Monday, April 6, 2015
Don Siegel's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS
Imagine you're in a small, idyllic town in America. It's the 1950's, right smack-dab in Eisenhower's age where everything is simple and people are all honkey-dory and going about their concerns in suits and long dresses and saying 'golly' and 'gosh-darn' instead of other curse words we commonly use today. Now imagine that in such a small town people are becoming not quite how they saw each other before - a son seeing his mother as *not* really his Mother. He isn't sure exactly how; she has her voice, mannerisms, but something is just off with her. This is starts happening to other people, and poor general practitioner Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is at a loss except that it may be a general mass hysteria of some sort. But what about those pods that are excreting out human beings from their bubble-bath foam areas and SAY WHAT?
Invasion of the Body Snatchers perhaps could have been set at a different time in history, and, of course, since Don Siegel's film was released there have been many remakes and re-imaginings (just off the top of my head, Philip Kaufman's direct remake in 1978, Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers in 1993, Robert Rodriguez's high-school take-off The Faculty, and The Invasion in 2007 with Nicole Kidman).
But in 1956, with this story and this scenario, it can't be helped to see that there is something else under the surface - make that a whole smorgasbord of themes, sociologically, politically, emotionally about what happens when people are over-taken by beings that are them but are not at the same time: there is the essential "there" that isn't there, and it's downright terrifying to see not only an acceptance of this, but a willingness to spread it to others.
Siegel's film is first and foremost a science fiction suspense film. and about the effects of a phenomena on a large group of people - for the time with a not-too-low budget of $300,000 (not as big as major Hollywood fare at the time, but certainly higher than Roger Corman's crop of lo-fi flying saucer vehicles) - and with a charismatic and strong leading actor in McCarthy (perhaps best known to my parent's generation for this film, though for mine arguable Weird Al Yankovic's UHF of all things as villain R.J. Fletcher), as well as a good (if not great) leading lady in the late Dana Wynter (best when she has to be pushed to the character's limits in the climax of the film).
What still works about Siegel's film so well so many years later is that he doesn't make things over-blown with special effects. On the contrary it's only those pea-pods, perhaps a bit comically over-sized, that are the most striking images, as well as those plastic-caster faces and bodies of the characters who we see as being 'snatched' into their new selves. There are a couple of icky bits with the aforementioned bubble-bath compound where the new beings come out of, but even that looks acceptable, even kind of creepy as weird shapes and forms come out of the pods into their new forms.
There's also many striking and startling images - iconic even. My favorite is when Dr. Bennell is looking out the window at the town square, everything *seeming* to be normal, but this is only because of a couple of visitors from out of town are passing by. As soon as they leave, in Siegel's widescreen image of a small-town Americana (ala Pleasantville), everyone in the vicinity converges into the middle of the town square, all these beings coming to parse out the pods from *other towns* as this thing that is happening is taking over. It's not even so much about it reflecting the total reality of the period - how many towns were actually THIS idyllic I don't know - but in representing a kind of pitch-black satire of this time period, it's spot-on.
It's not a perfect film, this should be said. Some of the minor performances don't hold up completely, such as one of the Snatched Bodies that explains in full detail like a rational-logical person (like one of the placid, creepily calm doctors out of Clockwork Orange) to Dr. Bennell about why it's so easy and almost necessary to become one of them - the actor is just a bit too stiff in a way that is hard to describe. And there's a couple of bits of dialog about being in love (how quickly, of course, the doctor and his lady companion fall for one another is more about plot convenience than anything else - Reno is also mentioned in passing, referring to the period and it being the only place to get a divorce). But these can be forgiven because of how much does work in the film, how everything is so convincing in the dread and paranoia that mounts with this situation, how quickly everything escalates as this doctor has almost no place else to turn but the desert to run.
I think that the greatest thing about the film, what makes Invasion of the Body Snatchers endure, is that anyone can read what they want into it. At first I thought the film was going down a path of being about Communist inflitration-indoctrination-international-conspiracy (to quote General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove), and then I thought, 'No, actually, it's really about the Red Scare itself, how so many people were duped and dragged into believing that being someone who is NOT in lock-step, following protocol, is someone that needs to be turned (the heavy amount of police officers in the film, how they are the agents of these body snatched-beings, emphasizes that for me).
But, really, this isn't any sort of definite interpretation. It can be about just conformity in general, how if you follow along so much into the way that people tell you, you lose your head (McCarthy had his own interpretation on the DVD interview, it being about Madison Avenue ad execs in the 1950's).
It's such a universal concept, about losing yourself, losing your emotional connections, about the Group-Think ala Orwell or just that sense in the 1950's that being the "other" was a vile thing, though that really the "other" is actually the villain that makes the film so radical even today. And just as a horror movie Siegel makes sure to time his shots well, keep the pace tense, every corner and shot adding to the paranoia and derangement of the senses, it rocks the socks off of folks like me who, perhaps naively, thought going in "Oh, I've seen this before, I remember Elijah Wood and Jon Stewart in the Faculty, yada-yada). It's more than that.
Even with its tiny flaws, it stands up as a classic of its time, and many others, especially as a piece of quasi-subversive American cinema that would influence so many with its concepts.
And that ending!