31 (More) Days of Fright: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Space flowers for Algernon.

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. What better to follow up on last night’s movie than the (first) remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), directed by Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being), and suggested by friend, president of book distributor Ampersand, and former college instructor of mine Saffron Beckwith. I also picked up a DVD of this version Invasion of the Body Snatchers from Queen Video. Lets compare and contrast, shall we?

What happens:

The late 1970s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is nearly identical to the original (and, I imagine, the book by Jack Finney upon which it’s based), but differs in a few notable ways. For one, our story does not take place in the fictional small town of Santa Mira, but the swingin’ 70s metropolis of San Francisco! And instead of opening with a frame in which our hero recounts hist story, this film opens on an alien wasteland, where we see the seed pods rise from the planet, travel through space, and rain down on the Golden City, infecting the plant life. Department of Health employee Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) spots an unusual flowering plant and decides to take it home.

She returns to find her dentist boyfriend, Geoffrey (Canadian treasure Art Hindle) busy watching basketball with headphones on. She shows him the special plant and has a difficult time identifying it in her plant reference books. Across town, tough-as-nails health inspector (and Elizabeth’s co-worker), Matthew Bennell (other Canadian treasure Donald Sutherland) is putting the screws to a French restaurant after he finds a rat turd in their soup stock. (They assert it’s actually a caper.) Not everyone appreciates Matthew’s work ethic, and he finds his car’s windshield broken by an inexpensive bottle of French wine. Fittingly, we view much of the film’s later scenes through Matthew’s splintered glass.

No rat turds on the watch of Matthew Bennell, ace health inspector.

When he returns home, Matthew calls Elizabeth and informs her he needs her to come into work early the next day. Reluctantly, she agrees and falls asleep with the newfound plant set at Geoffrey’s bedside. Atypically, her sports-loving boyfriend is up and dressed early, sweeping up debris on the bedroom floor. He doesn’t say much, just takes the refuse directly to the back of the garbage truck, and heads off to work. Elizabeth, however, confused by Geoffrey’s behaviour, arrives within the marbled walls of the Department of Health later than expected. Once there, she shares with Matthew how strange Geoffrey has been acting: “He was just weird.” After work, he becomes stranger, passing up Warriors tickets in favour of a mysterious meeting. When Elizabeth questions him, he puts up a wall: “I don’t need to justify my every action to you.”

Left alone for the evening, Elizabeth visits co-worker Matthew at his apartment, where he’s whipping up a delicious stir fry and flirting up a storm. She tries to explain how Geoffrey has changed: the feelings, the emotions are different. But he’s clearly the same person. Elizabeth starts to wonder if she’s experiencing psychotic delusions. Matthew offers to introduce her to his friend, celebrity psychiatrist, Dr. David Kibner – not because he thinks she’s mentally ill, but because Kibner could help eliminate possibilities, such as if Geoffrey has “become gay” or has contracted a “social disease.”

The next morning, Matthew drops off some stained clothing at his Chinese dry cleaners, and the co-owner tells him his wife is not his wife. Elizabeth later surprises him when he’s working late at the office to dish more info on Geoffrey’s strange behaviour. That day, she followed him to work, and witnessed him meet with people she’d never seen before, passing around things swaddled in blankets. Overnight, everything has become frightening and conspiratorial. They decide to meet with Dr. Kibner right away – that evening he’s launching a new book – and drive to see him. Along the way, they nearly run over a man ranting in the street (Kevin McCarthy, star of the original film, in a clever cameo). The seemingly disturbed man is run down by a car moments later and a gathered crowd seems content to just watch him die in the street.

At the book launch, they meet their friend, Jack Bellicec, who seems to be a failed writer of sorts, and doesn’t take much stock in Kibner’s acclaimed ideas. That’s when we meet Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), busy on-stage consulting a woman, Katherine (Leila Golden) who loudly proclaims her husband, Ted (Tom Luddy) is an impostor. Elizabeth wants to intervene with valuable information – namely that she’s felt the same way about her husband and, further, that she’s seen this woman’s husband meeting with her own. But Kibner refuses to let Elizabeth talk, and instead reconciles husband and wife with his quiet, soothing words.

Kibner takes Elizabeth and Matthew outside to discuss Elizabeth’s personal crisis. He doesn’t believe that Geoffrey is an impostor any more than that woman’s husband was. Instead, he sees this rash of people claiming their loved ones as impostors as a symptom of the modern world, where people enter and leave relationships too quickly. He suggests that Elizabeth is seeing Geoffrey as an impostor because it’s an easy way to excuse herself from their relationship. Then, confusingly, as Jack approaches them, Kibner throws him up against the wall, to “shock her.” (These Invasion movies are, invariably, packed with suspect psychiatrists.)

