Invasion Of The Body Snatchers
USA 1956 Directed by Don Siegel
Olive Signature Blu Ray Zone A
So I finally got around to re-watching one of my all time favourite horror movies for the blog. With certain reservations, I mostly like all four official cinematic versions of Jack Finney’s serialised novel The Body Snatchers, made in various guises over the decades. A lot of people feel the second version, the 1970s one, is the best and, while I’d have to say that it’s indeed a truly great film and follows the tough act of the 1956 version with a certain amount of style, this original one is always going to be, for me, the better movie. It’s also the one closest to Finney’s novel, as I remember it from reading it in a tie-in version with the second cinematic version in the late 1970s.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is such a good film that I almost don’t know where to begin to review it. I first saw this version back in the 70s sometime and then hooked up with it more thoroughly when it was released as one of the very first ‘budget priced’ VHS cassettes back in the 1980s. It blew me away then and... whenever I’ve re-watched it over the years (I must have seen it something like 20 times over the course of my life... so far), it's never failed to entertain and amaze me.
I’m not the biggest fan of director Don Siegel, who’s most famous film is probably Dirty Harry, as he’s not one of those film makers who I can see an easy cinematic signature from but, in spite of that, there’s no argument that he did an amazing job here.
The film starts off with the first of two book ends where a slightly energetic Kevin McCarthy (he’s brilliant in the main body of the film itself but, for the book end scenes, which were shot six months later for reasons I’ll go into in a while, he’s very... well... extreme in the way he plays it) is pulled into the care of a psychiatric doctor (played by the one and only Whit Bissel) and tells the story. The film then segues into the proper tale, as told by McCarthy as Dr. Miles Bennell, who arrives back in his home town of Santa Mira after being away for a month or so at a convention. Here he is reacquainted with his high school sweetheart Becky Driscoll, played by the lovely Dana Wynter and the two strike up their old romantic interest, once it’s established that both of them have recently been to Reno to get divorces. Which, now I think of it, is a mite unusual in terms of the background of an on-screen romance between two characters at the time but, I've never really questioned it before now.
However, while he’s been away, Bennell has been sought out by a lot of patients who, when he’s back, mostly seem to have ignored the fact that they wanted to see him. Then he gets wind of something which has been afflicting the town in his absence, where people think their close friends and relations are, somehow, imposters. He talks to his psychiatrist friend Dan Kauffman (played in this version by Larry Gates) and is told that it’s nothing more than a mass hysteria which has been plaguing the town over the last few weeks. And he buys the story until...
His friend Jack Belicec (played by the always watchable King Donovan) and his wife Theodora (played by Carolyn Jones, who would go on to fame as Morticia Addams) find a body on their billiard table. Miles and Becky go around to take a look and the ‘corpse’ has ‘vague’ features and no fingerprints. When it’s noticed by his wife that the ‘corpse’ bears a striking resemblance to Belicec, he cuts his hand and, later that night while he sleeps, the corpse develops the same cut on its palm. From then on, it’s chase shenanigans as Miles and Becky attempt to get out of Santa Mira before they are replaced by emotionless, alien seed pod facsimiles in their sleep. Which sounds kinda silly but I can assure you, this film is extremely well made and has a very intelligent script which plays on the paranoia invoked by the ‘are they or aren’t they pods’ attitude of anyone they meet as they try to flee town and also to stay awake.
And it’s amazingly well put together. Incidents that might telegraph future moments in the film they are setting up are completely disguised here by the naturalistic acting style (everyone is good in this... even director Sam Peckinpah in a little cameo scene has a small contribution). For example, the moment where Jack cuts his hand and Miles bandages it up is so brilliantly played that, the first time you watch it, you forget to think that it might well be a key plot detail a little later in the story.
The biggest ‘what if’ of the film, which had a lot of the humour removed from it by meddling and misunderstanding executives after a preview, is the addition of the bookend sequences and the narrative voice over. This is a powerful film and the ending is where it truly deviates a lot from the source material. In the original cut, the conclusion which leaves the aliens winning and about to take over the world was deemed to be so bleak that a happier ending and narrative were added six months after the original 1955 shoot to soften the blow for it’s proper cinema release. The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari in 1920 had suffered the same fate, where a book end set in an insane asylum which threw the credibility of the central characters added narrative tone and, years later, Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie Blade Runner was similarly deemed too downbeat and also confusing, so a similar ‘happy ending’ and voice-over narrative track was added (actually, I much prefer that original studio cut in the case of Blade Runner). It seems to be a thing in certain areas and genres of movie making where a powerful ending is destroyed by studio executives losing confidence in the product.
In all honesty, although the original ending is still present before it cuts to the... “no, it’s going to be alright after all” bookends and you can see just how powerful and devastating it would have been to leave it there with no follow up. The new material doesn’t really do much harm to the film and doesn’t detract at all from the sheer brilliance of the movie. Of course, the 1970s version would go a little further than the bleaker ending here but... that’s for another review.
Carmen Dragon’s score for this is pretty good and, by modern standards, might be thought of as a little heavy handed. But, you know, it actually does its job very well (and is great as a stand alone listen on the beautiful, limited edition CD that La La Land records put out five years ago). Think, for instance, of the scene where Miles first looks at the half formed pod person on Belicec’s billiard table. The music is almost completely over the top but, if you take it away then nothing much is happening in the scene and it’s certainly not scary without it. Dragon’s score may well be considered over cooked here but it certainly sets up a creeping menace warning the audience that something here is basically wrong... alerting us, in no uncertain terms, quite effectively. It’s good stuff and it’s interesting that Dragon didn’t do much film work, he was mostly noted for conducting classical music concerts at the time. He seems to have had a real grasp of what was needed from the score here though.
Kevin McCarthy would, of course, not escape the role throughout his life. He turns up in a reprise of his original ending to the movie in a moment early on in the 1978 remake and has been in a few cameos as the character as time has drifted on, notably in the films of Joe Dante, who talks to both him and Dana Wynter for one of the commentary tracks to the movie on this particular, fully loaded, Olive Signature Blu Ray edition.
The film is commonly believed to be a comment on the growth of communism in Hollywood at the time but both the actors and writers say that this wasn’t intended. Indeed, when the film was first released, it’s said on one of the many extras here that audience members and critics of both political extremes thought the film was parodying them and were objecting to it equally. So that’s something to think about.
And there’s really not much more I’d want to say about the 1956 version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers because I really don’t want to spoil all its wonder for first time viewers. It’s rightfully regarded as one of the all-time classic science fiction horror movies and I don’t think you’d find many film makers disagreeing with that. A truly brilliant movie and one I’ll probably go on watching again and again over the years without getting bored. A truly remarkable piece of cinematic art.