Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) ****
Dominating and defining its genre in much the same way that Halloween and Godzilla: King of the Monsters do theirs, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the quintessential alien paranoia movie. It is one of the most intelligent and original sci-fi/horror films of the 1950’s, and along with War of the Worlds and The Day the Earth Stood Still, it is one of the best remembered today. Its enduring attraction stems not just from its technical and artistic brilliance— though it has plenty of both— but from the ingenious open-endedness of its premise. As can be deduced from the fact that this one film has been interpreted as both an anti-communist and an anti-McCarthy polemic, it is possible for viewers of all ideological persuasions to see in the alien Pod People whatever social or political force most gives them the creeps, allowing Invasion of the Body Snatchers to retain its power and transcend its era in a way that very few 50’s genre films have.
When Dr. Miles Binnell (Kevin McCarthy, who spent most of his career as a mainstream actor before returning to horror and sci-fi in such movies as Piranha and The Howling), a general practitioner in the small Southern California hamlet of Santa Mira, is called home from a medical conference to tend to the needs of a sudden swarm of patients, he very rapidly encounters hints that some nameless evil is afoot in town, though he does not at first recognize the signs for what they are. Despite the adamant insistence of his patients that they see him at once, not a single one of them actually bothers to come to him once he’s back in his office. He and his nurse, Sally Withers (The Man Who Turned to Stone’s Jean Willes), think it’s a bit weird, but nothing more than that, and in any event, Dr. Binnell has something far more interesting on his mind. As he soon learns, he’s not the only one who’s just arrived in Santa Mira— an old girlfriend of his, named Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), has come back to restart her life in the aftermath of what was evidently a rather ugly divorce. Miles and Becky start seeing a lot of each other in the days that follow, and as Binnell himself recently had a marriage collapse on him, it doesn’t exactly require a doctorate in psychology to see what’s about to develop between them.
But the weird and the creepy keep intruding on Miles and Becky’s budding romance. To begin with, Becky’s cousin, Wilma Lentz (Virginia Christine, from The Mummy’s Curse and House of Horrors), has become convinced that her uncle Ira isn’t really her uncle Ira. Sure, the guy looks like Uncle Ira; sure, he talks like Uncle Ira; sure, he acts like Uncle Ira— he even has all of Uncle Ira’s memories. But damn it, it’s not him! Obviously neither Becky nor Miles is willing to swallow this story, and Miles makes an appointment for Wilma to see his psychiatrist friend, Dr. Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates, from The Henderson Monster), but it isn’t long before the situation becomes even stranger. That same day, a young boy is brought to Binnell’s office by his grandmother, who says the child refuses to go to school and believes his father has been replaced by an imposter. A quick chat with Dan Kauffman reveals that Santa Mira is just then in the grip of a veritable epidemic of paranoia, with people from all walks of life complaining of the replacement of somebody they love by an emotionless doppelganger.
Then Binnell is confronted with seemingly incontrovertible evidence that it’s more than just mass paranoid hysteria. While he and Becky are out on a date, Nurse Withers rings Miles at the tavern where he told her they were going. It seems a friend of Binnell’s named Jack Belicec (King Donovan, of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and The Magnetic Monster) needs to see him right away— Belicec didn’t say why, but whatever his situation is, it’s quite urgent. So Miles and Becky postpone their dinner, and stop by the Belicec place, where they are presented with what looks to all appearances to be a dead body on Jack’s pool table. There’s something funny about the stiff, though, above and beyond its unexplained appearance in Belicec’s house. Its features are somehow indistinct, almost as if it were some kind of generic man, although it does bear a very vague resemblance to Jack Belicec. More importantly, and stranger still, the mystery corpse has no fingerprints; the tips of its digits are completely smooth. When he discovers this fact, Miles gets almost as creeped out as Jack and his wife, Teddy (Carolyn Jones, from House of Wax and “The Addams Family”), were when they first found the body. At a total loss for what to do, Miles tells the Belicecs to keep an eye on the body, and then takes Becky home. Oddly enough, her father is awake and working in the basement when they arrive. Then, a couple of hours later, Binnell gets another call from the Belicecs, informing him that they had dozed off for a bit, and then awakened to find that the body had changed to become an exact duplicate of Jack! Some flash of intuition makes Miles suddenly fearful for Becky’s safety, and he rushes over to her place, where he finds— that’s right— an exact duplicate of Becky concealed, unconscious, in the cellar. But strangely, both duplicates have vanished by the time Miles and Jack think to call Dan Kauffman for assistance, and the psychiatrist dismisses the whole thing as a delusion or hallucination.
