The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

4 stars out of 4. Immortal Film.

This is a film about the complete destruction of the American dream buried in Cold War paranoia and 50’s Americana that is typically seen as referring to the Red Scare. Did I mention it’s a low budget B-movie?

By now, most are aware of the general plot. Mysterious stories begin to spread about people not seeming like themselves. Relatives and friends appear remote and distant. Yet they’re obviously themselves. They seem perfectly normal. What ever could be wrong with you? Then alien seed pods begin to appear and all is truly not what it seems…

This simplicity of production, B-movie status, taut direction of Don Siegel, only adds to the almost unbearable tension and sense of realism. Siegel so rightly insisted on location shooting (and much like Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943)) uses the guise of real small town of  America like a pitchfork to get inside the seams of our lives and turn things completely inside out in order to show us the remoteness of our “civilized” society.

This is most reflected in the relationship between Miles and Becky. Both have been estranged by the supposed perfect marriage as promised and drilled into them by society. Then that same society which had so absolutely rejected the two attempts to reclaim them and destroy their individuality. All chances of their lives being something are so totally and utterly destroyed. This creates such a supreme sense of disillusionment that it leaves the viewer overwhelmed by these ideas of such darkness.

The shocking use of everyday actions and logic behind this nefarious plot that the most innocent of actions become monstrous attacks against the very soul. Right down to putting a pod inside a child’s crib so that it may better absorb the life energies. The seduction of all facets of humanity is so complete and total that the alien presence almost feels like a version of us from the future. All organized and blank. Isn’t it wonderful?

The path to re-creation by pod and acceptance of mental energies occurs through sleep. A replacement must be grown from nothing and only when fully formed can take all of your mental energies away. These shades of rebirth and reincarnation are not purely coincidental. When a body is found unformed in a basement, our heroes go over it to  find a perfectly formed physical shell of a possible man. The alien force must grown into the shape of you in order to then become you. The question then becomes, do you actually survive this in any way? If something looks like you, sounds like you, acts like you, thinks like you, does it actually exist as you? What becomes of the soul? This diabolical version of reincarnation mocks us as beings for all of our humanity is stripped away and we are no more than the empty bodies that our society’s constant need for success shapes.

The effects in Invasion are almost nonexistent..the fear is all psychological (this plays into the imposed bookends and narration so that the entire episode could be the ravings of a lunatic) and this is then trashed by the beyond coincidental discovery of a truck carrying seed pods. But of course, the townsfolk chasing Miles have stopped at the edge of the highway and simply let him go. “Who’ll believe him?”

The studio couldn’t believe the bleakness of the film and after some test screenings demanded a re-shot opening, narration and “happier” ending. Instead of letting some other person direct these scenes, Siegel insisted on doing them himself even though he despised the changes being made. I think it is this that is the reason why the film still works well with an unbelievably coincidental ending  and narration that is just tacky in places. The line “I never knew real terror until I kissed Becky” still gets laughs from audiences today.

The imposition of SuperScope  (a poor man’s CinemaScope that simply stretched an image out to fill a odd sized 2.0:1 frame later modified to a 2.35:1 size) on the film destroys certain compositions, imposes focus on different areas and makes the image seem a bit tacky due to the overstretching. I’ve heard and read discussions on Siegel’s use of the widescreen frame etc. but have always had to laugh a bit at these because none of it’s true. All of it’s invalid because the film was shot flat and meant for 1.85:1. Another example of people reading even more into this wonderful film.

If there was ever a classic in need of both restoration and a better presentation on disc, this would certainly be a title. The pictured Republic DVD is the only available NTSC version and is from the early days of the format. It is presented in the original SuperScope 2.1:1 from a restored print. This is relatively clear and presentable, but suffers from being at a low bitrate, non-anamorphic letterbox and interlaced video with some combing. The flipside presents what is presumably an Academy ratio presentation of the film, but is in fact nothing more than a pan n’ scan of the restored SuperScope print. It even features the same print marks.

The original version is something which I have been tempted to recreate for some time in a fan edited version from the theatrical edition. It would seemingly be relatively a matter of removing the added opening and ending and simply ending upon Miles stranded on the highway screaming out to the unwitting drivers “You’re next!”. Unfortunately the imposed narration cannot be removed throughout the rest of the film and there was no way for me to make this hybrid version.

The actual film was cleaned up somewhat for its Criterion Collection release on laserdisc in 1989. In 1994, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. The Republic DVD was then released in 1998. In 2005, a retrospective for Don Siegel was held by the AFI and a print of Invasion was requested. The original camera negative had been destroyed and so Paramount Pictures kindly struck a new print from the best available elements.

What remains to be seen is if the original intended version minus bookends and narration can be recreated in a restored print. There are conflicting reports of additional material being excised by the studio prior to the film’s release so this may prove to be more difficult than imagined. Still, a heavily researched editorial reconstruction like the 1998 reconstruction of Touch of Evil would be a very welcome sight.

In any case, this is a true American classic and one of those B-films that completely rose above their limited budgets and modest productions to stick with the audience so vividly that they became ingrained in out popular culture forever.

I made a discussion thread about this film on the Steve Hoffman Music forums asking about some of the film’s details, condition and my favorite still that isn’t actually in the film:

http://www.stevehoffman.tv/forums/showthread.php?t=265465

One of my favorite stills in film history. And it's not in the movie!!

The same location today

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Review, Immortal Films

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