When it comes to people-transformed-into-emotionless-alien-plankton cinema, nothing beats Don Siegel’s 1956 adaptation of Jack Finney’s sci-fi/horror story INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.
This classic chiller with bold political overtones has often been remade (officially and unofficially), but it’s Siegel’s and producer Walter Wanger’s modestly budgeted black-and-white effort that fumigates the (ironic) pod copies (in spite of the imitator’s reliance on bravura SFX and high-profile stars).
The sci-fi part of the narrative was obvious – the outer-space infiltration of Earthlings via huge pods which, once the humans sleep, take over their bodies, souls and minds. The horror part was the allegory of McCarthyism – a not-so-subtle sledgehammer comparison wherein the now-loveless carbon-copy droids embraced a world where being different and embracing non-conformity meant persecution and death. Sounds like heavy stuff for an Allied Artists programmer, yet BODY SNATCHERS wasn’t the only sci-fi pic to attempt this, nor was it the only genre movie to attack the policies of the self-serving Republican senator (perhaps the most remarkable example being Allan Dwan’s 1954 western Silver Lode, where villainous Dan Duryea’s character is actually named McCarty – doesn’t get much closer than that).
Finney’s story was first published as a serialization in Collier’s. Wanger read it and brought it to Siegel’s attention; they were both immediately excited about the screen possibilities, as evidenced in the director’s great 1993 autobiography A Siegel Film: “My idea, which Wanger seconded strongly, was to confront the idea of pods taking over the world as normally and naturally as possible. Obviously, in real life if one were to say, ‘Look out! Pods are about to take over!’ no one would take this preposterous notion seriously, and rightly so. We therefore had the various characters in the picture, when first learning about the pods, pay little or no attention to this silly rumor. But when they were suddenly face to face with the monstrous horror, their reaction was startlingly frightening, as it would be in real life.
“Allied Artists, bursting at the seams with pods, took Wanger’s and my final cut and edited out all the humor. In their hallowed words, ‘Horror films are horror films and there’s no room for humor.’ I translated it to mean that in their pod brains there was no room for humor.”
The scenario follows the return of Dr. Miles Bennell to his small town Santa Mira, CA, practice after attending a medical convention. Outwardly, things seem normal, but, to quote the Gershwins, “it ain’t necessarily so.” Significant others, mothers and brothers are all complaining that their loved ones are no longer who they say they are. There’s no laughter, music, passion or any sign of creativity; in short, Santa Mira has turned into a CPAC convention. A concerned Bennell calls in his shrink pal to discuss the likelihood of an outbreak of mass hysteria…when, suddenly, all the complaints stop. Things calm down – and everyone becomes void of any individuality, jus’ zombie-ing along, placing their newly-acquired pea pods in the houses of those diminishing few who still have minds.
Bennell’s reunion with just-divorced former paramour Becky at first is a plus, as are their only other allies – the cool, urban local book-larnin’ sophisticates, New York writer Jack Belicec and his super-beauteous artistically inclined spouse Teddy (foreign-sounding names AND a free-spirited woman…uh-oh!).
Their “turning” provides the world’s first exposure to the lethal effects of the greenhouse effect…literally; the quartet discover Belicec look-a-like pods bursting and oozing in one of cinema’s creepiest moments of all time.
Soon Miles and Becky are the only normal ones left…then, in the flick’s celebrated goose-bumpiest scene, only Miles. I’m freaking out just writing about it.
When it came to casting, Siegel and Wanger had their own form of McCarthyism – in this case the fine actor Kevin McCarthy, for whom Bennell became his signature role (an homage forever honored via his appearances in a slew of Joe Dante movies). Dana Wynter is also terrific as sleepy-creepy Becky; ditto King Donovan and Carolyn Jones as the Belicecs, Larry Gates as Bennell’s psychiatrist doomed bud Dr. Kaufman (just when you wish that pods were anti-Semitic…oy!). Much has been made of future director Sam Peckinpah’s acting role as an alien-turned townsman; it’s a short bit, but appropriately cute.
Wanger and Siegel were concerned that the title would keep smart moviegoers away; unfortunately, that wasn’t an option – as AA’s attraction to the piece was by that very exploitative moniker. Siegel recalled that McCarthy had come up with a brilliant alternate, Sleep, No More – a connection to Shakespeare. Allied Artists suits physically retched when they heard both it and the name Shakespeare (the studio opened the picture on a double-bill with The Indestructible Man). Post-INVASION, the director would refer to most Hollywood denizens as pods.
