Director: Don Siegel
Screenplay: Daniel Mainwaring, Richard Collins (uncredited)
Based on a Story by: Jack Finney
Starring: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones, Jean Willes
Running Time: 80 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
On its release in 1956, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers was just another programmer, made for not much money and screened as a double bill with The Atomic Man (or, in some markets, with Indestructible Man). It didn’t do particularly good business and received little attention from the critics, who likely saw it as another B-movie to pad out a night at the cinema. However, after finding another life on TV in later years, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers became somewhat of a landmark sci-fi movie that has been officially remade 3 times and unofficially borrowed from, referenced and homaged on numerous occasions.
It’s a film I used to have on VHS when I first got into watching classic movies as a teenager, so I’ve long thought highly of it. A lot of time has passed since I last saw the film though, so I jumped at the chance of checking out the BFI’s new Blu-ray release of the film, with a host of special features accompanying it. My thoughts on both the film and extras follow.
In case you’ve never seen Invasion of the Bodysnatchers or its numerous remakes, the film sees Kevin McCarthy play Dr. Miles J. Bennell, who arrives back in his hometown of Santa Mira after being away at a conference. At first, everything seems normal, then he starts to come across a spate of patients and neighbours who claim friends and family aren’t who they report to be, before promptly changing their mind a day or two later.
A local psychiatrist Dr. Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates) dismisses this as ‘mass hysteria’, but Miles, his recently-divorced old-flame Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) and their friends Jack (King Donovan) and Teddy (Carolyn Jones) soon discover a more unusual cause for the phenomenon.
It turns out people in the town are being replaced by ‘pod people’ in their sleep. Giant seed pods placed all over the area are able to create beings visually identical to people, with the same memories and voices. The difference though is that they have no emotions. The ‘pod people’ are bland, obedient, lifeless creatures that may look like our friends and neighbours but lack their humour, compassion and soul.
As the pod people rapidly spread, Miles and Becky must fight to stay human, but the odds are against them and surely they’ll have to sleep sometime.
Invasion of the Bodysnatchers has been remade so many times for good reason. Perhaps most notably, its theme is ripe for various interpretations. One of the most popular readings is that the film is a metaphor for the McCarthy witch hunts which had plagued Hollywood for several years at the time. However, watching it again for this review, I felt it seemed like a clearer metaphor for the threat of Communism, with its obedient masses silently infiltrating American society, as many believed was happening in the country.
Watching it now, you could also see it as a metaphor for COVID and other viruses, though obviously this wouldn’t have been the intention. Some have even said it was actually a film about insomnia, as the pods take you when you sleep, so our protagonists are forced to try to stay awake.
Jack Finney, who wrote the original serial, continued to tell anyone asking about any hidden meanings in the story that he wrote it ‘purely as a good read’ though. Interviews with Don Siegel and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring also suggest it wasn’t meant as either a right or left wing political statement. They saw it as a general comment on the blandness and conformity of modern life in America, attacking attitudes of the then-popular Madison Avenue-led advertising campaigns telling everyone what they should buy to be model citizens.
Being so open to interpretation, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a rich and intelligent film, despite its B-movie title and origins. This level of subtext is a common trait to many classic genre movies, helping Invasion hold its own in the pantheon.
Not only that, but the film is exceptionally well made too. Seigel was an experienced director for hire back then (and through much of his career) and usually did a great job, making streamlined, effective films, largely B-movies in his early days. He’d worked his way through the studio system too, at one time shooting and cutting montages for films in the 30s and 40s (including Casablanca) meaning he was proficient at making taut, no-nonsense films with great efficiency.
Invasion is no different, wasting little time throughout its 80 minutes. It’s incredibly tense throughout too, slowly building the mystery in the opening acts then amping up the paranoia to breaking point as the film moves on.
It gets very dark and bleak too, making it as much a horror film as a sci-fi. Actually, there’s not much science in it at all, so fantasy might be a better fit anyway. There’s more than a hint of noir to it too, with its paranoid and bleak nature, as well as some of the shadowy photography and naturalistic presentation.
The bleak side of the film is a little neutered by its bookends, which frame the bulk of the film as a story told by Miles to doctors who are trying to assess whether or not he’s ‘crazy’. It offers hope at the end of the film when originally Siegel intended to close it out with the famous “you’re next!” sequence. This certainly would have made for a more powerful and shocking finale, but unfortunately it proved too much for test audiences and the producers, the latter of whom made Siegel shoot the bookends, against his wishes. They also added a voiceover narration, which over-explains things somewhat.
Also, slightly marring the film are some clunky blocks of exposition that try to explain the unusual things that are happening on screen. To be fair, such an unusual situation needs some explanation, but it’s hard to believe how quickly the main characters draw that conclusion and take it as gospel.
