Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Directed by Don Siegel

Cinematography by

Ellsworth Fredericks director of photography

Filmed entirely in southern California, Invasion is set in a sleepy nondescript California town. The Eisenhower-era commiesploitation film noir focuses on the fear of depersonalization and the claustrophobic constraints of conformity.

The story depicts an extraterrestrial invasion that begins in the fictional California town of Santa Mira. Alien plant spores have fallen from space and grown into large seed pods, each one capable of reproducing a duplicate replacement copy of each human. As each pod reaches full development, it assimilates the physical characteristics, memories, and personalities of each sleeping person placed near it; these duplicates, however, are devoid of all human emotion. Little by little, a local doctor uncovers this “quiet” invasion and attempts to stop it.

The slang expression “pod people” that arose in late 20th century American culture references the emotionless duplicates seen in the film.

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Post-production

The project was originally named The Body Snatchers after the Finney serial. However, Wanger wanted to avoid confusion with the 1945 Val Lewton film The Body Snatcher. The producer was unable to come up with a title and accepted the studio’s choice, They Come from Another World and that was assigned in summer 1955. Siegel objected to this title and suggested two alternatives, Better Off Dead and Sleep No More, while Wanger offered Evil in the Night and World in Danger. None of these were chosen, and the studio settled on Invasion of the Body Snatchers in late 1955. The film was released at the time in France under the mistranslated title “L’invasion des profanateurs de sépultures” (literally: Invasion of the defilers of tombs), which remains unchanged today.

Wanger wanted to add a variety of speeches and prefaces. He suggested a voice-over introduction for Miles.While the film was being shot, Wanger tried to get permission in England to use a Winston Churchill quotation as a preface to the film. The producer sought out Orson Welles to voice the preface and a trailer for the film. He wrote speeches for Welles’ opening on June 15, 1955, and worked to persuade Welles to do it, but was unsuccessful. Wanger considered science fiction author Ray Bradbury instead, but this did not happen, either. Mainwaring eventually wrote the voice-over narration himself.

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The studio scheduled three film previews on the last days of June and the first day of July 1955. According to Wanger’s memos at the time, the previews were successful. Later reports by Mainwaring and Siegel, however, contradict this, claiming that audiences could not follow the film and laughed in the wrong places. In response the studio removed much of the film’s humor, “humanity” and “quality,” according to Wanger. He scheduled another preview in mid-August that also did not go well. In later interviews Siegel pointed out that it was studio policy not to mix humor with horror.

Wanger saw the final cut in December 1955 and protested the use of the Superscope aspect ratio.Its use had been included in early plans for the film, but the first print was not made until December. Wanger felt that the film lost sharpness and detail. Siegel originally shot Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Superscope was a post-production laboratory process designed to create an anamorphic print from non-anamorphic source material that would be projected at an aspect ratio of 2.00:1.

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Theatrical release

When the film was released domestically in February 1956, many theaters displayed several pods made of papier-mâché in theater lobbies and entrances, along with large lifelike black and white cutouts of McCarthy and Wynter running away from a crowd. The film made more than $1 million in the first month, and in 1956 alone made more than $2.5 million in the U.S. When the British release (with cuts imposed by the British censors) took place in late 1956, the film earned more than a half million dollars in ticket sales.

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Critical reception

Largely ignored by critics on its initial run, Filmsite.org ranked Invasion of the Body Snatchers as one of the best films of 1956. The film holds a 98% approval rating and 9/10 rating at the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes. The site’s consensus reads: “One of the best political allegories of the 1950s, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an efficient, chilling blend of sci-fi and horror.”

In recent years critics such as Dan Druker of the Chicago Reader have called the film a “genuine Sci-Fi classic”. Leonard Maltin described Invasion of the Body Snatchers as “influential, and still very scary”. Time Out called the film one of the “most resonant” and “one of the simplest” of the genre

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The better one

This was the first part of a double bill with Phil Kaufman’s remake as the follow-up. I’ll say that Siegel is ten times the action director that Kaufman could ever dream of being, that the original Body Snatchers has a cool, thoughtful tone that makes the shock scenes even better. The remake, even though in color and with a bigger budget, is so nervous, so lacking in pace and mood, that your impulse is often to laugh instead of sinking deeper into your seat.

Take just one scene: Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter are barricaded in his office, trying to stay awake. Morning comes, and the weirdness begins; people shuffle towards the square to pick up their packages, the leaders calling out the districts. Now in daylight the suspense is made more potent, the threat to humans seems greater. Kaufman does this scene at night, losing the mundane horror that Siegel evokes so well. The studio imposed the flashback structure, having McCarthy brought in to talk to a therapist at the beginning and end of the picture. That’s the only weakness in the story.

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Excellent genre film with intellectual subtexts

9/10
Author: Brandt Sponseller from New York City
1 February 2005

Dr. Miles J. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is called back to his small California home early from a conference because a number of his patients have been frantically asking to see him. But oddly, when he returns home, most forget about their unspecified needs. At the same time, it seems that a mass hysteria is building where residents believe that friends and loved ones are “not themselves”, literally. Just what is going on? As of this writing, it has been more than twenty years since I have seen the 1978 remake of this film, so I can’t compare the two at the moment. However, it would have to be flawless to top this, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The sole factor that caused me to give the film less than a ten was the pacing during portions of the first half hour or so. While it’s not bad, exactly, director Don Siegel does not build atmosphere and tension as effectively as he might have while the viewer is being filled in on the necessary exposition. Admittedly, this section is directed in a standard way for its era, but “standard” here is enough to subtract a point.

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However, once we reach Miles’ friend Jack Belicec (King Donovan) discovering a body on his billiard table, the suspense and tension gradually increase, and the remainder of the film is a very solid ten.

The literal “weapon” of the film’s horror could have easily come across as cheesy, but it doesn’t. Don Post and Milt Rice’s special make-up effects and props are threateningly eerie. The transformation sequences involving the props are beautifully shot and edited–showing just enough to make them effective, but not so much that the mystery is gone.

It was ingenious to create a story where a whole town gradually turns into a villain, and even natural, unavoidable biological functions threaten our heroes’ destruction. In conjunction, it all creates an intense sense of claustrophobia and paranoia for the audience.

McCarthy and Dana Wynter, as Miles’ girlfriend Becky Driscoll, expertly convey a gradual transformation from common citizens to panic-stricken, desperate victims on the run. The film is also notable for slightly ahead-of-its time portrayals of relationships and divorce.

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Much has been said about the parallels between Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the “communist paranoia” in the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s, especially as it was directed against Hollywood by the House of Un-American Activities Committee. (And how ironic that the star of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is named McCarthy?) However, there is another very interesting subtext present that isn’t so often mentioned. The film can also be looked at as a philosophical exploration of personal identity. Just what does it take for people to be themselves? Is it how they look, act, the things they say? Is it not the case that people are constantly transformed into something they weren’t just hours ago, or even moments ago? Among the many ways that these kinds of ideas are worked into the script is that sleep is a metaphor for unconscious physical change over time. It would be easy to analyze each scene in the film in this manner, going into detail about the various implications each plot development has on the matter of personal identity.

Despite the slight pacing/atmosphere flaw in the beginning, this is a gem of a film, not just for sci-fi and horror fans, and not just for its era. It’s worth seeing by anyone with a serious interest in film, and can be enjoyed either on its suspenseful surface level, or more in-depth by those who want to look at the film as more metaphorical material for societal and philosophical concerns.

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