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Cinematic Pleasures: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

by j.d. lafrance

There have been two remakes of the classic 1956 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers - 1979 and 1994 respectively. This does not include the countless rip-offs and homages that have been made since the original graced the screen: some good (They Live), some bad (The Astronaut's Wife) and some just plain ugly (Body Snatchers). By far the superior film in every way is the 1956 version directed by Don Siegel, which continues to thrill and entertain, while hopeless rehashes like Ferrara's film try in vain to recapture the power and the impact of its predecessor. What Ferrara and other imitators don't understand is that extravagant special effects and elaborate chases do not compensate for a non-existent story and weak characters - something that Siegel understood implicitly and wisely avoided in his film.

Adapted from Jack Finney's excellent novel The Body Snatchers (1954), Siegel's film is the best of all the versions made because it is the most faithful to the novel. The film begins with suspenseful music while the credits are shown over a sky filled with rushing clouds. After the credits end we meet a frantic Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) who is being questioned by the police. When a psychiatrist arrives Miles goes wild, until reassured that his story will be heard. What follows is a flashback account of how Dr. Bennell, with the help of an old girlfriend, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), uncovers a secret plot by aliens from outer space to take over the inhabitants of the small town of Santa Mira. It is a subtle invasion that at first glance does not appear to be that much of a threat, but as Miles and Becky soon discover, its implications reach far and wide, threatening not only close friends like Jack and "Teddy" Belicec (King Donovan and Carolyn Jones), but all of humanity.

The film's inception lies in the hands of producer Walter Wanger, who had read Finney's story in its original serial form in Collier's magazine. He felt that it would make a good low-budget film for Allied Artists and asked Don Siegel to direct. After convincing screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring to join the production, the film began to take shape. From the start, the three men shared the same approach to the material. Their intention was to have the film act as a metaphor for the way "the majority of people in the world unfortunately are pods, existing without any intellectual aspirations and incapable of love." Shot in only 19 days with all the exteriors filmed on natural locations around L.A. to represent the northern Californian city of Santa Mira, Siegel used his lack of budget and unknown actors to create an authentic, natural feeling of normalcy to the proceedings. This became one of the strengths of the film. We so easily believe that this is Smalltown, USA that when the horror of what is really happening becomes apparent the shock is that much more significant. Siegel, a former special effects expert knew full well the pitfalls of relying too much on effects and not on the plot. "Instead of doing what so many science fiction and horror films do - spend all their money on special effects and put poor actors on the screen - we concentrated on the performers. The main thing about the picture, however, was that it was about something and that's rare." And so Siegel actually used the handicap of a small budget to his advantage by downplaying the special effects in favour of creating strong, three-dimensional characters and telling a suspenseful, often scary story.

However, Siegel and crew met with a lot resistance from the studio. They found the original ending too pessimistic and were worried when a test audience laughed at its conclusion. The studio subsequently made Mainwaring write a prologue and epilogue to act as bookends to the film. Siegel decided to shoot these scenes because he knew the studio would put them in regardless and if he filmed them then perhaps he could do a little damage control. Siegel has problems with these sequences because as he sees it, they let "you know right away that something unusual is going on. If you start, as I wanted to, with McCarthy arriving in the town of Santa Mira, it reveals it slowly, we understand why McCarthy can't readily accept the terrible thing that appears to be happening. And the dramatic impact of the ending is reduced with the epilogue." Allied Artist also made Siegel cut out a lot of the humour in the film, but enough survived for the director's intended effect. "I felt the idea of pods growing into a likeness of a person would strike the characters as preposterous. I wanted to play it that way," Siegel remembers, "with the characters not taking the threat seriously. For example, if you told me now that there was a pod in my likeness in the other room, I would joke about it. However, when I opened the door and saw the pod, the full shock and horror would hit me and the fun would be gone. I wanted the people in the film to behave like normal people." Despite the studio's constant meddling, Siegel managed to create an impressive film whose impact has not diminished over the years.

Like the novel, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a real marvel of pacing -achieved by gradually building the suspense, until the tension is too much. When Miles begins to tell his story, he starts by saying, "At first glance everything looked the same. It wasn't. Something evil had taken possession of the town." While these words are spoken, Siegel presents an ordinary looking small town. Miles' words are a teaser that makes us curious. We want to know what this evil force is, how it has taken the town captive, and why it seems so normal. It is this curiousity that draws us into the story. At first everything seems normal, but little details appear that suggest otherwise. Maybe it is the scared child running out in front of Miles' car, the same boy who later claims that his mother is not his mother, crying, "Don't let her get me!" These events are all warning signs that point to a larger, impending danger that threatens the small town. By giving us only bits and pieces at a time, Siegel slowly begins to reveal the threat of alien invasion. People act normal enough, but something is slightly askew. People seem to have emotions, but as one character observes, "There is just the pretense of it." Body Snatchers feeds on our fear of dehumanization and conformity-not only of ourselves, but our family and friends. A lot of the suspense in the film is derived from the fact that the characters must stay awake to remain human; to sleep means becoming a pod. Sleep is an important motif of the film, to the point where Siegel originally wanted it to be called Sleep No More, a reference to Shakespeare's play Macbeth. For Siegel, sleep is a metaphor for conformity or the stifling of any intellectual curiousity. People often sleepwalk through their whole lives - never truly alive. And like Miles in the film, we are surrounded daily by these intellectual sleepers, being subtly invaded by their ever-growing numbers. Again, the studio stepped in and imposed a more science fiction/horror-like title which the filmmaker had no choice but to accept.

Despite the compromises Siegel was forced to make, his original intentions were not diminished. Through subtle references and imagery, he managed to convey his fears of conformity and present the solution to this problem in the form of its hero: Miles Bennell who embodies individuality and humanity - something that the pods (read modern industrial society) try to destroy. Unfortunately, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was not blessed with a big budget or big name stars and as a result critics and box office success ignored it upon initial release. Over the years film buffs and student groups began to take interest in the film and an ever-growing cult following developed leading to its rediscovery in the 1960s by French New Wave critics who declared it to be one of the best and most influential science fiction films of the 1950s, along side such classics as The Thing (1951), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and Them! (1954). American critics underestimated the widespread influence it has had since its initial release. A much imitated (see The Hidden amongst many others) film, it still manages to captivate and delight people today. The film has been read on many different levels, most often as a subtext for either protesting Senator Joseph McCarthy and his Red Scare mentality or as an anti-Communist allegory. First and foremost it is an entertaining film that blends a science fiction premise with film noir and horror elements (in particular, its use of unusual camera angles, close-ups, sharp editing, music, and lighting). Despite two remakes, the original film is the superior version because its director, Don Siegel understood Finney's novel and was able to translate its intent successfully to the screen without relying on flashy special effects and trickery like so many contemporary science fiction films.

Issue 20, February 2004

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