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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955)

by on 2011/10/15

“The mind is a strange and wonderful thing. I’m not sure it’ll ever be able to figure itself out. Everything else, maybe, from the atom to the universe, everything except itself.”

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Jack Finney’s seminal book, The Body Snatchers, has been adapted for the screen four times that I know of. I’ve enjoyed every interpretation to varying degrees (yes, including Daniel Craig’s The Invasion). While the second (1978) version might be the most successful, the most favoured one in my heart is still the original.

It is widely interpreted — though was supposedly unintended — as a comment on sociopolitical matters ranging from bureaucracy and capitalism to McCarthyism or conformity in general. Fortunately it succeeds on multiple levels, imaginary and imaginative. Whether or not you divine deeper themes, it remains involving, suspenseful, and thrilling.

In the lead role of doctor Miles Bennell, Kevin McCarthy (UHF) returns to his home town Santa Mira from a convention. He finds the town has subtly changed during his two-week absence. Activity has tapered off, and the people are acting oddly. His patients make appointments, clamouring desperately to see him, then cancel or change their symptoms the next day.

Everyone’s soon-forgotten concerns become a familiar refrain. A boy believes his mother isn’t really his mother. A woman is paranoid about her uncle. An old flame believes there’s something wrong with her father. The supposed impostors appear convincing, and remember personal details, yet exhibit a subtle lack of genuine emotion.

When Bennell refers his patients to a psychiatric colleague, he learns of a growing trend of such cases. Is it truly a contagious neurosis, an epidemic of mass hysteria, or something far more sinister?

Well, frankly, we know the answer to that question right away, and are reminded of it constantly. I don’t recall Body Snatchers being so overt, yoked with a frame and narration which detract somewhat from the core. Don’t mistake me . . . there is a great movie beneath but — despite the legends of studio interference being common knowledge — the drawbacks are both obvious and frequent.

Another notorious voiceover, one used in early cuts of Blade Runner, may not be any more appreciated but, at least, Harrison Ford’s perfunctory delivery gave what he said an appropriate air of noiresque world-weariness. Here, McCarthy’s spoken performance is rote, with little to distinguish it. The greater weakness, however, resides in the writing.

Less speechifying than guilty of stating the obvious, the exposition relates observable, self-evident facts, or unconvincingly describes motivations. The sum total borders on insulting, and subverts the visuals, the actors, and dramatic interpretation.

“Something was wrong in this house, and I had to be careful,” Bennell informs us. Even supposing the bookends’ assumed lunatic has a flair for the dramatic, we have no real cause to believe anything is wrong, except the hunch of a man who’s been ignorant up until then. Furthermore, we see him approaching with caution, so why describe it? This example is a typical one of many throughout the running time.

Now, having referenced film noir earlier, I should note more similarities. Visually, Body Snatchers is pleasingly reminiscent of that sub-genre, with high contrast black and white stock, many instances of shadowing, silhouettes, interesting angles and perspectives, memorable foreground/background composition, and a poster in one character’s house emblazoned with “Miroir Noir”.

While the poster is appropriate to the character’s occupation as a mystery writer, it also speaks to the dark mirror of the story’s usurping clones. Touches like this one suggest to me the filmmakers are not being completely forthcoming by claiming their work is only a straightforward thriller.

Other touches support my suspicion. One character suggests the tide of their crisis is due to “worrying about what’s going on in the world.” Others observe, “I went to sleep and it happened” or “that moment of sleep was death”. The lowering of one’s guard leads directly to failure, a scare tactic as relevant in the Noughts as in the Fifties.

Society’s underlying concerns about atomic radiation, mutation, and worlds outside our own are also reflected, being suggested as possible causes for the cautionary tale’s epidemic. As discussed between two characters, “So much has been discovered in these past few years, anything is possible.”

Still, while extraterrestrial explanations are unneeded, they’re hardly a deal-breaker. Even without attributing reasons or significance, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is my favourite kind of horror. As in Village of the Damned, its “monster” is an insidious, ineffable force. That it continues to entertain and speak to us — after half a century, and three successors — speaks to its inherent, immutable value.

At least, that’s what our communal mind told me to say.

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Not rated

80 minutes

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