Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Dec 1, 1986

Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is one cult film that has also won over the cultivated buff. As Peter Morris remarks (in his Dictionary of Films): “Though one of the subtlest films of the genre, containing little graphic horror, it is also one of the most passionate and involving.” Jean-Luc Godard quotes the film in his futuristic Alphaville. So does François Truffaut in Fahrenheit 451. Even Eugene Ionesco, the brilliant playwright, may have had Don Siegel’s pods in mind when he wrote his Absurdist masterpiece Rhinoceros. There, humankind turns into thick-skinned, insensitive, conformist rhinos—pods on the hoof.

In any case, the film stands on its own thirty years after its modest release. Indeed, for its pacing and complexity many people still prefer it over the more opulent 1978 version by Philip Kaufman. The original began as just one of those “B” films that in the ‘50s lured us to the drive-ins for chills and thrills. But its stark effects and serious concerns made it a cult favorite, first in Europe, then in North America. For years it was one of the most requested films on television, and a film society standby. Even today it seems a unique combination of the nightmare world of horror movies, the prophecy of sci-fi and the shadowy, webbed paranoia of film noir. This Invasion crosses all sorts of lines, including the one that separates pop entertainment from high art.

The giant pods that sprout those cold, sinister clones have received all kinds of interpretation. For some, the fear of these unemotional creatures expressed America’s fear of communist infiltration in the early ‘50s, especially as typified by Senator Joseph McCarthy. For others, the pod creatures themselves represent a society terrified of a minority idea or a new freedom. The film’s themes of the threat to the individual’s will and the dangerous pressure to conform speak to people on any point of the political spectrum.

The film may have seemed more topical in the early ‘50s, when the papers were full of stories about brainwashing in the Korean War and suspicions of Red subversion in North America. J. Edgar Hoover articulated this fear in his book Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America and How to Fight It (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1958, p. 9): “Remember, always, that there are thousands of people in this country now working in secret to make it happen here.” Clearly the film touched a naked nerve. In addition to such obvious cases as I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951) and My Son John (1952), this political context colored the whole cycle of Alien Invader films.

The nerve is still naked. It’s a matter of not just politics but of nightmare. The film evokes the terror we may all have felt when we dreamt—or experienced—a loved one suddenly turning cold and unfeeling towards us. What makes this movie so chilling is that the aliens here are not foreign creatures but our intimates, our loved ones and most familiar friends. The film is so unsettling because it depicts threat and psychological violence within the nuclear family. After all, the ‘50s were also a period of “Togetherness,” when happy family sitcoms ruled TV-land. The film’s locale of Santa Mira is just this kind of Americana—and we witness its exposure.

There is also the fear of becoming vegetable, here as in The Thing (1950). In an older horror tradition, we dread succumbing to our animal nature. Hence the werewolf and Frankenstein monster sagas and all Them Other Beasts—from 20,000 Fathoms, Outer Space, Beneath the Sea and Black Lagoons. In the bland ‘50s this fear of unbridled animal energy was mirrored by the opposite fear of turning into an unfeeling creature, such as a zombie or (in this case) a vegetable. Like the vegetable in the Gray Flannel Suit. For the ‘50s were also the age of Sloane Wilson’s dissection of the corporate mentality and David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd. In Invasion, Miles Bennell becomes the alienated loner in the conformist society. Wherever people suppress their emotions and their character differences, you have the kind of “pod” society that threatens here.

In reaction against the ‘50s we began to want to be nonconformists—like everyone else. Our heroes reaffirm the validity of holding one opinion when the whole world maintains the contrary. Dr. Bennell opts for the life of love, madness, even pain, because to cut out those experiences is to fail to be fully human. He rejects the pod psychiatrist’s rationalization: “There is no need for love or emotion. Love, ambition, desire, faith—without them life is so simple.” So, let’s hope, do we. After all, we’re still children of the ‘50s, quaking under the same shadow of The Bomb and the same fears of humanity dwindling before mass technology and our heavy social pressures.

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