31 (More) Days of Fright: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Just when you thought it was safe to go into the greenhouse …

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. Today’s film is the original paranoid thriller, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), directed by Don Siegel (Dirty Harry), and suggested by friend and illustrator, James Turner. James recently published a very fun steampunk adventure for young readers, Theo Paxstone and the Dragon of Adyron, that I highly recommend. I picked up a DVD of Invasion of the Body Snatchers from excellent video store, Queen Video.

What happens:

In 1950s small-town California, Dr. Hill (Whit Bissell) is brought from the local psychiatric hospital to the ER to diagnose a general practitioner, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), who has been ranting and raving ever since police found him. Dr. Bennell insists he’s not insane, and urges Dr. Hill to listen to his story. And so, our framing device ends and the invasion begins.

Just a casual chat about this whole body snatching business.

Dr. Miles Bennell returns to his small town of Santa Mira after a medical conference, and his nurse, Sally (Jean Willes), is relieved because patients have been asking to see him non-stop since he left. The town has been plagued by ailments that no one really wants to speak about. Miles takes particular interest when he hears that Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) – an old flame, back in town from England following a divorce – is among the patients who’s asked to see him. As Sally gives Miles a ride to the office from the train station, a boy runs out into the road in a panic and is nearly run over. Luckily, they brake in time, but when Miles and Sally ask his mother what’s the matter, she simply notes that little Jimmy hates school. But the vegetable stand the family runs – usually doing boffo business – has been shuttered.

Miles and Sally arrive at his office, and though his morning was chock-full of appointments, they’ve all been cancelled by the patients. The one exception is Becky Driscoll, who is concerned about her cousin, Wilma (Virginia Christie) who is having delusions: she insists her Uncle Ira is an impostor, though he looks exactly like Uncle Ira. Miles makes plans to visit Wilma when Jimmy (the kid he nearly ran over) loudly enters his office. His grandmother has dragged him there, but Jimmy is not pleased. Like Wilma, Jimmy claims his mother isn’t his real mother. Miles, alarmed at this rash of delusions, sedates the kid and tells the grandmother to keep him at her house (instead of with the mom) for a few days.

Becky and Miles make a visit to cousin Wilma. Miles does a thorough eyeballing of Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) while he’s mowing the lawn, and he appears to be the genuine article. Wilma, seated in a lawn chair out of earshot of her uncle, says there’s “something missing.” Ira looks the same, has all the memories her uncle should have, but there’s no emotion. “Just the pretence of it.” Wilma worries that she’s losing her mind. Miles doesn’t think so, but he does recommend seeking psychiatric help and says he’ll set up an appointment with his friend, Dr. Danny Kaufman (Larry Gates). (It’s interesting to note how much more reluctant Wilma is to undergo psychiatric treatment than Irena wass in Cat People, filmed 15 years earlier.)

Miles and Becky, both recently divorced and clearly very pleased to find each other in the same town, decide to go for dinner. At first, they’re nearly run over by Dr. Kaufman, the town psychiatrist, and Dr. Kersey, the other general practitioner. But the near-accident allows the doctors to discuss the mass hysteria they’ve all noticed among their patients. They part ways and Miles and Becky share a passionate kiss outside the front door of the Sky Terrace restaurant before heading in. The restaurant is completely empty, and the owner notes its been that way for two weeks. Of course, Miles gets a call at the club from his nurse, and their date is cut short.

They are summoned to the house of Miles’s friend, Jack Belicec, who has a surprise for them in his billiard room. (So many billiard rooms in horror movies!) Lying under a sheet on the billiard table is the (seemingly) dead body of a stranger. But it’s a stranger who has no signs of trauma and one they can’t identify. “Like the first impression of a coin,” Jack notes, smoking his pipe. The features are vague and undefined, and his hands produce no fingerprints. They examine the body closer and Teddy (Carolyn Jones), Jack’s wife, notes he has the same height and build as Jack. Hearing this, Jack drops a tumbler and cuts his palm on the glass.

No man cave is complete without the addition of a vaguely faced body.

