Screen Gems Invasion of the Body Snatchers
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS 1956, horror, not rated, Lensic Performing Arts Center, no charge, 3.5 chiles
A man, looking terrified, exhausted, and a little bit crazy, rushes headlong into traffic on a congested highway, screaming at motorists to beware of a coming invasion. “Can’t you see?” he screams to the indifferent motorists around him. “They’re here already! You’re next!” This near-climactic sequence from 1956’s Invasion of
the Body Snatchers remains one of the most memorable moments of cinematic terror. Seen as an interesting misfire when it came out, playing to so-so box-office business and mixed reviews, Don Siegel’s inexpensively made black-and-white science-fiction film has since attained the reputation of a cult classic. The Lensic Performing Arts Center screens the film at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 31, as its Halloween trickor-treat offering. And this is no trick: Admission is free.
Based on a three-part serialized novel written by Jack Finney and published in Collier’s magazine, the film deviated from the then-popular motifs of the sci-fi genre. It featured no monsters, no oversized insects, no visitors from outer space, and almost no violence.
Instead, it told the tale of the nice people of a small California town who slowly began to lose their personalities and become, in their own way, the walking dead: zombies who don’t want to eat flesh, but, perhaps more frighteningly, don’t know how to love. The hero, an average Joe who doesn’t understand what’s going on but knows he’s got to do something about it, comes to realize that some strange force is behind the transformations. In a shocking sequence set in a greenhouse, he finds the answer: pods. Big pods, too, that produce doubles of the local citizens and intend to take over their bodies.
Director Siegel was a native of Chicago who had already toiled away in Hollywood for nearly two decades, mostly working as an editor, second-unit director, or creator of montages for Warner Bros. For the first 15 years of his career as a feature-film director, which began in 1946, he experienced a frustrating routine of nearly breaking into the big time with one movie before getting stuck in cinematic mud with the next. It seemed like every other movie he made in those days ran out of money before production was slated to end, forcing him to shoot three days of footage in just one day. For example, a decent film noir with Robert Mitchum, 1949’s The Big Heat, was followed by a string of routine B movies like The Duel
at Silver Creek (1952) and Count the Hours (1953). He would later break this streak in the 1960s and ’70s with a run of successful films that included Dirty Harry (1971), Charley Varrick (1973), and Escape from
Alcatraz (1979). In 1954, producer Walter Wanger at Allied Artists hired Siegel to direct the tense prison drama Riot
in Cell Block 11. After that film’s release, Siegel was hot. Wanger read Finney’s story, called “The Body Snatchers,” and optioned it for Allied Artists with an eye toward having Siegel direct.
“Despite the absurd title, which cheapened the content of the story … we recognized that a most original film could be made — not only entertaining, but frightening as well,” Siegel wrote in his 1993 autobiography, A Siegel Film. Siegel suggested that Wanger hire screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, who had scripted two previous Siegel pictures and would script at least two more, to adapt the story. “Danny likes to work closely with the director, talking out a sequence, writing it, then showing it to me,” Siegel
wrote in his autobiography. “Once we agreed on the pages, I would hand them over to Wanger. He usually liked our ideas and would make a few suggestions, which Danny would rewrite. Then we would plunge ahead to the next sequence.”
The filmmakers shot the picture in somewhere between 19 and 23 days (accounts vary) on a budget of somewhere between $300,000 and $400,000 (accounts vary again) in the small town of Sierra Madre, California. The stars of the film were hardly stars: Kevin McCarthy, a stage-trained actor with a penchant for incorporating intense Methodstyle acting into all of his roles, played the hero, a small-town doctor unable to fathom how to cure the spreading disease around him. The leading lady was British actress Dana Wynter, who later said she thought the film was so absurd that she was ashamed to tell her mother she was acting in something called Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The rest of the cast was full of recognizable and professional character actors like King Donovan, Carolyn Jones (on the verge of screen and television stardom, most notably as Morticia Addams in the ’60s series “The Addams Family”), Whit Bissell, Richard Deacon and, in a small role, a guy named Sam Peckinpah, who was soon to make a name for himself as a writer and director.
The film gives little sense of who or what is behind the transformation of small-town folks into the equivalent of human pods. Siegel said he saw the emotionless pod people as stand-ins for the men who ran the movie studios at the time. Critics and film historians have since come up with an array of theories for what the movie is really about: The pod people are representative of the Communist scare enveloping America at the time, or perhaps a symbol of a growing lack of individuality in the 1950s culture of rigid complacency and adherence to community norms. One character in the film wonders aloud whether the whole thing is because of “mass hysteria initiated by worry about what’s going in the world.” Talking to documentary filmmaker Thys Ockersen for the film Don Siegel: Last of the Independents sometime around 1980, Siegel said, “Most of the time, my pictures are about nothing. You read into them, but I don’t read into them.”
You don’t have to read too deeply into the film to feel the terror as in the course of a tight 80 minutes, the few remaining holdouts from the pod plague desperately look for a way out. They are living out a nightmare in which daylight does not make the scary things go away. Siegel captures that sense of uncertain fear in almost every frame, adding touches of dark humor (not enough, he later maintained, because Allied Artists’ producers cut a lot of that stuff out) and little moments of risqué dialogue between the two leads. The producers also insisted on adding a prologue and epilogue to the original structure, lessening the impact of the film in Siegel’s eyes. But the story caught on: The picture has since been remade several times, though there are few critics who believe any of those efforts are as successful as Siegel’s.
Perhaps Siegel, who died in 1991, would be amused to know that there are some who believe that pod people still exist among us. Santa Fe film historian Jerry Barron said Siegel’s version is “a peculiar film noir sci-fi about a peculiarly American sort of paranoia. It’s interesting that about every 10 to 20 years it gets remade to address whatever particular anxiety our collective psyche seems to be experiencing. It’s especially interesting that perhaps we haven’t had a more recent remake, because the story’s depiction of anxiety has finally broken out of the big screen and into real life in the form of the Trump administration and his fearsome base of voters/pods.” — Robert Nott
Invasion of the Body Snatchers screens 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 31, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St. There is no charge for admission.
Kevin McCarthy prepares to torch a pod that may contain his double
On the run: Dana Wynter and McCarthy; far right and below, the pods begin to multiply