Jack returns to his place of business, Bellicec Baths, a spa and mud bath that doesn’t seem overly hygienic. (They definitely reuse the mud at Bellicec Baths.) His wife, Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright), a crunchy granola type, is hard at work assisting customers, but Jack, aggravated by his encounter with Dr. Kibner, treats himself to a steam. We learn that Mr. Gianni, an intense reader and regular spa customer, recently gifted Nancy a plant (!), which explains why why she later finds a half-formed slimy clone on one of the massage tables and screams blue murder.

There are much worse things you can find in spa than a Jeff Goldblum clone.

Matthew has accompanied Elizabeth back to Geoffrey’s apartment, but the dentist is nowhere to be seen (though we viewers see him lurking in the shadows). Shortly after Matthew has brought Elizabeth home safe, he gets a call from the Bellicecs to do a little unofficial health inspection. He arrives and sees the smooth, vague body with his very own eyes, declaring it not unlike some sort of adult fetus. As you’d expect, they soon determine this body is the same height and build as Jack (though Goldblum’s Jack is significantly taller than King Donovan’s). Realizing what impossibly seems to be occurring, Matthew calls Geoffrey’s apartment to warn Elizabeth, but Elizabeth is already being drained by and covered with plant tendrils. Geoffrey takes the telephone from her and leaves it off the hook. Sensing skullduggery, Matthew leaves immediately.

This leaves Jack and Nancy with the half-formed clone. At some point, Jack injured himself and got himself a nosebleed. So when Jack lays down to rest, the clone opens his eyes the very moment the real Jack’s eyes close. Also, his nose begins to bleed. Oh, and tendrils start to creep out from his body. Nancy sees this alarming phenomenon and wakes her husband, and then Dr. Kibner arrives to surprise them both. Back at Geoffrey’s house, Matthew decides to break in through the basement window. Geoffrey has headphones on to watch the basketball game, so doesn’t notice at Matthew creeps upstairs to see an Elizabeth clone, surrounded by lush plants, and the real Elizabeth, unconscious in her bed. He tries in vain to wake her, and when this fails, he carries her out the way he came.

Back at the Bellicec Baths, Kibner returns to his friends in the lobby to tell them there’s nothing remotely like a body in there. Jack and Nancy can’t believe this and tear the spa apart looking for the clone. Kibner thinks one of Jack’s friends must have played a practical joke on him. “I don’t have any friends,” Jack mumbles. That’s when Matthew returns with Elizabeth and asks Nancy to take her back to his apartment. He calls the police from the spa and reports a body at Geoffrey’s, but when the police, Kibner, and Geoffrey arrive, what was a clone is now a few ceramic pots surrounded by houseplants. Elizabeth, however, is missing, and – given the circumstances, it looks like Matthew kind of kidnapped her. However, Kibner is able to smooth things over with the police – the detective’s wife is a big fan of his books – and Geoffrey decides not to press charges.

Our protagonists go over the situation at Matthew’s apartment, and Dr. Kibner can’t believe what his friends are saying – they seem to be buying entirely into fantastical notions. Most fantastical of all: that a flower – the flower Elizabeth found and the one that a client brought to the spa – is somehow responsible. A flower, perhaps, from outer space! (“Why do we expect metal ships?” Nancy asks.) However, Kibner agrees to do a favour for Matthew and set up a phone call with the mayor, one of his patients. However, Matthew gets the runaround from every government official he contacts. No one will listen to his plea. (However, we viewers expected that, for we saw Kibner later enter a car with noted pod people Geoffrey and Ted. He’s already one of them.)

Elizabeth, while Matthew is attempting to elicit help from the authorities, takes the flower to her colleague at the Department of Health to be be analyzed. (Nothing ever comes of that.) Over the course of day, people who had previously believed their loved ones were impostors – the dry cleaner, Katherine from the book launch – assure Matthew and Elizabeth they were mistaken. Our heroes hole up in Matthew’s hilltop apartment, where Kibner advises a good night’s rest before departing.

Matthew Bennell visits his apartment’s rooftop garden, but soon begins to doze in a lawn chair. As he does, tendrils emerge from the garden to ensnare him. Then a giant flower (not noticed by Matthew earlier) basically begins to give birth (it’s very yonal), ejecting a plant fetus that slowly takes shape as a Donald Sutherland duplicate. Also on the rooftop, clones of Jack, Nancy, and Elizabeth begin to take shape. Luckily, Nancy ascends to the roof and wakes Matthew up with a scream when she sees the slowly forming doubles. Matthew and Nancy race downstairs to call the police, who somehow already know who’s calling. Everybody’s in on it! Then the power’s cut and the streets outside are barricaded.