While Miles patches up Jack’s cut hand, he begins to think the discovery of this body could be connected to the mass delusions Santa Mira is experiencing. He asks Jack and Teddy to keep close watch on the body, and if nothing changes by morning, they’ll notify the police. Miles then drives Becky home, where her dad has been working late in the basement. While Miles and Becky make eyes at one another in her foyer, across town the eyes of the billiard room body pop open, which Teddy notices immediately. She moves closer to the thing and sees its palm now has a cut – exactly in the spot where Jack cut himself hours earlier! Teddy screams, “It’s you!!” Jack grabs his wife and they flee their house.

Miles telephones his psychiatrist friend, Dr. Kaufman and summons him to the Belicecs’, but moments later has a strong premonition that Becky could be in danger. He speeds over to the Driscolls’ house, not even putting the car in park before racing to the door in his smoking jacket. Instead of announcing himself, he creeps around the house and breaks into the basement. As he skulks around, he makes a terrifying discovery: a Becky-like body in the storm cellar! Seeing this, he creeps up to Becky’s room, where she’s busy sawing logs and can’t be woken. Miles simply lifts her into his arms and – reverse-honeymooon-style – brings her across the threshold and into his car.

Dr. Kaufman meets the assembled friends in the Belicec’s billiard room and is immediately skeptical of their story about duplicates. Making it harder to believe: the body has gone missing, and all that remains is a blood stain where the head was. Kaufman believes everything can be explained scientifically; their imaginations got away with them. Miles notes there’s another body at the Driscolls’, so he and Kaufman head there, sneak into the basement (again), and discover what Miles thought was a Becky clone was a bunch of rags and root vegetables, hidden in shadow. Becky’s dad then descends the stairs, toting a shotgun (fair enough), and tells them he’s reported their break-in to the cops. Speaking of whom, a police officer arrives almost immediately. When he hears all this talk of a body, he notes a body with no fingerprints was found in a burning haystack at a nearby farm. So … mystery solved?

Becky doesn’t feel safe in her own home, so she and Miles play house, with Becky making some undercooked eggs (two minutes?!) for breakfast. They have two houseguests, though: the equally spooked Jack and Teddy, who ask to stay as lodgers for a while (putting the kibosh on Miles’s plans to turn his home into a love nest). Over the course of Miles Bennell’s work day, he’s stopped by both Wilma and little Jimmy, both of whom say they were being silly before, and don’t think their family members are impostors anymore. Sounds like a good a reason as any to have a barbecue, so that’s just what our heroes do. However, when they enter Miles’s backyard greenhouse, they discover massive seed pods ejecting foamy ooze. And under that ooze? (The secret of the ooze, if you will?) Duplicate bodies. And these ones are rapidly taking the shape of Miles, Becky, Jack, and Teddy.

Once these seed pods pop, they can’t stop.

Jack is eager to stab the sleeping clones with a pitchfork, but Miles wants to call the authorities first. He telephones the FBI in Los Angeles, but they don’t answer. In fact, he can’t get an answer from any emergency numbers. Miles then instructs Jack and the ladies to drive away and get help in the first town they can find, but Becky wants to stay with him. Becky waits for a return call from Sacramento while Miles heads to the greenhouse to take care of their twins. Hoisting the pitchfork high, he’s unable to kill the Becky clone, but he has no such trouble spearing his own self.

After a while, they abandon the plan to wait on Sacramento and hop into the car to leave town. They stop at a gas station to fill up and make another call, but Miles becomes paranoid about the gas attendants and cuts the phone call short. They drive a short distance away when Miles brakes and investigates his car’s trunk: someone has stuffed them with two giant seed pods! He puts them on the road and uses a road flare to torch them. (Apparently the seed pods are made of oily rags because they become a conflagration in no time.)

They return to Miles’s place, but he finds it’s no longer safe: through his window he can see duplicates of himself, Becky, and Becky’s dad (who has already been replaced by a clone) in the middle of a chat. While peering in on his duplicate, a cop taps on his shoulder and invites him to go inside. At this point, there are more pod people than Miles can keep track of. He returns to the car and races away with Becky. The police (likely all pod people at this point) put out an APB for Miles and Becky, and our heroes become frightened quarry.