But there’s no explaining away what happens a few days later, when Miles, Becky, and the Belicecs are having a cookout over at Jack and Teddy’s house. In the greenhouse, Miles finds four huge seed-pods, which are even then in the process of hatching into replicas of him and his friends. Their efforts to secure help from the Proper Authorities turn up conclusive proof that the entire town of Santa Mira is under the control of these pod people, and that the vegetable copies that have taken the place of most if not all of their neighbors want to make sure that they are similarly replaced before they have a chance to tell anyone what they have learned. With all communications relays in town in the hands of the pod people, the only way Miles can think of to get help is to send the Belicecs off on a cloak-and-dagger mission to the nearest town, while he and Becky remain in Santa Mira to draw the attention of the doppelgangers.
Naturally, the Belicecs never make it past the city limits. When Miles and Becky are cornered in Binnell’s office the next morning, Jack is among those who come to collect them, as is Dan Kauffman. Kauffman explains that the pods grew from seeds that had drifted across space for untold eons, finally falling to Earth in a farmer’s field just outside of Santa Mira. The alien plants are capable of mimicking any form of life they encounter; all they need is to be nearby while their “hosts” sleep, until finally the completed copies absorb their models’ minds and memories. What happens to the original human/animal/whatever after that is never explained, but the people thus replaced do not think of themselves as mere clones, but rather as perfected forms of themselves, freed from the debilitating handicaps of their emotions and individual wills. And right now, what the duplicates want most is to share this heightened state with Miles and Becky. The last two humans in Santa Mira have other ideas, though, and after a narrow escape, they attempt to flee to the safety of the main highway (which will take them, if they follow it long enough, straight to Los Angeles) with an entire town’s worth of pod zombies hot on their heels. But with all the farmland surrounding Santa Mira converted to growing pods, there may be no safe place left between there and the big city; it’s a long walk to L.A., and Miles and Becky will have to sleep sometime...
By 1956, the idea of alien invaders replacing or possessing humans in order to further their plans was old hat. It had been used by two of the all-time greats of the genre, Invaders from Mars and It Came from Outer Space, and had even figured in The Man from Planet X as early as 1951. What distinguishes Invasion of the Body Snatchers from its predecessors is an entirely new conception of the aliens doing the possessing. 1953’s invading Martians and shipwrecked spacefarers had a conscious agenda, an end to which the possession or replacement of a few Earthlings was merely the means. The pods, on the other hand, aren’t even intelligent, in and of themselves; the duplication and replacement of Santa Mira’s citizens isn’t part of a plan, but part of a life-cycle. Because this invasion has no deliberate purpose—indeed, the pods ended up on Earth completely by accident—it is that much harder to fight. Would-be conquerors, after all, can be defeated in battle, their plans can be foiled through espionage, their ability to wage war can be undermined by attacking their supply lines. But when a new species moves into an environment, it is Darwin, not Clausewitz, whose principles govern the situation. The U.S. military may have beaten nearly every fighting force it has ever crossed swords with, but let it take on kudzu or the zebra mussel, and we’ll see who wins then! So, when the credits roll on Invasion of the Body Snatchers before the usual climactic showdown against the aliens has even been set up, the viewer is left with a rare and commendable feeling that we may not win this one in the end after all.
I think it’s that, along with the filmmakers’ refusal to draw their parallels too explicitly when characterizing the pod people, that gives Invasion of the Body Snatchers its kick today. The big battles, the kind that make you look to allegory and metaphor to help you understand them, are never really over, and neither is Binnell’s struggle against the pods. Whether it’s communism or conformity, religious fanaticism or the Ku Klux Klan, anything that seems to turn people into something less than human can be seen, by those who want to look, in the faces of the not-quite-men and not-quite-women who grow from those beans from beyond the stars. Just as surely as there will always be groups and organizations whose ideas seem to pose a threat to society, the pod people will always resonate with echoes of those menaces. And because the movie ends with the first call to arms, rather the final, decisive clash, the story of Invasion of the Body Snatchers remains in the present tense. It is as though the events it portrays were happening now, even despite all the two-tone and tailfins and pointed brassieres. I don’t like to throw words like “timeless” around casually, but this is one case where the use of that adjective is fully warranted.