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Director: Don Siegel
Starring: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones
“Look, you fools, you’re in danger! Can’t you see?! They’re after you! They’re after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone! They’re here already! You’re next!”
Paranoia was nothing new in American horror by the mid-fifties. The Cold War and it’s by-products of McCarthyism and the very real threat of atomic war had instilled a heightened sense of fear and suspicion in the general public, which naturally spilled over into entertainment.
Aliens, mind-control, nuclear-fuelled behemoths…the new decade had brought in new standards of horror, nightmare visions that had replaced the traditional monsters of the old world.
In 1956 though, a film would appear that would set a new bar for paranoid cinema, a film that’s influence would be felt for decades to come. A film so intense and oppressive in it’s unsettling message that the studio felt that they had to crowbar in a much more optimistic finale.
You can tell they don’t belong though, just like the new inhabitants of Santa Mira can tell who doesn’t belong there.
This is how the world ends…
Santa Mira, California. Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) comes home from a trip to find multiple patients with the same complaint: what seems like a strange psychosis where they believe their loved ones seem to have been replaced by impostors.
Soon, Bennell, his ex-girlfriend Becky (Dana Wynter) and his friend Jack (King Donovan) realise that there is noting wrong with the patients and that their fears are in fact true as an alien species are replacing the townsfolk one by one.
Growing their duplicates in their plant-like pods, the aliens don’t just plan to take over the sleepy town of Santa Mira. This is just the beginning of an invasion of the entire planet…
Right from the off, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is a masterclass in tension. The studio-enforced bookends, while being completely unnecessary and damaging to the nihilistic and bleak tone do have the benefit of ratcheting up the feeling of dread by letting us see the effect that the pod people have already had on our hero.
Taking that aside though, Don Siegel drip-feeds us the horror slowly from there on in, letting the audience uncover the alien agenda alongside Bennell. It’s immediately apparent that things aren’t right, but when we meet a replaced person, he smartly doesn’t have them acting any differently. The fact we know they’re not right is all that’s needed to make them sublimely creepy. There’s nothing that scary about a copy that acts like an alien, but a malevolent alien impersonating someone so well only their close family could tell the difference? Now that’s disturbing.
There’s so many elements at play here set out to subconsciously remind us that the world we know and think we are still in is changing around us, from the low-angled and wonky shots in the greenhouse to the subtle changes in supposedly dead people happening without anyone around them realising.
Nature and reality are being twisted and subverted, friends and family are becoming foes and even the safest and most secure places are now hostile and unwelcoming.
It’s here where the brilliance of Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers really shines.
Depending on your viewpoint, it works as a damning indictment on fears of communism and infiltration or McCarthyism and the fear of impending totalitarianism. Both work perfectly and while original novel author Jack Finney claimed to have no dog in the hunt, Siegel had been known to come down in favour of the latter, but not to an extent that he was preaching. It’s in there, but if you want it to be something else, why that’s in there too.
As the former lovers and eventual fugitives, McCarthy and Wynter do a great job of making us care what happens to them. Initially their chemistry is sparky and playful, feeling very much like a pair who know each other intimately but had lives away from both each other and the camera. When the horror slowly starts to unfold though, it’s that connection that keeps them together and holds our interest in seeing them survive.
There’s plenty of horror films that you don’t get massively engaged with the protagonists and it’s no big deal, but it’s hard to imagine this working quite so well without the feelings of genuine anxiety and upset that their predicament engenders in the viewer. It’s marvellous stuff.
The finale as intended is one of the great moments in horror cinema. Hell, it’s one of the great moments in cinema in general. A strong, capable and intelligent man, reduced to psychosis by lack of sleep and mental trauma, trying frantically to warn us all of the impending apocalypse, but doomed to be ignored. Humanity, staring destruction in the face and being too busy with our own lives to take notice. It’s brutal, but brilliantly represented at the same time.
The tacked-on ending? Well, not so much. But what has come before has been so intense and felt so hopeless that even the mobilisation of the cavalry feels like it night be too little too late, regardless of the how it’s left.
Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers is the pinnacle of Cold War paranoia cinema, telling the beginning of a huge story in the smallest of small-town America. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere…
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy