Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 05/18/04 22:25:44

"Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I have a love for 50's sci-fi. Without snazzy CGI to rely on, the directors, producers and writers had to rely on those little things called imagination and strong writing. Fancy that eh? This resulted in some classics of the sci-fi genre being born in the 1950's. Granted there were stinkers (Teenagers from Outer Space etc) but compare that to the classics such as 'This Island Earth', 'War of the Worlds' and this, the original Bodysnatchers film. A little hokey in retrospect,it nevertheless stands up as a creepy, minor classic. So good in fact, they re-made it twice.

This is how the invasion started, in small town America. Doctor Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns to his hometown of Santa Mera to find he's got a waiting list a mile long. There's a strange affliction sweeping the town where everyday people are claiming that their closest friends and relatives simply aren't themselves anymore. Hooking up with old sweetheart Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) Bennell soon finds that Santa Mera is actually being invaded by communists, sorry, I mean aliens. Aliens. Not communists. Nope, definitely no commies here.

Taking the three bodysnatcher films together it's still the 70's Kaufman version that's the best. Siegel's original however is comfortably in second place, being a lot classier and creepier than Ferrara's 90's update. Without a huge budget of any sort to work with Siegel works wonders with a material that could have easily been over the top or ludicrous. He keeps the hints of what's happening in Santa Mera creeping in slowly to subtlely raise the tension and claustrophobic nature of the idea. With no money for expensive shots of changing pod people it's left to the skill in setting up the situation to draw the viewer in.

Setting it in an ordinary faceless town helps as does the atmospheric black and white cinematography (avoid any re-colourised version). It never comes across as garish or silly when they find lifeless copies of people lying around in basements or on pool tables, but realistically creepy especially when the extent of the invasion is revealed in a shot from Bennell's office showing a very disturbing town meeting. Couple that with the communist subtext and it stands as a highly effective document of 50's fears and ideologies. But there's style here too, not just content. Siegel's direction is zippy and unusually mobile for a 50's film, but never silly. The blankness of the bodysnatchers is always eerily effective as is the ever chilling concept behind all the films: there's just no way of knowing who to trust. There's nightmarish glimpses of suburban families giving up their children to the pods and a final "oh my God, they got THAT person!" is superbly done.

It is let down by some of the hammy, melodramatic 50's dialogue however. Attempts at playful, romantic banter are particularly deadening and characters make huge leaps of logic to deduce what the bodysnatchers are with barely any facts to base them on. A voice-over is also an unwise choice as it's too theatrical and takes away from the 'here-and-now' sense. And an impassioned cry of "I want your children!" is unfortunately liable to raise sniggers now. But these moments that would be mocked in 'Mystery Science Theater' are thankfully few and far between. Instead, your over-riding memory will be of one of cult cinema's greatest images of a wild-eyed survivor running amongst the traffic shrieking "You're next! They're here!". A great moment that even the superior 70's version couldn't replicate.

When you occasionally get a great remake, the chances are that there's a great original behind it. That's the case here as it's unlikely that Kaufman could have generated such big scares in a city, if it hadn't been for Siegel sowing the seeds (get it? Seeds?oh never mind...) back here in 1950's small town America. It ends on an ambigious note that's not quite as bleak as either of the remakes, but follow the story through to the 70's and then the 90's and you know that ultimately this story doesn't have a happy ending...

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