Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Directed by Don Siegel

Screen Shot 2018-06-07 at 1.06.12 PM

In the first scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, we look inquisitively at a panic-stricken doctor, Miles (Kevin McCarthy), who claims that there have been a series of strange events.  He is surrounded by those who doubt whatever story it is he’s about to tell, even as they are quite willing to listen.  Over the course of the film we follow the doctor’s journey and learn that he has every right to feel the way he does.  By the end we hope those listening will believe him as we do.

Miles lives in a small town, one of those Leave it to Beaver kind of places basking in the glory of World War II triumph where everyone knows each other and has their best interests at heart.  Things are going so remarkably well in these types of places that there is almost always something else bubbling under the surface.  

In the case of Body Snatchers it’s aliens who are born out of large seed pods and then take over the humans.  The aliens are not vicious or particularly sinister.  Instead they just take over as simply and quickly as some kind of plague.  Them taking over the humans is something like natural selection, a stronger species imposing its will on another.

Those who have ‘turned,’ claim it’s for their own good.  They are calm, measured and speak of nothing but pleasant feelings.  Miles, however, argues that the absence of pain means the absence of pleasure.

See, Miles recently fell in with an old flame, Becky (Dana Wynter), whom he didn’t realize was back in town.  As they investigate the strange behavior around town, leading to the discovery of the alien seed pods, they fall quickly for each other.  Eventually they are the last two humans in town, surrounded by those who insist it’s time they transition over.

The hosts argue that there is no need for love, and this is when Miles gets his moment to say what’s so great about being human.  You know, even though sometimes things are bad, the sh*t only fertilizes what will grow into the good.  So it’s awesome being human, and it’s worth fighting for.  That’s the message.

Miles and Becky hold out as long as they can, staying awake because the hosts take over when the humans go to sleep.  Eventually she falls asleep, and before Miles knows it, she’s one of them.

Traumatized, Miles flees for the highway, hoping that he can get out before he’s taken over in order to warn the others.  That leads us to where the film began, with the crazed doctor ranting and raving about how no one is who they claim they are.  No one believes him, understandably, until a fortunate turn of events, a coincidence really, in which a car crash reveals all the seed pods to which Miles referred.  Suddenly the authorities realize he’s telling the truth, and they take action to quarantine the Leave it to Beaver town.

I find it interesting that the film ends not with the happy reunion between the two love birds, but rather with Miles’ failure to save the woman he loves.  The final beat is still a positive one, as far as the story goes, but it concerns not victory, instead just the acknowledgement of what’s going wrong.

So this film is about communism, right?  That’s what I’ve always assumed, and the red scare was a fear-mongering tactic that led Americans, at least certain Americans, to question the true motivations behind other Americans.  These weren’t the enemies abroad, as in World War II, but rather people who looked like you or me and lived amongst us.  

Invasion of the Body Snatchers takes this idea and tries to make it more literal.  These are figures who are ostensibly still human, but something’s just off about them.  They’re different, and they claim they’re better off for it, but our heroes know damned well that this isn’t the case.  

The main idea of communism, at least generally speaking, is to level out our differences.  Everyone’s the same, and we all get the same lot.  We are equal, but in that equality their might be a reduction of our own unique qualities.  What Body Snatchers argues for is capitalism.  Sure we might not always win, but we could win, and that’s what matters.  It’s better to be unique and risk failing than it is to give up our individuality and become like everyone else.

It remains fascinating that there doesn’t appear to be a way to reverse the body snatching effect.  Once turned, an individual is gone forever.  Body Snatchers treats the phenomenon as permanent, ever-present and relentless.  

The film is both campy, like a B horror film, as well as imbued with self-importance.  It feels grander than the literal story, and the film is told with a series of lessons as if the filmmakers thought this would be one of only a handful of films ever made.  It’s not just a story but a parable.

Why is the doctor the hero?  He’s involved in the story because as a doctor the townsfolk look to him to help solve what appears to be going wrong with their neighbors, friends and family.  Still he can only do so much and quickly refers the patients to a doctor more suited to diseases of the mind.

The doctor demonstrates a certain powerlessness early on, but he is looked to as though he holds some kind of power.  He matters, but he deals with things from a practical standpoint, which means he’s unable to properly diagnose or attack this problem.  The threat of Invasion of the Body Snatchers transcends logic.

Still, by the end he is the only person who truly understands what’s happening and why it’s bad.  The doctor’s arc is to finally diagnose the problem and to fight it like you would fight cancer.  

Miles gets out, living to tell the tale like that messenger Gerard Butler sends back to the royal court in 300.  He lives up to that mythic status the townsfolk bequeath him.  He’s humble and practical, but by the end he’s a prophet of some sort, sent to spread the good word, or the dangerous word or whatever you want to call it.

Look it’s 11:18 pm, and I’m on a plane feeling a little nauseous, so this is all I really have to say right now.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a delight because it’s short, quick to the point, and it’s one of those anthropological pieces of film that offers a lot more than just a story.  From what I can tell it’s a symbol of the ways people thought in this time period, what they feared and were most proud of.  It’s some kind of symbol of ego, like a propaganda film about the strengths of American capitalism versus the threat of communism both domestic and abroad.  It’s the line of thinking championed in this film that helped get us involved in Korea and Vietnam.  Right?  

You can make a horror movie out of anything.  From something I read a while back, there are apparently more vampire films when a Democrat is in office and more zombie films when a Republican is in office.  We make horror films about what we fear as a way of overcoming that fear.  Or of manipulating the audience in a subconscious fear-mongering tactic.

Up Next: Cujo (1983), The Beast Must Die (1974), Fitzcarraldo (1982)

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