Alternatively interpreted as a Cold War (read: Communist), McCarthyite, or even an Eisenhower-era cultural allegory, Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers can fit neatly into either interpretation, in large part because of it's thematic dependence on the fear of depersonalization and the suffocating constraints of (small-town) conformity (other examples of body-snatching films from the era that reflect similar themes include It Came From Outer Space and I Married a Monster From Outer Space). Tied to that fear of depersonalization and the loss of self, however, is another fear, one inherent in the unknowability of other individuals and the recognition of that knowledge, which itself leads to the anxieties that underlie emotional intimacy (with the breakdown of the social contract not far behind).
Set in a sleepy, nondescript California town, the fictional Santa Mira, Invasion of the Body Snatchers uses a film-long flashback to frame the action (the prologue and epilogue were added in post-production, at the direction of the film's producer, Walter Wanger, who was concerned about the dark, pessimistic tone of the film). The flashback, while decreasing dramatic tension (the audience knows, at minimum, that the protagonist, Dr. Miles Bennett [Kevin McCarthy] has survived), primarily serves to undercut the film's stark pessimism, but also functions to give the audience hope against hope: that the other principal characters we have encountered between the prologue and the epilogue somehow survive, even if they have been separated from the protagonist by the film's end. That audience expectation is increased when two secondary characters leave the protagonist and the female lead in order to obtain assistance for the town.
Suspense is quickly created by dramatic irony: the audience knows, through the film's title and the flashback framing device, more information than the protagonist does throughout the film. At key points in the narrative, the audience's superior knowledge increases audience sympathy and empathy for the main character. Invasion of the Body Snatchers begins in media res when Dr. Bennett returns to Santa Mira from a medical conference, the town is already besieged by an inexplicable epidemic. The patients report similar occurences: their immediate relatives appear to have been replaced by simulacrums (although identical in physical appearance to their relatives, the doctor's patients claim that "something's missing" from these impersonators). Their doubts, however, are quickly overcome by a solid night's sleep. Are these occurences simply a case of mass hysteria, as the town's lone psychiatrist repeatedly claims? As the tide of mass hysteria (or alien invasion) takes over the town, Dr. Bennett, along with his love interest, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) and his closest friend, Jack Belicec (King Donovan) and his wife, Teddy (Carolyn Jones) struggle to overcome their fears and doubts, and survive the night without sleep.
As the town inexorably turns against the principal characters, they are compelled to uncover the nature of the alien invasion (seed pods) and the method (they replace you while you sleep), as well as the aftermath (the aliens duplicate all of your features except one: emotion). The aliens can mimic emotion, but can never fully experience it. They promise the protagonist that he'll be "reborn into an untroubled world; a world without love." More than emotion, its passion and, by extension, romantic love that separates alien from human. In the narrative world created by Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it's emotion and feeling, not intellect that distinguishes human from alien. Like 1951's The Thing From Another World, a strain of anti-intellectualism typical of 50s American culture, a distrust and skepticism of scientific rationalism permeates Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, unfortunately, suffers from a significant plot hole at the third-act climax. The protagonist (and the audience) has learned that the seedpods need time to absorb the memories and bodies of their hosts (the pods also depend on a close, physical proximity with them). Neither seems to happen at the climax, yet a major character appears to be transformed during a too-brief time period. Plot hole aside, however, [i]Invasion of the Body Snatchers[/i] succeeds in creating a sustained sense of suspense, in part because of dramatic irony, and in part due to the tight pacing and editing. In a film that barely breaks the eighty-minute mark, there's not a single scene that feels unnecessary or unnecessarily long: even expository scenes are relayed through conflict. For example, while Miles attempts to reach the state capital (he's on hold with the operator), he relays his conclusions about the seedpods to another character. While the audience's attention is tied to the phone call, and whether they'll be able to get help, the protagonist slips in key exposition. Even the romantic subplot is handled deftly: the protagonist's first date with his romantic interest is quickly interrupted by a phone call that leads him to an unidentified body that uncannily resembles his closest friend, Jack Belicec.
Uncanny is the perfect word to describe both the experience of the characters in the film and the audience. The uncanny can best be described as the defamiliarization of the ordinary, a generalized sense of dislocation lies at the center of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Siegel doesn't use gore or shock effects. The special effects are kept to a minimum (the seed pods, plus the half-formed doubles). The premise supports the dramatic structure of encroaching menace and oppressive claustrophobia, but it's further emphasized through Siegel's classical compositions, mis-en-scene, and night-time photography arguably influenced by contemporary film noirs. With Siegel's polished direction, even a simple scene late in the film, an early morning delivery of seedpods via trucks to the sun-drenched town square, becomes a potent source of anxiety and fear. Seen only as a science-fiction/horror "B" movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is still highly effective, engaging entertainment.
© Mel Valentin, 12th July, 2004
What do you think of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Share your opinions on our forum