The green roof movement has gone way too far.

Our survivors go to the roof to leave via the fire escape. Before leaving, Matthew picks up a shovel and attempts to work up the courage to kill the Elizabeth clone. While he fails, he succeeds in smashing in the face of his own clone in a horrible, gory mess. Once the four hit the street level, they are chased through the night by nearly everyone in the city. The pod people begin emitting a horrible screech as chase them down a long flight of stairs (way easier a trip than up the staircase, as in the original!). They overcome numerous obstacles but are completely stymied by a chain link fence that’s about the height of Jeff Goldblum. When a police helicopter arrives, Jack and Nancy race in the other direction to draw it away, leaving Matthew and Elizabeth on their own.

Elizabeth and Matthew speed-walk into a seedier area of the city (which seems like it hasn’t been infiltrated by pod people). They find a cab and instruct the driver to take them to the airport, but become increasingly paranoid with every question the cabbie asks. The airport is crawling with police, and when the cops stop the taxi, Elizabeth and Matthew escape out the back. They make it back to the Department of the Health (must be near the airport), where their busker friend and his dog companion are unconscious beside a large flower. (Matthew gives the flower a swift kick and it oozes blood.)

A police officer follows them into their offices, and Elizabeth and Matthew have to hide in a darkened closet. While in hiding, Matthew and Elizabeth kiss, with Matthew looking for the world like he’s trying to loosen a screw with his lips (further bolstering my theory that Donald Sutherland can’t kiss – a theory first established after watching Don’t Look Now). After the cop leaves, they take a look out the window and spot trucks distributing massive seed pods to dozens and dozens of people. Elizabeth begins to lose hope. The pod people seemingly control the city, and she’s too exhausted to go on. Luckily, they find a solution in their office: speed. “How many does it say to take?” Matthew asks. “One,” Elizabeth answers. “Take five.”

Jack Bellicec arrives at the office, but he’s also brought Kibner, Geoffrey, and a few others with him. Jack has been assimilated. They restrain Matthew and Elizabeth while Dr. Kibner injects them both with a sedative to assist them in falling asleep, all while making a speech similar to the one Kaufman makes in the original film. Being a pod person frees them from troubles, from anxiety, from feeling. Matthew argues that becoming a pod person also means you all think the same – Jack and Kibner always fought before, and now they agree on everything. Elizabeth confesses to Matthew, “I love you,” but Matthew leaves that admission just hanging there.

The pod people drag Matthew and Elizabeth in front of two fresh pods, but Elizabeth breaks a bottle over Kibner’s head and Matthew chokes Jack out (and apparently stabs him in the back of the head with a dart). Seeing the elevator guarded, they try to escape via the stairs. They encounter Nancy in the stairwell, but she seems to be her old self. (Not a pod person!) She provides our heroes with some helpful tips – she’s discovered you can fool the pod people by not showing emotion. The three leave the office and line up to collect pods as blankly as they can.

It’s approaching *that* point of the party.

However, while waiting in line, they encounter a grotesque sight: the busker’s dog has fused with the human busker’s face. (Why this happens is never explained.) The frightful sight causes Elizabeth to shriek, and they’re found out as humans! Found out, Matthew slaps an old lady and they flee, leaping unseen onto the back of a transport truck.

The truck brings them to an enormous factory where the pod people’s operations are centred. Unfortunately, Elizabeth rolls her ankle, which slows them down a bit. After the injury, Matthew then admits he loves her too. (Sure. When no one else is around, Matthew.) While hiding in some tall grasses outside the factory, they hear bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace.” Realizing only a human being could be idiosyncratic enough to enjoy the sound of bagpipes, Matthew tells Elizabeth to stay put while he investigates. The music is coming from a radio upon a large cargo ship, which is when Matthew remembers he lives in a port city! They could escape on a ship! Unfortunately, the ship in question is being loaded with massive seed pods.

Matthew returns to Elizabeth to see she’s fallen asleep in the reeds, and her body is covered in vines. He tries to shake her awake, promising her that the ships will take them away. But Elizabeth rots and turns to plant goo (answering the question of what happens to the original humans once cloned). The clone Elizabeth pops up in the reeds, stark naked, and beckons him to join her in sleep. Matthew runs and Elizabeth cries her banshee wail, pointing out the interloping human being.