After escaping the police, they hide their vehicle in a used car lot and retreat to Dr. Bennell’s office. A police officer is almost immediately upon them, so they are forced to hide in a closet. Once the cop leaves, Becky and Miles go to the water cooler to stay hydrated (important) and discuss what’s happening. Clearly the people of Santa Maria are being replaced by emotionless vegetable clones, and who knows what’s happening to the original bodies. Miles, feeling cynical, notes that everyone loses their humanity, but it usually happens gradually, without people even realizing it. The pod people have just made it a much quicker affair. Still, neither Miles nor Becky is too keen to become a pod person, so they decide to stay alert and not fall asleep.

As daylight breaks, they look out the window and find the town looks just as it would any other day. Widespread panic hasn’t run through the streets. This invasion is easy like Sunday morning. But this typical suburban landscape is interrupted by an alarming scene – all of the townspeople suddenly begin to converge on one town square. Then three trucks arrive, filled with seed pods. The pods are divvied up among the people, who are heading to neighbouring towns where they have families. The invasion is moving outward. “It’s a malignant disease spreading through the entire country!” Miles shouts.

Darkest. Farmers’ Market. Ever.

Shortly thereafter, Jack Belicec arrives, but he’s not Jack anymore. And he’s brought Dr. Kaufman and a cop, who are carrying some pods intended for Miles and Becky. “Remember how Teddy and I fought it?” Jack reassures them. “We were wrong.” Dr. Kaufman highlights the psychiatric benefits of becoming a pod person. The people of Santa Mira used to have all sorts of problems, but now, thanks to these seeds from outer space, “You’ll be reborn into an untroubled world.” No need for love, no feelings, a simple life. And, Miles adds grimly, “where we’re all the same.” Becky, likewise, declares she’d rather die than live in world without love.

That said, Becky and Miles are kind of trapped; it’s just a matter of time before they’re replaced by pod people. But Miles sets up a clever trap – a sneak attack with sedatives that incapacitates Jack and Dr. Kaufman. And when the cop intervenes and starts to choke Miles, Becky stabs him in the neck with the third tranquilizer. They escape the medical office and attempt to blend in with the rest of the populace by appearing emotionless and blank. “Well, Sam,” Miles says, drawing unbelievable attention to himself, “We’re finally with ya.” But a random dog nearly gets run down in the street, causing Becky to scream, and the pod people to be alerted to their very human presence.

In no time, the town’s klaxons sound and the entire populace is chasing Becky and Miles on foot. They run up an extreme flight of stairs, then over a mountain, attempting to reach the highway. Exhausted, they make their way to a mine tunnel, and hide themselves under some boards, outfoxing their pod pursuers. Momentarily safe, Miles and Becky rest (but don’t dare fall asleep) until they hear signing from outside. A pod person couldn’t make music, right? Singing requires emotion. (Tell that to Mark Hoppus) Miles decides he’ll investigate alone to make sure the singers are as “human as they sound.”

If nothing else, the body snatchers are very concerned about cardio.

The song, however, is coming from a radio inside a truck that’s being loaded with seed pods. Disappointment abounds. Miles heads back to the tunnel but can’t find Becky. Eventually he sees her lying on the ground, and begins to shake her awake in a panic. “You didn’t go to sleep?” he asks. She denies it, but they’re both so tired, they’re not sure how they can go on. Collapsed in the mud, they kiss, and Miles suddenly realizes – in vivid close-up – Becky has changed. The scene is a nightmare inversion of the classic beach make-out in From Here to Eternity. “He’s in here!” the pod person Becky shouts, alerting the others to Miles’s location.

Miles runs all night, eventually making it to the highway. As he reaches the busy road, the pod people stop chasing him, figuring no one will ever believe his story. And they’re right! Dr. Miles Bellicec frantically grabs at passing cars, shouting, “They’re here already! You’re next!” Drivers dismiss him as drunk or crazy, which brings us back to our framing device, as Miles concludes his story for Dr. Hill.

