Based on Jack Finney’s sci-fi novel, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is what you get when you cross the psychological thriller and science fiction horror genres… or something like that. And it’s brilliant. When my sister had to see it for a film class, she invited me to watch it with her, knowing how much I love old movies and sci-fi. Now, it’s one of my favorite films of all time.
Directed by Don Siegel, the film explores the quiet town of Santa Mira, California, where local doctor Miles Bennell’s patients accuse loved ones of being imposters. A boy runs screaming from his own mother, and a young woman believes the man who looks and acts like her uncle is not truly the man who raised her. To everyone else, these imposters seem themselves, but there’s something subtle that’s off about them — and those closest to them know it.
Miles calls it mass hysteria, but it turns out this is happening in other towns, too. It seems to be an epidemic. Miles is convinced it’s all psychological until he visits his friend Jack’s house to investigate a body that’s turned up. The scary part? The body looks like Jack, and when Jack accidentally cuts his hand, the body soon forms a matching cut.
I won’t give any more of the story away, but if you like psychological thrillers with a sci-fi bent — or maybe the opposite? — this film is perfection. What makes it even more impressive is that it was shot in less than a month on a fairly low budget.
It’s also worth investigating as a culturally significant movie in its day. A tangible sense of McCarthy-era paranoia pervades the film, such as when Miles visits Jack’s home and agrees to keep the body a secret for the night. The secrecy, mystery, and fear of being ratted out by neighbors is prevalent. The pod people invasion in the movie could be considered an allegory for Communism supposedly invading American thought in the 1950’s — although in his autobiography, producer Walter Mirisch claims that nobody involved with the film or the original book intended for it to be anything more than a thriller. (His autobiography is aptly named I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History.)
Whether or not it’s making a political statement, this film is certainly about protecting what makes us human, especially emotions such as love. The drama gives way to a few touching moments between Miles and his girlfriend, Becky, as they fight to protect their individuality and humanity.
But what I enjoy most about this film is its suspense. I’m not one for horror films, and part of that is because I have trouble suspending my disbelief for the demons, ghosts, and other supernatural elements that often provide the frights. This kind of suspense story is much more believable. It makes me feel something, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers had me curious and nervous right up to the last minute. It’s also fascinating to watch actor Kevin McCarthy play a rational man of science, thinking his way through a situation that threatens to unravel him.
9 thoughts on “My New Favorite Sci-Fi Thriller: “Invasion of the Body Snatchers””
Great review on a classic film. As a side note: Tolkien wrote in his “On Fairy-Stories” that if you have to willfully suspend your disbelief when partaking of a text then the work has failed as an imaginative piece of art. Clearly, some of us find it easier to believe in magic and others in super-science; nonetheless, I wonder if your difficulty with the horror genre (one I share) isn’t more to do with the genre’s often sub-par artistry (lots of effects, but not much substance) than it is to do with the supernatural fare it peddles (I am more inclined to magic, myself, but I still find these texts hard to buy in to).
That’s a good point, and I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who has trouble getting into the horror genre. I think you nailed it when you said “lots of effect, not much substance,” because that’s exactly why I like a lot of other types of suspense — specifically, I think suspense often springs from something happening inside a character. When characters have fears or feel tormented about something or are driven to solve a mystery or have the hair-raising feeling that somebody bad is about to happen, there’s substance from the start. Or maybe I’m just thinking of psychological suspense, which is my favorite…
Anyway, Tolkien’s thought makes a lot of sense to me, thanks for sharing! Often I feel that paranormal elements are just thrown into a story with little reason except to scare… which isn’t scary to me, it’s just forced and fake.
Ah, suspension of disbelief and horror do not always go hand in hand. I, for one, have problems with horror movies that aim for realistic violence. That just throws me out of the whole experience, because I watch them for unbelievable visual madness ;D
Also, have you seen Night of the Living Dead (1968)? That’s another great old school horror. And it’s got the same set up as Body Snatchers where the monster is less important than what happens in characters’ heads because of it.
It sounds like horror films pose a number of problems when it comes to suspension of disbelief. Yeah, I think I understand what you’re saying about realistic violence. And the funny thing is, in a lot of TV and films (not just horror), kitschy can work better than gritty realism, because when art aims to imitate life so closely, it often just seems to emphasize all the tiny details it gets wrong.
I haven’t seen Night of the Living Dead yet, thanks for the recommendation. That sounds like it would be more to my taste than a lot of other horror. And now I’m going to have to go on a quest for more psychological horror!
Wow, this sounds like a really interesting movie and you’ve already gotten me hooked on one show already (Merlin), so I’m definitely planning to check this out! There’s something about a good psychological thriller that always seems to get under my skin in a way that a straight-up horror movie never seems to do. Movies about the supernatural I can usually shrug off as just pieces of fantasy, but this seems to really be about the human psyche (if I’m getting the right impression) and that sounds fascinating and thought-provoking. I’m looking forward to watching this!
f you’re into horror/psychological thrillers, you might want to try Cube. A warning though, it’s incredibly disturbing!
I’m glad you love Merlin now too! And yes, I totally agree that psychological thrillers can be really chilling. This movie starts off very psychological, and then becomes more sci-fi. Sort of. If that makes sense.
Okay, I will definitely check out Cube. I just googled it and it sounds really interesting. And don’t worry, I think “disturbing” can be really good sometimes!
I am definitely going to pencil this one in for a viewing once halloween season rolls around. Great review! Have you seen (the original) Day The Earth Stood Still? And if so how would you rank it compared to this movie?
I haven’t seen The Day the Earth Stood Still! I’ll have to give that one a go next. Love old movies, and anything sci-fi is even better. =)
And this is a great Halloween pick! I do that too — make a list of Halloween movies (and Christmas movies)… yet I somehow never get through them all when the time rolls around. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this one if you watch it this year!
Hmm, I think I found a ‘new’ book to read and movie to watch. Thank you.