BODY SNATCHERS- “The Invasion”, Then and Now

by Barry Wurst

What I love and have always found seriously scary about every one of those Body Snatcher movies is that they tap into a fear that is both paranoid and hard to put into words.  In fact, the heroes of these movies usually have a hard time explaining exactly what is scaring them so much, but at the core of these films, a truly frightening premise that everyone alive can relate to is being exploited.  The notion that you may not truly know the people in your life, that they may different on the inside, changing in front of you, or entirely different from who you initially thought they were, is something anyone in a relationship or with long time friends can understand.  Yet, the overall premise of the Body Snatcher movies goes even deeper and is more expansive:  what if everyone in the world was the same, and you were the only one left with a difference of opinion? This is what scares me more than falling alseep and waking up as someone else.  Freedom of speech and expression of personal individuality are two of my favorite aspects about
life in general, and to take that away, in favor of being just like EVERYONE
ELSE…I find that frightening.

For the unitiated, Jack Finney’s 1955 novel, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, portrayed a plant-like alien race that come from the sky in what look like “sea pods”; they create doubles of humans, who dispose of the real bodies and look just like the original host they took over, with the one exception being that the aliens show no emotion.  There have been three film adaptions so far (all good, it should be noted), with the fourth, “The Invasion”, in theaters August 17th and a handful of similiar themed thrillers (like “Robert Heinlein’s Ther Puppet Masters”) also in circulation. Here’s a look at the short film history of the Snatchers:

1. The Novel, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, by Jack Finney
(Published in 1955, originally as a serial for a magazine)
LOCALE: a small U.S. town
THE PROTAGONIST: Dr. Miles Bennell
the details of exactly how the plant creatures posses the human race is somewhat vague, but there is a cool description in which Finney likens a fresh pod-human to an unpressed coin.
A clear parable on the loss of individuality in the Baby Boom era, though the book (and the first film) are said to be a metaphor for McCarthy-ism, which Finney denied, saying he merely wrote a science fiction story (more on that later).
Even though the period details and dialogue are dated, there are some eerie passages about how no one in this small town appears to be altogther right.  The final scene, with the pods shooting back up into the sky, is quite silly and wisely isn’t an image duplicated for any of the films.

2. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956), directed by Don Siegel
LOCALE: a small U.S. town
Dr. Miles Bennell (played by Kevin McCarthy, in his most famous performance)
For a low-budget, black and white film, the effects are good at conveying what those pod people are up to.  The scene where Bennell destroys his alien doppelganger is quite convincing and quease inducing.
Quite famously, as the film shows aliens meeting together secretly in groups and portrays mounting social paranoia, the film is said to be a thinly-veiled portrait of the Red Scare (aka, the fear of Communism on the rise in states).  However, others say the film makes a mockery of Joseph McCarthy and his witchhunts for those who were suspected communists.  Kevin McCarthy has said that he and Finney were only awhere of the film being a straight-forward sci-fi thriller, and nothing more.  Yet, this film is considered a definitive sci-fi parable, a reflection of the ugly Blacklist period.
You can’t beat that final scene (or, what WAS the final scene, until the backers made Siegel add a prologue and an epilogue to soften the film’s pessimistic message).  Also, the scene where Bennell realizes that the one closest to him has changed is still spooky.

3. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978), directed by Phillip Kaufman
LOCALE: San Francisco
THE PROTAGONIST: Matthew Bennell (played by Donald Sutherland), a public
health inspector.
Pretty state of the art, with some goopy effects showing the growth of pod doubles and the destruction of the human body.  Then there’s that unforgetable moment involving a dog that will haunt your nightmares for years…
Some have offered that, due to the period and noting that Leonard Nimoy’s character is a respected doctor, the film is meant to be a jab at the Me Decade, as self-help cults, religious fanatics and self-improvement schemes were as common then as they are now.
This is easily the scariest Body Snatcher movie so far.  Everything about the film’s shadowy look, weird music, slimy creatures and characters you can’t trust really put a spell on the audience.  There are too many moments to name, though the closing scene is a bone chilling genre classic.  The original may be the more important film, but this one is even better.

4. “Body Snatchers” (1993), directed by Abel Ferrara
LOCALE: a military base
THE PROTAGONIST: Marti Mallone (played by Gabrielle Anwar), a petulant teen.
Never better, as this entry does the best, most ghastly job at showing EXACTLY how the aliens take over their human hosts.  Subtle it ain’t, but the pre-CGI effects are sensational.
It’s anyone’s guess.  It can be said the film is meant to be a jab at the U.S. government, or the military, or that the whole thing is a metaphor for the pressures of teen conformity.  Indie director Ferrara had an awful time working on his first major studio film, and the film’s lack of thematic focus can be blamed on studio interferance.
For a somewhat uneven film, there are some big scares and unsettling moments.  Meg Tilly’s turn as the pod mother is the scariest of the series, and Forest Whitiker’s cameo is riveting.  More of a genre B-movie than a thoughtful satire, but, flaws aside, this is still a good film.

The latest incarnation, “The Invasion” (originally titled “The Visiting”), had a troubled shoot and hits theaters at least a year late.  Yet, the trailer is promising, the poster captures an eerie mood and using Finney’s classic concept and updating it for a new, post-9/11, utterly paranoid new generation could be a masterstroke…or not.  We’ll see.  For now, get caught up on the first three films- they’re great sci-fi thrillers (with or without
the political subtexts) and deserve to be seen on their own.  Watch them with someone you love and trust…if you can truly trust them!

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Barry Wurst

Barry Wurst II is a senior editor & film critic at MAUIWatch. He writes film reviews for a local Maui publication and taught film classes at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (UCCS). Wurst also co-hosted podcasts for and has been published in Bright Lights Film Journal and in other film-related websites. He is currently featured in the new MAUIWatch Podcast- The NERDWatch.

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