These slightly awkward moments do little to dampen the film’s many qualities though. On top of its themes and ability to get under your skin, there are hints of humour, particularly in the sexual innuendos between McCarthy and Dana, who do a fantastic job as the central couple. Reportedly, there was more comedy in the film originally but the studios didn’t like it and asked them to tone it down in the edit. Though jokes might seem out of place in a horror/sci-fi, in the context of the narrative, it helps remind the audience of one of the sides of humanity that would be lost when becoming a pod-person.
Overall, though Siegel’s version of the Body Snatchers story has a couple of clunky moments, it’s a taut, gripping and still quite frightening film. Extra credit must also go to the film for being the first adaptation of Finney’s story. Even if it might not be the most polished of the various versions, it laid the groundwork for what was to come and still packs a punch.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is out on 25th October on Blu-Ray, released by the BFI. The transfer is decent but not immaculate. The contrast is a touch heavy for my liking, meaning some detail is lost in darker scenes. It looks a touch soft in places too and I think I may have spotted some slight edge enhancement in spots. These are minor issues though, as overall it looks good. The audio is solid too.
It has an extensive set of extra features on top of this:
– Newly recorded audio commentary by filmmaker and film historian Jim Hemphill (2021)
– 50th anniversary commentary with stars Dana Wynter and Kevin McCarthy, and Gremlins director Joe Dante (2006)
– John Player Lecture: Don Siegel (1973, 75 mins, audio only): Don Siegel looks over his career with Barry Norman
– Sleep No More: Invasion of the Body Snatchers Revisited (2006, 27 mins): a look at Body Snatchers’ production history. Includes clips from interviews with Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, John Landis, Mick Garris (Sleepwalkers), and science fiction historian Bob Burns
– The Fear and the Fiction: The Body Snatchers Phenomenon (2006, 8 mins): considering the film’s themes and critical interpretations
– What’s In a Name? (2006, 2 mins): a short video piece about the title of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and some of the changes that were made to get it right
– Return to Santa Mira (2006, 13 mins): a look at the locations where key segments from Invasion of the Body Snatchers were shot
– A selection of complementary archive films, with British propaganda short Doorstep to Communism (1948, 11 mins) and ground-breaking botanical cinematography in Magic Myxies (Mary Field, F Percy Smith, 1931, 11 mins) and Battle of the Plants (F Percy Smith, 1926, 11 mins)
– Original theatrical trailer
– Trailers From Hell: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (2013, 3 mins): Body Snatchers fan Joe Dante celebrates the film
– **FIRST PRESSING ONLY** An illustrated 40 page booklet with new writing by Dr Deborah Allison, Charlie Bligh, and Katy McGahan, and an archive piece by J Hoberman
The McCarthy, Wynter and Joe Dante commentary is fun. The trio have an enjoyable raport and there are some interesting stories about the shoot and their careers in general.
The Jim Hemphill commentary is a more traditional critic/historian affair, with plenty of information about the film and its makers as well as some thoughts on its themes. It’s a strong track.
The Siegel interview is great too. It runs under most of the film like a third commentary so is a decent length and allows the director to run through his career in considerable detail as well as answer some questions from the audience.
Sleep No More is a 26-minute, all-encompassing piece on the film. The narration is a little cheesy but there are contributions from a number of notable interviewees.
The Fear and the Fiction is disappointingly short but throws in a few thoughts on the film’s subtext and purpose, to give food for thought.
What’s in a Name looks at the various title changes the film underwent before being released.
Return to Santa Mira gives a glimpse of the film’s locations today. The cheesy voiceover is back (as in all of these archival pieces), but it’s an enjoyable featurette that also has a couple of soundbites from the cast and crew, talking about the shoot.
The Trailers From Hell quickie allows fan Joe Dante to give some brief thoughts on the film.
As is the norm with BFI releases, you get a handful of archive shorts that have (often quite tenuous) links to the film. Secrets of Nature – Magic Myxies uses some excellent microphotography and timelapse to examine slime mould (which they call Myxies) that can change forms between plant and animal.
Doorstep to Communism is a typical scaremongering propaganda piece, describing how Communism had infiltrated numerous countries and the problems it caused. It ends by claiming Socialism is a step towards Communism and that everyone should vote Conservative to stop it coming to the UK! The film is largely made up of newsreel footage but also has a little animation and a couple of corny ‘symbolic’ shots.
The Battle of the Plants is a silent short that once again makes great use of timelapse footage, this time to show how various plants sow their seeds. There are some fantastic, otherworldly and occasionally eerie sequences, including a slowly opening snapdragon that looks like the face of a wild creature. The ominous modern score further heightens the atmosphere.
The booklet contains a decent cover-all essay on the film, as well as a lengthy archival piece on the various Body Snatchers films and an article looking at Siegel’s career as a whole. As ever, it’s a fine collection of material that is every bit as vital as a documentary or commentary.
So, the classic film is backed up by a hefty amount of quality extras, making this an easy recommendation.