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Many classic alien invasion movies depict the aliens arriving en masse in gigantic spaceships to obliterate humanity from the face of
the Earth, The War of the Worlds would be a good example of this. Then there's a second type of alien invasion, a quieter, more reserved attempt. The aliens have the same agenda but the way they go about it is infinitely more terrifying than the 'all guns blazing' method, and there is no finer example of this than Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Jack Finney originally wrote The Body Snatchers as a serial and then expanded
it into a novel. The book is an interesting read, but I honestly feel that director Don Siegel makes a
much more interesting story out of it in the 1956 cinematic version. Although this was the original movie version, Finney's The Body Snatchers has been adapted into a film at least three other
times that I am aware of, and has spawned dozens of imitators (The Faculty being one example which springs to mind).
Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), the local Santa Mira GP, is on his way back from an out-of-town conference. His patients come to him all with a similar story - friends and loved ones no longer seem like the same people.
Yes they look the same, and talk the same, but on the inside they're
different. Or more accurately, something is missing. Understandably Miles is
sceptical at first, until a friend brings him a featureless replica of himself, and
Miles realises an alien influence is slowly taking over Santa Mira.
Many people believe Invasion of the Body Snatchers to be a metaphor against conformist America, against McCarthyism and Communism. Finney and Siegel have always denied this. Political overtones aside, I just love the film for what it is - a
truly chilling horror story. We've all pretty much grown up with the 'Body Snatchers' story, which is almost a shame as I'd have loved to have gone into this movie cold because the film gains maximum effect from the way Don
Siegel brings the invaders into the story. He just waits for the
audience to catch on. In fact he's so successful at this that the film
doesn't really need Miles providing an ominous voice-over.
The first scenes at Santa Mira establish the apparent
normalcy of the town, with everybody going about their business as if
it were any other day. But the invasion of Santa Mira has already
begun and little clues litter the film from the off-set. Whether it be a small boy running into the path of an oncoming car, like he's trying
to get away from something, or a man mowing the same patch of lawn over
and over again. None of these things are conclusive evidence of an invasion but as the story presses on these
things become harder to ignore. People think, and then claim, there is something weird
going on... and then they retract their claims. And when featureless clones
of the townspeople start appearing in cellars and basements, the clues
all point to something we hadn't even considered, an alien invasion.
Don Siegel is often known for his film-noir style, and he uses it to full effect here. Harsh silhouettes, long shots of cramped corridors, tight closeups,
and an edgy piano score. One of the most effective tricks presented in Invasion of the Body Snatchers
is when the film stops in the midst of it all and tries to convince the
characters (and I think the audience too) that none of this is real
and we're imagining the invasion of Santa Mira. The duplicates that cropped up in the cellar are now all suddenly gone.
They didn't leave any fingerprints so there's no proof they were ever
there. And when a psychiatrist arrives and explains with
calm rationalism that we're all part of a shared delusion, it's
something that almost succeeds in making you rethink yourself.
Of course that type of second-guessing doesn't last for very long but
it was done to great effect. When some unusual sea-pods crop up in
Miles' greenhouse, giving birth to a replica of himself, you realise
you were right the first time.
The second half of the movie features the scariest moments as Miles and his girlfriend Becky go into hiding. One of the eeriest scenes takes place in broad daylight,
when some strangers from out-of-town are passing through. As soon
as they're gone the townspeople crowd in from all sides in perfect
silence. Equally creepy is the pod-people trying to reason with Miles and Becky,
telling them it's so much better this way. And ultimately they don't
have a choice in this.
Miles and Becky
are forced up into the hills, they separate for a moment, and then when Miles
looks into Becky's eyes he sees nothing there. When the reality sinks
in that she's been taken over it's as scary as it is tragic. Then, on what would've made a fantastic ending, Miles makes it to
the highway, screaming about the oncoming invasion and being dismissed
as a lunatic.
Unfortunately Invasion of the Body Snatchers does not finish there. Legend has it that the studio were quite taken aback by what Don Siegel had created, and
forced upon him an ending that promised hope to the audience. So an additional scene was shot with
Miles relating his story to a therapist who calls in the FBI to
deal with the threat. It's something of an anti-climax after a terrific 75 minutes. It doesn't spoil the movie for me, but it does feel forced. (It may be wrong to lay all the blame on the movie studio for their insistence of a more upbeat ending as in Jack Finney's novel the aliens actually give up on their
world domination plot and return home. To me that felt like more of a ridiculous notion.)
In spite of the ending I consider Invasion of the Body Snatchers an absolute timeless classic.
However many remakes are out there you really can't go wrong with the original. Metaphors or not, who cares when you have such an
absorbing icon of science fiction cinema.