Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Celluloid Zeroes Proudly Present: The Political-Science Fiction Roundtable :: Who Do You Trust in Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Cutting short his stay at a medical conference, Dr. Miles Bennell (McCarthy) heads back to the sleepy southern California town of Santa Mira, where his practice has been so suddenly inundated with insistently frantic patients his nurse, Sally Withers (Wiles), was forced to call him home early. But when Bennell checks in he’s told almost all of those patients have since cancelled their appointments. This sacrifice wasn’t a total loss, however, when one of those appointments that bothers to show up turns out to be Becky Driscoll (Wynter), Bennell’s old high school sweetheart. And as the flickering flame of romance quickly rekindles between these two, Becky reveals she’s come for some advice about her cousin, Wilma (Christine). Seems she’s become convinced their Uncle Ira, isn’t really her uncle any more.

Now, this man, this Ira, may look like Ira, he may sound like Ira, and he sure does act like Ira, but Wilma cannot be convinced otherwise: there’s just something off about him, she insists; and so, whoever that is it definitely is NOT her uncle. And since this is out of his bailiwick, all Bennell can do is refer Wilma on to see a psychiatrist friend of his, a Dr. Dan Kauffman (Gates). And that would seem to be the end of that, except Bennell’s next patient is a hysterical young boy, who is also convinced his mother isn’t his real mom anymore and fears he’s going to be “gotten” and replaced, too. But replaced by what? That, the child cannot answer but his fear is palpable.

Brought in by his concerned grandmother, and thinking he’s got a burgeoning case of mass-psychosis on his hands, Bennell consults with Kauffman, who confirms he has been swamped with similar cases as Santa Mira has been seemingly overrun with paranoid folks claiming someone close to them has been replaced with an insidious doppelganger. Convinced by Kauffman this delusional neurosis is nothing to worry about and will eventually play itself out, Bennell suggests the boy spend the night with the grandmother. And if the hysterics continue, they will contact his parents and look into it further tomorrow.

As for that night, Dr. Bennell has got himself a date with Becky. Both are surprised to find the most popular nightclub in town nearly empty, the owner saying business has gotten so bad lately he’s had to let the house band go. But they only get as far as ordering drinks before Bennell gets a message from his answering service, relaying that another close friend needs an urgent house call. And so, the couple head to the home of Jack and Theodora “Teddy” Belichick (Donovan, Jones), where they are led into the basement and presented with a startling sight: a dead body laid out on the pool table.

Well, at least it appears to be a body as on closer examination the corpse is more like a featureless template of a man -- it even lacks fingerprints. However, it being a small town and all and full of free-flowing gossip, they’re all fully aware of the epidemic of alleged duplicates, which is why Teddy is convinced by the general build this “thing” was meant to replace her husband.

So now they have definitive proof that something screwy is going on, and Bennell concludes this unsettling interlude by telling the Belicheck’s to keep an eye on the body while he takes Becky home with a promise to bring the authorities back in the morning. But things get even more sinister long before the sun rises as the frantic Belichek's rush into Bennell's house, saying the blank changed while they were asleep and is now a perfect duplicate of him -- right down to the sustained cut on his hand, suffered AFTER they had initially discovered the body! (Love that bit when its eyes open.) And then something hits Bennell right in the gut. Something Becky had said when he dropped her off, how her father hadn’t been himself lately either.

And so, he hustles over to the Driscoll house and checks the cellar, where her father has been spending odd hours doing secretive things, and sure enough, he finds a near exact duplicate of Becky! But by the time they call in the authorities, including Dr. Kauffman, both bodies have mysteriously disappeared. And with no concrete evidence, the police quickly write them off and Dr. Kauffman once more calmly and coolly and logically convinces them they’re all suffering from some kind of mass hysteria or auto-suggestion; there were no bodies, he says, they only imagined it; and this notion that the entire town is being invaded, replicated and repopulated by a horde of cold and emotionless automatons just isn’t possible. Only they aren’t imagining it, the town really is being invaded and replaced by duplicates, with no way out, with no way of knowing who to trust, and with no way to tell who’s been converted to the other side and who hasn’t...

When film critics and historians talk about the allegorical Red Scares and the Horrors of Communism of 1950s era science fiction films, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is usually Exhibit A. Based on a story by Jack Finney that first saw print as a three part serial in Collier’s Magazine, which ran from November through December in 1954 as The Body Snatchers, producer Walter Wanger was so impressed he began negotiations for the movie rights after only reading part one.

And while the film itself can be interpreted or dissected on many allegorical levels, with some calling the vegetative assimilation plot acutely anti-Communist, while others see it as a not so thinly veiled poke in the eye at Red-baiting McCarthyism in general -- hell, there’s even an argument to be made the film is pro-McCarthy as their really was something under the bed in the cellar all along, making the resulting hysteria and finger-pointing of our protagonists justified, this was apparently not the intention of the original author, the film’s producer, the director, or the adapting screenwriter, who all intended it as a pure thriller and nothing else. And though I find that hard to buy, let us sift through the evidence.

