by screaming “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next!” Here is where Don Siegel wanted Invasion of the Body Snatchers to end, but executives at Allied Artist Pictures forced additional shooting to create a more hopeful ending which I won’t reveal.
Don Siegel claimed that he made Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a straight-ahead science fiction horror film, but it is nearly impossible to view the film as not being an allegorical tale of the paranoia and social conformity endemic to 1950s America. Enhancing the paranoid horror of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the use of many film noir conventions to raise the tension. Ellsworth Fredericks’ stark black-and-white photography, dimly lit scenes, and night-for-night cinematography darkens the plot to add another layer of fear and confusion to the paranoia. Carmen Dragon’s musical score uses tense, eerie, and unexpected atonal piano chords to up the tension. Daniel Mainwaring (the screenwriter of arguably the greatest film noir ever, Out of the Past) wrote the screenplay which includes voice over narration. Adding to the tension is the very primal and simple element of sleep. Normally sleep is a rest and an escape, but in this film it is the instrument of destruction. Invasion of the Body Snatchers fosters multi-level dread.
The horror of the movie is in its commonplace small town reality. Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ timeless appeal lies in the fact that every generation and culture can see its own vices, flaws, and follies in the sickness and hysteria that plague Santa Mira. The film’s narrative is constructed so that virtually every component of the plot can be interpreted as symbolic. No social, cultural, or political dilemma from the 1950s was spared. Although Siegel often challenged abstract interpretations of the film, it is difficult not to see Santa Mira’s “group think” as representing the Red Scare fears of Communist beliefs and the subsequent hysteria these beliefs produced as symbolizing McCarthyism. The film also can be read as an indictment of the conservative, conformist culture of the 1950s; the general fears of death stirred by the atomic bomb; the fear of science and its many discoveries; the American government; consumer culture; and the dawning age of space travel. Throughout the film, Miles offers mini-soliloquies addressing many traditional, nationalistic beliefs about these topics.
Shot in only 23 days at a cost of roughly $420,000, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the great B-movie cult classics. In 1994 the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The film has fascinated Hollywood insiders long enough to warrant three remakes. The first, of the same title, was released in 1978 featuring Donald Sutherland; Abel Ferrara directed the second, released in 1993 and titled Body Snatchers. And finally, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s The Invasion released in 2007.
No film captures the anxieties of 1950s America better than Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The film is a product of its time, yet timeless with its theme of the loss of individuality due to the pressures of societal conformity.
Norm Nielsen is a Scarecrow Project member and volunteer.