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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

The threat of an alien invasion has been a popular sci-fi theme in movies ever since the early fifties when films like The Thing (From Another World) (1951), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Invaders from Mars (1953) and It Came from Outer Space (1953) had everyone watching the skies anxiously. Perhaps that's why Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) struck a nerve with audiences when it first appeared. Not only had the aliens already landed but they had assumed human form and were living amongst us. Set in the sleepy California town of Santa Mira (a fictitious place), this unsettling tale, based on Jack Finney's original story that first appeared in Colliers Magazine, follows a doctor as he tries to a treat a strange malady that is sweeping through his town. Patients are coming to him insisting that family members and loved ones are impersonators, devoid of emotion, and not the people they used to know. At first skeptical, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) discovers shocking evidence at the home of his friend Jack (King Donovan) that confirms his rising paranoia but his efforts to warn the authorities may already be too late.

Initially, Jack Finney had an altogether different idea when he began writing Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He recalled that "my first thought was that a dog would be injured or killed by a car, and it would be discovered that a part of the animal's skeleton was of stainless steel; bone and steel intermingled, that is, a thread of steel running into bone and steel so that it was clear the two had grown together. But this idea led to nothing in my mind." (From the book They're Here...Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute). Instead, Finney came up with another concept "in which people complained that someone close to them was in actuality an imposter," an idea that took flight and became a metaphorically rich narrative where humans were being replaced by emotionless pod imitations. In fact, the 1956 film version was interpreted by some critics as an anti-Communist allegory; others saw it as a thinly disguised attack on McCarthyism. Finney, however, maintained that "it was just a story meant to entertain, and with no more meaning than that...The idea of writing a whole book in order to say that it's not really a good thing for us all to be alike, and that individuality is a good thing, makes me laugh."

Director Don Siegel saw something else in Finney's story when he first read it in Colliers Magazine and "recognized that a most original film could be made - not only entertaining, but frightening as well" (from his autobiography, A Siegel Film). It also confirmed a sneaking suspicion of his. "Danny [Mainwaring, the screenwriter] and I knew that many of our associates, acquaintances and family were already pods. How many of them woke up in the morning, ate breakfast (but never read the newspaper), went to work, returned home to eat again and sleep?" Yet, the pod people would not appear to be such insidious predators if human beings weren't such easy targets, a sentiment Miles expresses in the film when he says, "People allow their humanity to drain away and don't realize how serious it is until it is directly threatened."

Invasion of the Body Snatchers was shot on location in the small town of Sierra Madre, California and in and around Bronson Canyon in the Hollywood Hills. It took nineteen days to shoot at a cost of approximately $300,000. For the casting, Vera Miles was considered for the role of Becky Driscoll, Miles' girlfriend, but producer Walter Wanger decided he wanted to use Dana Wynter, a young actress who was under contract to Fox. Kevin McCarthy had already worked with Siegel on a previous film, An Annapolis Story (1955), so they had a good working rapport; McCarthy even suggested a less sensational title for the film, "Sleep No More" but the studio brass rejected it as too high brow. In addition to Carolyn Jones and King Donovan, the film's second leads, the rest of the cast was comprised of first rate character actors such as Whit Bissell, Richard Deacon and, in a bit part, future director Sam Peckinpah as the meter reader (he also served as the dialogue director on the film).

Of course, the real stars of Invasion of the Body Snatchers are the pods. Siegel recalled in his autobiography, that "My brilliant art director, Ted Haworth, figured out a way of creating the pods that was simple and relatively inexpensive (around $30,000). The most difficult part was when the pods burst open, revealing exact likenesses of our leading actors. Naturally, they had to have naked impressions of their bodies made out of thin, skin-tight latex. Foaming soap bubbles would gradually disappear, revealing, yet still concealing, their entire bodies." This process required body casts of the lead actors; Dana Wynter, in an interview with Tom Weaver, recalled "I was in this thing while it hardened, and of course it got rather warm! I was breathing through straws or something quite bizarre, and the rest of me was encased, it was like a sarcophagus. The guys who were making it tapped on the back of the thing and said, 'Dana, listen, we won't be long, we're just off for lunch [laughs]!' In the end, we had to be covered except for just the nostrils and I think a little aperture for the mouth." Siegel later claimed that during filming he crept into Wynter's house and slipped a pod under her bed, causing her to become hysterical when she found it. "That is a bit far-out," Wynter replied when she heard Siegel's account. "Actually, he left it on my doorstep. He had a girlfriend who lived next door to me...and he would pass my cottage all the time. And one night he just left it on the doorstep!"