Hill and the other on-duty doctor discuss the tale, with both concluding it as delusional, but then the paramedics wheel in a truck driver who changes everything. The driver was apparently in a wrecked truck buried under massive seed pods. Dr. Hill immediately calls the authorities (who I guess are now answering their telephones) and orders all roads out of Santa Mira to be blocked. All is not lost!

Dr. Miles Bennell, making a horrible realization.

Takeaway points:

  • Anyone who has even heard of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers knows its easy to read as either a parable of Communism or McCarthyism. But how can one movie be two so politically different things? Essentially, the film is about a quiet invasion – an invasion done without armies or weapons, but one that nevertheless entirely changes a populace. Communists were thought to be infiltrating the American public with their “dangerous” ideas in the 1950s. The Communists looked just like any other Americans. This, in turn, inspired the Red Scare and McCarthyism, with people turning on their friends and neighbours because they seemed strange or different – un-American. At heart, though, the film is about conformity (which, depending on who you speak to, is prevalent in both Communism and McCarthyism), and how it’s anathema to the American (or Western) idea of rugged individualism. The genius of the film is that it holds up to either reading particularly well. Miles and Becky’s fear is the fear of becoming part of a collective intelligence – of losing their individuality.
  • One reading of Invasion of the Body Snatchers that doesn’t get mentioned often was posited by my wife, Meg. Instead of Communism or McCarthyism, what if Invasion was about the many men and women who came home from either World War II or the more recent Korean War, irrevocably changed by their wartime experiences? They were the same people, but came back completely different. The wars dehumanized them. Vegetable stands shuttered, offices closed, and people seemed somehow hollow. This may not play as well into the idea of “invasion,” but there are definite parallels.
  • The framing device, which essentially reveals that Dr. Miles Bennell is correct – the invasion is happening and it’s not mass hysteria – is, to my mind, an unfortunate conclusion. Before that, as Meg noted, it’s “the ultimate gaslighting movie.” (Though Gaslight would probably argue that.) Are “Communists” really invading? Is there a reason to suspect our family, our friends, our neighbours? Is my husband really my husband? The framing device resolves all these unanswerable fears and tells us that, once again, the government has it all under control. Dr. Hill might as well have called Senator McCarthy directly at the end of the film to tell him the Reds are in Santa Mira. And just think of how iconic the film would have been if it ended with Kevin McCarthy ranting in the middle of the highway. What could have been …
  • As you’re also probably aware, Invasion of the Body Snatchers has seen multiple remakes – about one every twenty years. (I’ll be watching the first remake from 1978 immediately afterward.) And why not remake this film? Paranoia is an evergreen fear, open to reinterpretation and updates. Loss of individuality can be established through political dogma, totalitarianism, consumerism, social media … there is no limit to new takes for later and future eras.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Invasion of the Body Snatchers is great – think of it as a truly amazing episode of The Twilight Zone. And, as with that show, there are some unsettling moments that stick with you. In this film: the town eerily converging on that square.

“Oh, this? Just a little something I put on when I have a doctor’s appointment.”

Best outfit: Nobody makes a visit to the doctor more fabulously than Becky Driscoll.

Best line: “I didn’t know fear until I kissed Becky.” – Dr. Miles Bennell? Or the opening line to a great erotic thriller?

Best kill: Almost nobody dies in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s not that kind of horror movie. So, by default, Miles impaling his clone self with a pitchfork wins. But I’m also a sucker for people murdering their doppelgängers.

Unexpected cameo: Acclaimed Western director Sam Peckinpah not only acted as a ghost screenwriter for Invasion of the Body Snatchers, he also has a small role as Charlie. And Carolyn Jones, who plays Teddy Belicec, is best known as Morticia Addams from the original TV show.

Unexpected lesson learned: While rationalizing the body on Jack Bellicec’s billiard table, Dr. Kaufman notes, “You can kill a man by driving an ice pick in the base of the skull, leaving a puncture wound that the naked eye can’t see.” File that away for future use, enterprising murderers.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: The Hot Dog Show. (The amazing name of the hot dog stand where Santa Mira police officers hang out.)

Next up: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). (They’re back!)

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