Our surviving human hero returns to the pod compound, where he encounters a massive greenhouse with rows and rows of pods being incubated by overhead lights. Matthew scurries up to the rafters, a la Soylent Green, and grabs a fire axe. Alarms immediately sound and a nude Elizabeth storms in, pointing toward Matthew above and emitting her piercing wail. But it’s too late. Matthew starts attacking the light rigging with ferocity, bringing the lights down on the plants in a series of fiery explosion.

Matthew slides out of the compound via the roof, with the pod people hot on his heels and the factory exploding around him. The pod people chase him down the street and Matthew finds refuge under a boardwalk. One pursuer peers down into the boardwalk below and shines a flashlight that provides a nice filmic transition to the next morning.

The next day, we see Matthew sauntering down the street, walking among the unsuspecting pod people doing their old jobs, if somewhat more joylessly than usual. Matthew, as before, cuts clippings from the paper. Business as usual. At lunch, he walks over to City Hall when he’s stopped by Nancy. (Remember her? She’s still human.) Hearing Nancy’s voice, Matthew turns, raises his pointer finger at her, and shrieks the pod person shriek. (OMG!)

Whatcha gonna’ do when Sutherland-mania runs wild on you?!

Takeaway points:

  • If the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers was either an allegory for Communism or allegory for McCarthyism, what does this film, made in 1978 mean? The same premise is in place: individualism crushed by a collective will, a creeping inhumanity infecting the populace. But there are clues that this inhumanity arises not from any sort of political dogma, but (strangely) the social phenomenon of self-interest. This is the era of the Me Decade. This film is set in a city, where people are naturally more distant (rather than the quaint and friendly small town of Santa Mira), precisely to emphasize this reading. Kibner notes people these days are more self-interested, less willing to work out a difficult relationship (something a male psychologist would say). Even when the street ranter is run over in the street, no one makes a move to help; they just watch him die. And this is before most of them are pod people. It’s not a stretch to say that Kaufman uses Invasion as a warning that people’s individualism not turn to solipsistic self-interest.
  • Interestingly, if you read the man ranting in the street as Dr. Miles Bennell (from the original film), this Invasion becomes not a remake, but a sequel of sorts. The framing device in the first movie could be read as a dream sequence. The invasion has spread from Santa Mira to the major city of San Francisco. And instead of saving humanity, Miles dies in the street. (Grim!)
  • Though the remake lacks the framing device of the original, the cosmic introduction (revealing definitively the extraterrestrial origin of our seed pods) does the job of removing any ambiguity. We know it’s an invasion; we saw the pods. There’s never a question over whether this is a mass delusion. It does, however, also have a way more cynical end. Perhaps post-Vietnam and Watergate, Americans couldn’t believe in the false hope at the end of the original. There’s no chance for Nancy. All hope dies at the film’s conclusion.
  • Though there have been two other remakes of the central Invasion of the Body Snatchers story, it would be interesting to see a non-white and non-American (or specifically recent immigrant) director tackle the story. The films are about assimilation, but it’s invariably the white American majority who are fearful of this assimilation. What would a similar film look like from the perspective of someone who has had to struggle with his or her own assimilation into white America? That would likely be a very different and very interesting Invasion.
  • Can we admit that Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright) is the real hero of Invasion of the Body Snatchers? She first alerts people to the duplicates, she survives the longest, she’s the first to champion the idea of the “space flower,” she draws the police away from Matthew and Elizabeth, and she comes up with the idea to act blankly to confuse the pod people. Without Nancy, our other protagonists would have died forty minutes into this film.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a solid remake – mostly faithful to the original with an added level of Watergate-era paranoia, and a couple unsettling scenes of gore. And the sounds the pod people make are enough to give nightmares on their own. There are scares, for sure.

Oh, and I suppose you just leave the back of your hand naked?

Best outfit: There’s a lot of great 70s-era fashion on parade, but you have to hand it to Dr. Kibner, king of the useless accessory, for his leather half-glove that he wears for no apparent reason.

Best line:What’s a big conspiracy?” Matthew asks Jack. “Everything,” he responds.

Best kill: Matthew Bennell smashing in his own face with a shovel haunts my dreams. After seeing it, you won’t be able to see Donald Sutherland’s face without imagining it caved in by a garden implement and gushing blood.

Unexpected cameo: The inclusion of the original film’s star, Kevin McCarthy, playing the exact same role he did at the end of the first movie, is a stroke of genius. Additionally, the original film’s director, Don Siegel has a cameo as the taxi driver who takes our heroes to the airport. Weirder still, Robert Duvall has an inexplicable cameo as a priest playing on a child’s swing in one brief scene.

Unexpected lesson learned: Most health inspectors are, at heart, failed chefs themselves.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Worlds in Collision (the title of the book Nancy’s literate client recommends).

Next up: Mr. Vampire (1985)

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!)