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS looks great, but was indeed a quickie, wrapping in nineteen days and at a cost of a little over $250,000. The early preview screenings so unnerved viewers (and the AA top echelon) that the studio demanded a new ending. In the first cut (what the director forever termed The Siegel Cut), a frenzied McCarthy, cloaked by the dark of night, screams like a lunatic on a rain-drenched stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, warning apathetic drivers of the end of the world. Allied wanted a more upbeat ending. Siegel told them where they could go, as did Wanger. Then it dawned on the producer that the studio would shoot a new ending anyway, probably using one of their grade-Z hacks to direct it. He beseeched Siegel to reconsider and film it, lest BODY SNATCHERS be…pod-i-cized. The director acquiesced, and thus came the controversial framing story that now buttresses the beginning and end of the picture. In this quickly conceived opening and closing, a raving Bennell is brought in to a psych unit after nearly being run over on the highway. His babbling segues into the flashback of what is the vegan meat of the proceedings. As the two doctors decide just how much electroshock to give this wretch, reports come in of a truck wreck near Santa Mira, the overturned contents blocking the roads with weird pod-like plants. Cue up music, cut to gasping docs, a relieved McCarthy (a close-up that splendidly defines movie acting) and the command to notify the FBI (as if THEY haven’t been contaminated!).
In recent years, The Siegel Cut (with this prologue/epilogue trimmed) has been shown in retro screenings around the U.S. (Siegel claimed that in France, it was ALWAYS shown this way). Personally, I have to say that, while I understand how much more effective the original version was, I’m not entirely opposed to the AA fix. I maintain that it bizarrely supports Siegel’s and Wanger’s humor theory; you see, I think that nothing is funnier than that knowledge that the planet will not only be saved by a couple of therapists, but by therapists portrayed by Richard Deacon and Whit Bissell. I mean, come on – what is more humorous than that?
The look and sound of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is above reproach for a low-budget thriller. Famed cameraman Ellsworth Fredericks (known mostly for his television work) did a spectacular job with the monochrome photography. In another example of movie irony, INVASION was filmed in the pod-esque process known as SuperScope. SuperScope was an essentially bogus anamorphic technique that cheaply cashed in on the then-obsession for widescreen fare. The project in question would be shot flat (either 1.33 or 1.85:1), and squeezed in the lab to an aspect ratio of 2.00:1. The brainchild of Howard Hughes, SuperScope was perfectly okay IF the directors knew that their work was to be tampered with. Robert Aldrich, for example, didn’t – and refused to speak to star-producer Burt Lancaster for nearly twenty years after Vera Cruz was released cropped. Fritz Lang flew into a rage (granted, not a rarity) with a fan who asked him how he approached his scope movies. “I made ONE movie in scope, and that was Moonfleet!” he seethed back (his 1956 RKO release While the City Sleeps was SuperScoped).
Siegel, who enjoyed a good working relationship with Wanger, was mercifully apprised of what would be the final look of the picture, composition-wise. He and Fredericks framed the movie for suitable presentation in either 1.85 or 2.00. It’s the latter that throughout the decades became the rarest edition to see; it’s the one that Olive Films has used for their Blu-Ray.
The quality of the B-D is very nice: sharp visuals with accurate (albeit occasionally grainy) contrast (only the opticals infrequently exhibit a slight softness, but that’s no big deal). The mono audio is very good and provides neat sounding board for composer Carmen Dragon’s eerie score (which, along with Tiomkin’s The Thing, has pretty much become a template for sci-fi music).
Aside from Wanger, Siegel was lucky enough to work with screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring (with assist from Richard Collins), who provided a honey of a script. There’s some great dialog in BODY SNATCHERS that perfectly conveys its pod-litical aspirations. What of love, asks Bennell to his alien captors. “Who needs it?” is their flippant reply. “Love, desire, ambition, faith – without them life is so simpler.” The admitted howler, however, and eternal test for all romantic liaisons, comes after Wynter’s character takes her fatal nap. “I didn’t know the real meaning of fear until I kissed Becky.” Been there, as I suspect many of you have (it’s a line I wished was in Tom Sawyer).
The ending contains the wake-up call speeches that, even after almost sixty years, remain flat-out terrifying. What is conformity – the “my way or the highway” prejudiced philosophy? “It’s a malignant disease spreading through the whole country!”
But it’s McCarthy, doing it his way ON a highway that says it all: “You fools, they’re after ALL of us! YOU’RE NEXT! YOU’RE NEXT!”
After watching INVASION again, I was particularly moved by this histrionic display (what was to have been the final sequence in the picture), specifically the political connotations. Seriously, that very night I dreamt I was Kevin McCarthy and I was trying to flag down road-raged drivers, except I was shouting. “THEY’RE AFTER US ALL! VOTE! VOTE, YOU FOOLS. VOTE AS IF YOUR LIFE DEPENDED ON IT!” The next morning I tweeted, “Pods will be blocked!”
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Black and white. Widescreen [2.0:1; 1080p High Definition]; mono [DTS-HD MA]. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. UPC# 887090039000. CAT# OF390. SRP: $29.95.
Also available on DVD: UPC#: 887090034302. Cat #: OF343. SRP: $19.95.