Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

The extraterrestrial invasion of Santa Mira is more than just the event that this film chronicles. No, Invasion of the Body Snatchers has transcended its simple science fiction roots to become a cultural touchstone. We often refer to people acting differently as pod people; those who may have never seen this film or its many sequels intimately know its plot and what it means.

Thanks to this new Olive Films Signature reissue, I’ve had the opportunity to watch this film again and my goal was to evaluate it as if I were watching it when it was first released.

The conceit is simple: Alien plant spores have shown up in a small California town and reproduce exact copies of human beings, taking on the exact physical characteristics, personalities and even memories of those that sleep near them. Within a month, they’ve completely taken over the town and created an untroubled world, a place of no emotion or worry, a place where everyone is one of us. 

Near the end of the film, one of the pod people tells our hero, Dr. Miles J. Bennel (Kevin McCarthy) that their way is so much better. “Love, desire, ambition, faith – without them, life’s so simple, believe me.” When he exclaims that he wants no part of this new world, he’s told that he has no choice.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is bold in its depiction of love in 1956. Both Miles and his former flame Becky (Dana Wynter, Airport) are suffering through divorces and unlike many films of the era, they are not represented as bad people for their actions. Instead, their romance is championed. It may mean nothing to us watching the film 62 years after its release, but the fact that they stay in the same room and have a romance at all was groundbreaking.

Miles and Becky manage to escape the entire town being taken over until a dog is nearly run over. Becky’s emotional outburst alerts the pod people, who blast sirens as our heroic couple races against an army chasing them, up steps, through city streets, across mountains, even with Miles carrying her (there’s a charming moment in the bonus footage on this disk where Wynter says that McCarthy never complained or even got out of breath because he’s a gentleman) in a fruitless attempt to escape. They separate and when they finally find one another, Miles can’t wait to kiss his lover. In horror, he learns that she is now one of them too.

That’s when the most arresting images of this movie appear. Miles runs into the night, a non-stop chase that brings him onto a crowded highway filled with transport trucks loaded with pods bound for the major cities. He screams in vain at passing cars as they narrowly avoid hitting them, his panicked face streaked with sweat and rain and car lights in the deep dark night, bellowing, “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next!”

This was to be the original ending of the movie, but focus groups — yes they had them back then, too — wanted a happy ending. The promise at the end, where the FBI is alerted and the pods will obviously be stopped, rings hollow. That final image of Miles on the highway in abject panic as the camera pans up and away is just too powerful.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is filled with talent, with everyone giving their best performance, from the future Morticia Addams, Carolyn Jones, to character actor par excellence King Donovan and even future Wild Bunch director Sam Peckinpah, who has a minor role as a gas meter reader.

Some see a story within a story in this film, a meta-commentary on the dangers facing America such as McCarthyism while others see it as an allegory for the loss of personal rights in the wake of Communism. Several connected with the film state that it had no such aim, but you can graft any story onto any movie if you want.

This was remade in 1978, which is a really great version that goes even deeper (and gorier) into the storyline of this film, as well as Abel Ferrara’s 1993 Body Snatchers and the 2007 film The Invasion. And Santa Mira is, of course, the setting for Halloween 3: Season of the Witch. Obviously, the film is a big influence on John Carpenter, as you can see hints of it in his film They Live.

McCarthy would later reprise his role of Dr. Miles in the 1978 remake, as well as Looney Tunes: Back in Action. He’s also Fred Francis, named for that noted director, in Joe Dante’s The Howling. The interview segments with him on this disk make him seem like quite the likable fellow. Actually, all of the extras are heartwarming, making one feel that they’re sitting around with some movie-loving friends and discussing this together.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a film that speaks to audiences with the same confident power that it did in the mid 1950’s. It has lessons within it that should never be lost and I feel that it should be required viewing for all film lovers, even if you dislike science fiction (that said, it’s closer to a horror movie than pure SF).

The new Olive Films Signature release is packed with extras, such as a new high-definition digital restoration of the film, complete with two commentary tracks — one by film historian Richard Harland Smith and the other a roundtable featuring actors Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, and filmmaker Joe Dante. Then there are several documentaries, such as “The Stranger in Your Lover’s Eyes,” a two-part visual essay with actor and son of director Don Siegel, Kristoffer Tabori, reading from his father’s book “A Siegel Film;” “The Fear is Real,” which has Larry Cohen and Joe Dante give their thoughts on the film; “I No Longer Belong: The Rise and Fall of Walter Wanger;” “Sleep No More: Invasion of the Body Snatchers Revisited,” which has comments from fans of the film including John Landis, Mick Garris, and Stuart Gordon; “The Fear and the Fiction: The Body Snatchers Phenomenon,” which delves deep into the production of the film and its many meanings; “Return to Santa Mira,” which explores the shooting locations; “What’s In a Name?” a discussion of the significance of the film’s title; a gallery of rare documents detailing aspects of the film’s production including the never-produced opening narration to have been read by Orson Welles (!); an essay by author and film programmer Kier-La Janisse and the film’s original theatrical trailer.

You can get the new Olive Films Signature release right here. But hurry — it’s limited to only 5,000 copies!

Disclaimer: I was sent this film by Olive Films for review and in no way did that impact this article.

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