Body Snatchers Turn 55

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

This year marks the 55th anniversary of the release of the cult-classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers.   Despite a small budget and a 19-day shooting schedule, the film caught on with the public, capturing the fears of a society marked by atomic-age anxiety, emerging consumerism, and the fear of an overheated Cold War.

Stylistically, the film falls into the noir genre, characterized by cramped locations, night-time settings, black-and-white photography, and expressionistic camera work.  It was artfully directed by Don Siegel, who would later direct Dirty Harry and John Wayne’s last film, The Shootist. The budget for Invasion may have been small, but the talent was there.

Moreover, the film, whatever the budget, had a greater impact than the typical B movie.  The plot, which involved an American town being overtaken by a form of evil that produced indifference and conformity, touched a deep-seated human fear.

Released in 1956, the film was widely perceived as a manifestation of the threat of communism.  As the “pods” take over individuals, a collective perspective takes over and the town’s citizens lose their motivation for work.  Businesses close.  “Too much work,” one former store owner explains.

The pod-spawned imposters lack individuality—they feel no pain, no love, no emotion, and have no need for religion.   Late in the movie, a psychiatrist encourages the protagonist, Dr. Miles Bennell, to succumb to sleep and duplication: “There is no pain.  Suddenly, while you’re asleep they’ll absorb your mind, your memories, and you’re reborn into an untroubled world.  Desire, ambition, faith. Without them, life’s so simple.”

Beyond the threat of communism, the film depicts other signs of the times.  The film’s two main characters, Bennell and Betty Driscoll, are divorced, a reflection of the changes in the modern American family.  The script makes references to people losing their jobs to machines, and those employees that don’t lose their jobs are relegated to increasingly specialized work, especially in the medical field.  Communism, it seems, wasn’t the only de-humanizing factor in the 1950s.

Interestingly, B films such as Invasion were also being affected by societal and technological changes in the 1950s.  Prior to the advent of television, movies studios balanced their big-budget efforts with a loose quota of low-budget films.  These films had a small but steady fan base, were cheap, and they gave the studio’s up-and-coming stars and young directors a place to learn their craft.

Because of their low budget, these B films were rarely scrutinized by studio brass—allowing some of the more talented directors to produce edgy and provocative films under the radar.  By the 1950s, however, low-budget projects were increasingly being sold to (1) drive-in theaters, where they could be edgy without being provocative, and (2) television, where they were neither edgy nor provocative.  By the late 1950s, the B film was all but dead.

But like the pod people that populate Invasion, the film industry is a fan of nothing if not duplication, and the movie’s plot has been reborn in different forms over the past five decades.

In the 1970s, the film was reworked as a metaphor for a dysfunctional society beset by corruption and neuroses.  It was remade again in the 1990s, with the setting changed to a military base, perhaps a clever ploy by the pod people to conceal the early stages of the conformity caused by their takeover.  Other 90s films such as The Faculty and Puppet Masters stole the basic plot from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but prudently avoided the title.  Finally and least fortunately, the film was remade as a Nicole Kidman vehicle for the 21st century, with the “invaders” promising an end to war, disease, and conflict but not, alas, bad remakes.

Generally speaking, critics prefer the original.  It placed ninth in the American Film Institute’s (AFI) Top 10 Science-Fiction films, was on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Thrills list, and made Time magazine’s list of the top 100 films of all time.

Despite the passage of time, despite the film’s pulp-tinged title, and despite the story’s nod to era-specific fears, the original version still works for much the same reason as it always has.  It animates people’s inherent insecurities: the fear of being overtaken while asleep, the anxiety over losing one’s individuality, and the apprehension that your neighbors are not who they seem to be.

Fifty-five years after its release, Invasion’s pods still spread the seeds of fear.

Note: This column was published in the Huntsville Item on Thursday, June 16, 2011.

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