Paranoia Strikes Deep: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (Allied Artists 1956; United Artists 1978)

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These two versions of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS have much in common. Both are visions of the paranoia of their times disguised in the veneer of science fiction. But while the 1956 film is an allegoric warning of the dangers of Communism, its 1978 remake focuses on conspiracy theory paranoia in the post-Watergate era. The films are equally good reflections of the times they were made, and the differences lie mainly in the visions of directors Don Siegel (’56) and Philip Kaufman (’78).

Siegel’s roots were planted firmly in the old studio system. He began his career at Warners, then RKO before moving onto to independent productions in the mid-50s. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS was made for Allied Artists (formerly known as Monogram, home of The Bowery Boys and Bela Lugosi quickies.) Siegel was well versed in working within budgetary constraints. Early films like PRIVATE HELL 36 and RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 were low-budget but effective noirs notable for their toughness. Siegel’s version of the story has that noirish  feel to it, with the protagonist caught in an ever-downward spiral towards an inescapable fate.

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Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is being held in the mental ward at a hospital. He’s hysterical, screaming about an impending doomsday. Psychiatrist Dr. Hill (Whit Bissell) is called in, and Bennell recounts the story of what’s been happening in his sleepy little suburb of Santa Mira, California. Bennell had just returned from a vacation when he’s told about a strange phenomenon occurring in town. People have been reporting their loved ones aren’t really their loved ones…they’re imposters. A young boy claims his mom is not his mom. Bennell’s girlfriend Becky (Dana Wynter) has a cousin who insists Uncle Ira is not Uncle Ira. Psychiatrist friend Dr. Kauffman thinks it’s mass hysteria caused by “what’s going on in the world”. But Bennell has nagging doubts about that diagnosis, doubts that are confirmed when he goes to Jack and Teddy Belicec’s (King Donovan, Carolyn Jones) home to discover a body on their pool table. An unformed body, approximately the same height and weight as Jack!

Things go steadily downhill as Bennell and Becky and the Belicecs find weird seed pods in the greenhouse. The pods bubble and ooze, popping out newly minted body doubles of the quartet. They burn the pods, and soon find out most of Santa Mira has been taken over by the pod people. Bennell and Becky are now hunted by the pod people, who are intent on making the couple one of them. The key is to stay awake, for only while humans sleep can the pod people take over their bodies. Bennell and Becky finally escape through an old tunnel, hearing music when they get to the other side. Bennell investigates, thinking there must be other humans, but is shocked to find the music’s coming from a pod farm! He goes back to Becky and kisses her, and to his horror realizes she fell asleep, and is now one of them! Bennell is chased to the highway, frantically trying to flag down drivers, yelling, ” Listen to me! Listen to me! They’re here! You’re next! You’re next! You’re next!” The drivers pass him by, thinking he’s just drunk or some kind of nut.

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Dr. Hill listens, but dismisses Bennell’s tale as the rantings of a deranged man. He leaves the room just as an accident victim is being brought into the hospital. It seems his truck was broadsided, and he was trapped by the weight of its load… filled with pods! Hill immediately realizes Bennell’s telling the truth, and calls the authorities. This INVASION ends on a positive note, with hope for mankind’s future. The message is quite clear, to remain aware and act when necessary. 50s worries about Communist infiltration (whether real or imagined) were at their peak during this era, and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS offers a chilling warning to its audience. All the best science fiction includes some underlying message, and Siegel’s movie delivers without hitting the viewer over the head,  his film noir touch only adding to the frightening mood.

Philip Kaufman is rooted in another film school altogether, that of the director as auteur. Kaufman’s works are a product of the individualistic cinema of the 1970s, when visionaries like Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola were creating genre-bending films based on traditional themes like THE LONG GOODBYE and THE CONVERSATION. His influences were French New Wave directors like Goddard and Truffaut, and independent American mavericks like John Cassavettes and, to a lesser extent, Don Siegel. Kaufman’s version of INVASION ratchets up the paranoia, giving the viewer a much bleaker perspective of a world where it may indeed be far too late for hope.

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Kaufman’s protagonist is now Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), and his occupation has been changed to Public Health inspector. A bigger change is in moving the setting from quiet suburbia to bustling San Francisco. This widens the scope of the horror, as we see even large cities aren’t safe from the vast conspiracy. It’s not just happening in some small, out-of-the-way burg, it’s right here in Big City America. Bennell’s colleague, microbiologist Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), believes her once-affectionate husband Geoffrey (Art Hindle) “is not Geoffrey” anymore. He’s now aloof, meeting with strange people, and always away from home. Bennell brings Elizabeth to see his friend, pop psychologist Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy in a brilliant piece of casting).   Kibner has heard this complaint recently from others, and spouts some platitudes about a “hallucinatory flu” going around, caused mainly by people just not listening to each other anymore.

Bonnell’s friends Jack and Nancy Belicec (Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright) run a trendy Mud Bath health spa, and a cocoon-like body is found there. Bennell sees it, and begins to believe Elizabeth’s story. Bennell rushes to her and spies her doppelgänger in the greenhouse growing while she sleeps. He grabs her and returns to the Bellicec’s. Kibner is called in, but the body is nowhere to be found. Kibner’s still skeptical, and suggests they all get a good night’s sleep. It’s only when the camera follows him outside that we learn the truth… Kibner is one of THEM!

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Bennell’s stymied at every turn by government bureaucracy, passing him from one department to the next, some not taking his calls at all. The exhausted quartet finally fall asleep, and the pods try to overtake them, nearly encompassing Bennell until Elizabeth’s screams wake him up. They run but they can’t hide, and the rest of the film generally follows the original’s path except for a completely different ending that I won’t spoil here.

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Kaufman pays homage to the first film with cameos by Kevin McCarthy (virtually recreating his iconic highway scene) and director Siegel (as a cab driver who’s not what he seems). The newer INVASION utilizes sound editing to build up the terror, something the quieter original didn’t capitalize on. And the larger budget means better special effects, including a bit where a street singer’s head is transposed on his dog’s body. Kaufman’s version is closer to horror than noir, and it also has a sense of humor not found in the 1956 INVASION.  I like both versions, but enjoyed the Kaufman version just a bit more. Growing up in the 70s, I’m well aware that governments cannot be trusted. Young people today share these sentiments with me, at least some of them do. The story’s been retold twice since 1978, in BODY SNATCHER (1993) directed by Abel Ferrara, and 2007’s THE INVASION, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Neither has had the impact the first two films did, both of which can hold their own in the horror/science fiction pantheon. I suppose as long as people are worried about conspiracies and the dehumanization of mankind, the story will be retold again. It’s only when we STOP worrying about what’s really going on behind the curtain that we as a species will truly be in trouble.

 

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