Alien invaders who assimilate and infiltrate was nothing new in the 1950s. In It Came from Outer Space (1953) the xenomorphs were just hiding in plain sight; in Invaders from Mars (1953) the Martians were infiltrating their way to world conquest; but as written Invasion of the Body Snatchers was less about insidious motives and more about happenstance and collateral damage as the Earth fell victim to the natural order of an alien spore’s life-cycle, which blew from planet to planet on cosmic winds, assimilating planetary ecosystems until they were dry (a five year cycle) and then the plant-people seed-out and die, leaving both a dead world behind and their expunged spore to find the next host world to latch onto.

Here, these parasitic vegetables mimic their human hosts while they sleep, absorbing memories and character traits. Once the cycle is complete, the host body disintegrates, leaving the duplicate to take over without the need for emotions or individuality. And I think that’s one of the main points Finney tries to get across: humankind’s penchant for callously using up resources, wiping out indigenous populations and destroying the planet with nary a second thought. We are them, and they are us.

There’s also plenty of non-political metaphors at work like the obvious fight to hold onto one’s humanity. And as the 1950s progressed, before Rock ‘n' Roll knocked it on its ass, America was drinking the Kool-Aid of push-button technology and cultural homogenization, with everything pre-fab and cookie-cutter neat, resulting in a definite loss of self -- or as the psychologist says in the film when he makes his pitch to let go, give in, and "abdicate from human responsibility in an increasingly complex and confusing modern world."

At least that’s what director Siegel claims he latched onto, saying, “People are pods. Many of my associates are certainly pods. They have no feelings. They exist, breathe, sleep … It just happens to leave you in a very dull world but that, by the way, is the world that most of us live in. It's the same as people who welcome going into the army or prison. There's regimentation, a lack of having to make up your mind, face decisions. People are becoming vegetables. I don't know what the answer is except an awareness of it. That's what makes a picture like Invasion of the Body Snatchers important."

Siegel also stated the political inferences to Senator McCarthy’s witch-hunt and totalitarianism were inescapable but he tried not to emphasize this, not wanting to get too preachy. In fact, the director had intentionally added a lot of humor to help defuse some of the film’s heavier elements and scares. “I felt that pods growing into a likeness of a person would strike the characters as preposterous,” Siegel said. “I wanted to play it that way, with the characters not taking the threat seriously."

However, the brass at Allied Artists were not amused, laying down an edict that there was no room for humor in a horror film and axed all the comedy bits out. (Though I do find the pod props themselves rather comical -- that is until they start to hatch.) I do find it interesting that the last two surviving humans in Santa Mira are the two recent divorcees, whose previous marriages were both train-wrecks, and what little humor remains in the film is their all too brief courtship, punctuated by their passionate kisses that would come into play again during the harrowing climax.

From the beginning of the film, the viewer gets a sense something’s not quite right in Santa Mira with plenty of hints and clues that said the invasion wasn’t coming but already here and, in a sense, the war was already lost. And as all of those who insisted someone had been replaced keep happily recanting, Bennell can’t seem to quite put it all together -- at least in time to do anything about it.

For as a cookout with him, Becky, Jack, and Teddy is ruined by the gruesome discovery of four half-gestated pods hatching out in a nearby greenhouse, all attempts to contact the authorities outside the city limits are thwarted by the Snatchers, whatever they may be. And after disposing of the duplicates with a pitchfork, Bennell and Becky stay behind as bait, hoping to give their friends the distraction they need to flee Santa Mira and bring back help.

But the Belichick's never make it and are turned, leaving only Bennell and Becky. (The scene where he checks in on nurse Sally, only to see she’s turned and is putting a pod in her toddler’s playpen, saying there will be no more tears, will send chills up your spine.) Then, through pluck and some luck, the couple manage to make out of the city limits and take refuge in an abandoned mine, where they must hide until the pursuing army of pod people move on. 

At this point, Dexedrine boosters or not, the lack of sleep is definitely catching up with our two heroes. And when they hear some music, thinking there might be someone else left, Miles leaves Becky behind to investigate. He traces the music to an arriving truck at a massive greenhouse that is surrounded by even more trucks -- trucks ready to transport more pods to the surrounding communities. And when the driver disappears, so does the music.

Knowing their only chance to stop this invasion is to make it to the main highway on foot and then Los Angeles, Miles heads back to the mine to collect an exhausted Becky, who appears to be on the verge of falling asleep. Working quickly, Miles grabs her and tries to bring her around with the kiss heard round the world, which proves Becky wasn’t about to fall asleep but new Becky was just waking up.

All alone, a frantic and distraught Miles once more evades capture and makes it to the highway, where he bounces from car to car like a lunatic, desperately trying to warn the other passing motorists of what is happening and who will be next to seemingly deaf ears!