Ms. Wynter wasn't the only one who found making Invasion of the Body Snatchers a sometimes trying experience. Kevin McCarthy (in an interview with John McCarty) recalled that "the toughest day for me was staggering up those long, interminable stairs on that steep flank of Beachwood Canyon and then across the rugged landscape that falls away to Bronson Canyon. The crew had rigged a gizmo out of block and tackle and so forth so the camera could dolly upwards but be looking downwards to study Dana and me (for half a day) as we tried to escape the pursuing vegetables. We made it to the crest! Half hour lunch break. Then we started down the other side of the hill into Bronson Canyon, fighting our way through wild brush, the terrain, rough and morguly. Then Dana took her spill and I carried her into the cave where we hid under those boards. Rigorous going." Siegel, however, thought the final sequence was more challenging with McCarthy trying to warn motorists about the pods on the Hollywood Freeway. It was "shot on a crossbridge scarcely used. The police allowed only our cars and trucks, about fifty, driven only by stunt drivers...There was no process in the picture: every shot was authentic. The shots of Kevin's final scene were filmed just before dawn, and Kevin was in real danger, considering that he was at the breaking point of complete exhaustion. The stuntsmen knew this and were alert to the fact that he might fall down, but happily there were no accidents.

One aspect of Invasion of the Body Snatchers that continues to arouse controversy and divide viewers even today is the fact that the film exists in two different versions, one with a downbeat ending, the other with a more hopeful one. Siegel also revealed that he had originally included several humorous touches in his final cut which the studio, Allied Artists, later edited out without his approval. "In their hallowed words, 'horror films are horror films and there's no room for humor,' Siegel recalled. I translated it to mean that in their pod brains there was no room for humor. The studio also insisted on a prologue and an epilogue. Wanger was very much against this, as was I. However, he begged me to shoot it to protect the film, and I reluctantly consented...Oddly enough, in Europe and in the 'underground' in America, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was shown with the prologue and epilogue edited out. Like this, it was known as 'the Siegel version.'" Most viewers, however, are probably more familiar with the official Allied Artists cut which ends with McCarthy convincing a psychiatrist and hospital doctor to contact the FBI. In Siegel's more pessimistic climax, McCarthy spots a truckload of pods on its way to the next town while passing motorists ignore his frantic attempts to warn them.

Director Philip Kaufman pays homage to the latter scene in his often inventive 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which McCarthy has a cameo role at the beginning; he's ranting and raving, "They're here, they're here," just before he's accidentally struck down by a car in San Francisco's Tenderloin district (the driver is the film's protagonist played by Donald Sutherland); Don Siegel also makes a brief appearance in the film. In 1993, Body Snatchers, directed by Abel Ferrara and starring Gabrielle Anwar, Meg Tilly and Forest Whitaker, marked the third remake of Finney's novel and there will probably be more. But it's hard to top the original. Horror novelist Dean Koontz summed up the film's enduring appeal in the book They're Here...Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute: "Many of us spend the evening hours online, staring at a screen rather than at human faces, communicating without the profound nuances of human voices and facial expressions, seeking sympathy and tenderness without the need to touch. All the while, through our bones creeps the persistent feeling that we are losing our humanity. No wonder we still respond to Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers so powerfully, even more than forty years after its initial release."

Producer: Walter Wanger
Director: Don Siegel
Screenplay: Richard Collins, Jack Finney (novel), Daniel Mainwaring, Sam Peckinpah
Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks
Film Editing: Robert S. Eisen
Art Direction: Ted Haworth
Music: Carmen Dragon
Cast: Kevin McCarthy (Dr. Miles J. Bennell), Dana Wynter (Becky Driscoll), Larry Gates (Dr. Dan Kauffman), King Donovan (Jack Belicec), Carolyn Jones (Theodora Belicec), Jean Willes (Nurse Sally Withers).
BW-81m. Closed captioning. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford

VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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