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.