In Finney’s novel the invading aliens are beaten back, with Bennell and friends leading the charge, burning greenhouses full of pods, which convince the Snatchers to bug-out early and look for less resistant and belligerent hosts elsewhere. In the original cut of the film, Siegel ended it right there on the highway, with Bennell seeing several trucks full of pods heading to parts unknown, with his desperate, maniacal pleas for help ignored completely until he breaks down the fourth wall and impeaches the audience, saying we will be the next to go. Here, the studio stepped in again after a couple of disastrous early screenings and demanded a new wraparound segment to lighten things up a bit, where Bennell is able to convince the authorities of what is happening, who make moves to stop the invasion. No guarantee of victory, mind you, but a little more optimistic.

Siegel and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring were more satisfied by the pessimistic ending and felt the film was nearly ruined by all of Allied Artists’ dickering. Wanger was also very much against the changes, but in order to protect the film he managed to convince both men to write and shoot the new prologue and epilogue -- because if they didn’t do it, the studio probably would have found someone else who would.

With the shooting title of The Body Snatchers the film was shot in-and-around Sierra Madre, California, over the course of 23 days with a budget of $350,000. Not wanting any confusion between their film and the old Val Lewton thriller, The Body Snatcher (1945), the studio tried They Came from Another World but that didn’t stick. Siegel suggested they change the title to Sleep No More or Better Off Dead but the studio finally went with the more exploitable Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Originally, Wanger wanted more bankable stars, too, eyeballing the likes of Dick Powell, Joseph Cotten, Donna Reed and Vera Miles for the romantic leads but a last minute budget cut meant the roles went to two relative newcomers, Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, who kind of come off as Rob and Lora Petrie, adding even more frisson to my eyes. (Sharp eyes will also spot future director Sam Peckinpah as a meter-reader.)

And while the story itself holds up remarkably well, it’s the work of Siegel and cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks that really gives this film its lasting legs. Shot with a solid noir flare and a claustrophobic mentality, with stark lighting, crazy quilt shadows and a constant sense of eternal blackness invading the screen, this movie hits the ground at a sprint and never really slows down, giving it a clipped, documentary type feel -- especially when you add Bennell’s constant narration, which makes the film come off as one of those anti-Communist docudramas of the same era. (The constantly sounding sirens and the meeting in town square to organize the spread of pods is right out of Red Nightmare.) And all the while they impend the dread and ratchet-up the paranoia and tension, with startling bursts of creepy, eerie, and the brazenly bizarre. (The scene where the prongs of the pitchfork hovers and lingers over the newborn pods is just downright disturbing.) And with no humorous reprieve or outlet, having been axed out, there is no room to catch a breath.

As Michael Dodd of The Missing Slate put it so beautifully: “[The film is] one of the most multifaceted horror films ever made … simultaneously exploiting the contemporary fear of infiltration by undesirable elements as well as a burgeoning concern over homeland totalitarianism in the wake of Senator Joseph McCarthy's notorious Communist witch hunt, it may be the clearest window into the American psyche that horror cinema has ever provided.” 

You never really know how precious your humanity is until you have to fight to keep it, says this movie. And 2016 marks the 60th anniversary of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and lo these many decades later the film still resonates and the main reason why is because those damnable pods and the resulting dehumanization are so open to drawing infinite parallels and multiple interpretations, be it political, zealot or heathen, making it timeless and ever relevant. I mean, just sub in Libtard or Republikant for Commies and Commie-Baiters and there ya go and here we are. 

That’s right, We were next all along.

This post is part of The Celluloid Zeroes' Political-Science Fiction Roundtable, where you, me, all of us try to survive the crucible of this dastardly election day. So please feel free to check out these other entries, please and thank you: Checkpoint Telstar takes a look at The Paralax View ::  Web of the Big Damned Spider gives A Report on the Party and Guests :: The Terrible Claw Reviews drops a bomb on Shin Godzilla :: Psychoplasmics gets caught up in The Mist.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Walter Wanger Productions :: Allied Artists / P: Walter Mirisch, Walter Wanger / D: Don Siegel / W: Daniel Mainwaring, Jack Finney (novel) / C: Ellsworth Fredericks / E: Robert S. Eisen / M: Carmen Dragon / S: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones, Jean Willes


Unknown said...

I absolutely love this movie. I first saw it at age 11, and have watched it myriad times since. It may well be a take on McCarthyism, but my 11 year old eyes, didn't see it that way, and I really don't see it that way 53 years later. I agree that the direction and cinematography are first rate, but I think you have to give the leads major kudos for their performances. Dana Wynter as Becky is absolutely gorgeous, and you can see why Miles so badly wants to save her. IMHO, Kevin McCarthy's work as Miles was Oscar worthy. A brilliant performance and a movie that should be watched by every generation. And yes, I am aware of the plot hole of having Becky transform without a nearby pod, but WTF, then we wouldn't have the best scene in the movie; "But I didn't know the meaning of fear until I had kissed Becky."

W.B. Kelso said...

The one thing I picked up on during this latest viewing is what exactly happened to Teddy. Her absence at the office later when Miles and Becky are caught got me to thinking that she killed herself before she could be turned. Jack's offhand comment and emotional detachment as to where she is speaks volumes, I think.

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