Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

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Since the Things I Learned from the Movies blogathon was happening so close to Halloween, I wanted to pick a scary movie to write about, and once I went down that path my choice was easy. One movie spooked me in a way I never forgot, it’s one I think about and often mention whenever talking about some nutty mass movement, frightening groupthink, demand for conformity, or suppression and punishment of individualism: Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The one I saw first was the amazing 1956 Don Siegel version, but most of this post applies to the very good 1978 version directed by Philip Kaufman, as well as Body Snatchers (1993) and The Invasion (2007).

For those who haven’t seen these movies (please do, especially ’56 and ’78) the story is based on Jack Finney’s science fiction novel (first a magazine serial) The Body Snatchers (1954). It focuses in all versions on a doctor or someone in the medical/scientific field sounding the alarm when everyone around them is replaced by duplicates, manufactured by some alien life form. Depending on the version, this is done by plantlike pods/seeds or a fungus, some have more optimistic endings than others, and depending of the era, each film emphasizes or allows for a political, environmental, anti-war or other reading. But all adaptations have in common the rapid advance of a nightmarish madness that leaves the main character with few to trust, and with an overwhelming sense of futility at being a lone voice against a mindless crowd.

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Whoever “they” are, they get you while you sleep, which gives the horrible replacement/brainwashing fate a depressing inevitability; after so much running and battling, odds are you’ll nod off in the most vulnerable ways and places, and the movies have good variations on those scenes. It’s a nice way to tell viewers to be vigilant and aware of potential threats. Once transformed, these “pod people” look and sound just like the friends and family you knew, but they’re eerily cold, hollow, emotionless, inhuman. Worse, they enjoy that state, call it safe and comfy and command prospective victims to join them in this weird serenity.

With its strong sense of paranoia, of being hunted in a secret conspiracy and conversion drive, the story is easily understood as a comment on a political cause or ideology that demands loyalty while demonizing and erasing those who don’t belong or out themselves by dissenting. No matter how or why they get you, the big horror is dehumanization, the death of individuality. It’s a scary idea, that you could suddenly lose, be forced to give up, or have to hide everything that makes you a unique, interesting person, that your freedom to question and form opinions could be wiped out or outlawed for whatever greater good, illusion of safety or artificial calm is promised by a mob who claim to know what’s best for you.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers taught me that it was wise to suspect, challenge and resist anything that felt like indoctrination, conformity or fad, to wonder about anyone who said they were smart enough to tell you what to think, or didn’t like when you spoke your mind. The threat of the pod people isn’t always in the obvious power positions, seen during elections or forced on us as in the movies, it’s also–if you’re awake enough to spot it–in elitism and bullying, efforts to reshape thinking, police thought and speech, in a fear of challenging ideas and emotions. Pod people say their blissful bubble-wrapped lives are superior, even perfect, because there are no more tears, no choices, no difficult decisions, no discomfort, debate or doubt. All those things make us flawed, creative, interesting, unique and valuable humans, so don’t fall asleep, because “they’re here already! You’re next!”

That’s a Thing I Learned from the Movies, for the blogathon I’m co-hosting with Ruth of Silver Screenings. Please click here to follow the daily updates and read many more lessons learned from film.

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16 thoughts on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)”

  1. This is an important observation, I think: “…no more tears, no choices, no difficult decisions, no discomfort, debate or doubt” are what make us human. It would be wonderful if there were no more sadness, but sadness means we cared. Difficult decisions test our mettle. Etc.

    Great post! I’ve seen the Donald Sutherland version, but still need to see the 1956 film. When I do see the 56 version, I will keep your excellent points in mind. 🙂

    1. This is like the Looney Tunes of movies: scary for kids on one level, and scarier when you grow up to understand more of it and see the real-world similarities. I really like the 78 version too, it’s truly an evergreen plot that you could make in any era. Thanks!

  2. I’ve read the book (very optimistic ending compared to the first two film versions) and I’ve seen the first two film versions. In fact I just reviewed this same movie for the “Keep Watching the Skies blogathon.

    http://midnitedrive-in.blogspot.com/2016/09/like-people-in-pod.html

    (in case you missed it, and I’d appreciate any comments if you have read it.). And, coincidentally I just today got a copy of the 1978 film in a discount bin at the supermarket. As I say in my review of the 50’s version, I’m not sure which is scarier. Having people you know seem to change without really knowing how or why, or having an entire city the size of Frisco change and not even realizing because you don’t know them. But I agree with the idea of being reluctant to conform to the prevailing viewpoint just to fit in. I was a vocal opponent of the invasion of Iraq before it even became PC (or at least acceptable) to do so.

    1. Will read your post, thanks! Good point about the big city setting, scarier because more pod people and also shows how isolated we can be among so many others vs small town where you know everyone. Terrifying concept to lose yourself and become one of the hive… Thanks!

  3. Fascinating. I’ve never been able to catch the original version on television (maybe Criterion will get a hold of it for their new channel) but I completely agree that the loss of individuality has to be a ripe topic for discussion as we evolve as a species. The part that makes it scarier is that as technology evolves, it almost makes the idea of a worldwide takeover even more feasible and believable. God knows, the most powerful force on the planet seems to be a bad idea because it spreads so quickly. Putting a scifi spin on it was a master stroke by Finney, who I had NO idea was the mastermind behind it. I had only known him as the author of Time And Again. Now I want to check out the rest of his writings.

    1. The 56 movie is a super example of suspense and impact without fancy effects, focus on the compelling story. Invasion of minds is probably going to be a reality someday and sold as for our own good and safety. Like 1984, a story that speaks to any time and setting. Thanks!

  4. Love that the original 56 version is done by the great Don Siegel. Classic. This might be the most in depth review you’ve posted in regards to what the subtext of a movie is and what’s really going on when you scratch below the surface. I saw the 78 film as a kid and it to freaked me out. never saw the latest version but I did catch the 1993 version but can’t recall much about it. You know I love the trivia of flicks so love the fact that McCarthy showed up in the remake and that Sam Peckinpah is the meter man in the original.
    I think this was also the first time I saw Leonard Nimoy in anything other than Star Trek and recall thinking that was pretty awesome to this kid’s eyes at the time.

    1. That happens when a movie makes this much of an impression on a kid, and has such a strong concept that it pops into mind when you watch the news. No wonder it’s been remade so much and will again, probably. And not badly either, I don’t mind the latest 2 versions, but the Siegel one is so special and well-made. Yes I love that McCarthy appearance in ’78!

  5. Soooo. Kristina plays baseball in her spare time. I know this because that post-sized home run ball she hit just broke a window here and hit me on the head. Ow.

    Anyway, great review of one of my favorites and isn’t it interesting that no one has totally wrecked the film in all those remakes? Granted, the latter two can’t hold a candle to the first and second (which are BOTH worth seeing partially because of that KEY cameo that forever links them!). But the same feelings grab at you in each film, which is something MANY remakes get dead wrong.

    1. Spent time in the batting cages! Thanks. I agree about the remakes, none were real duds in my opinion, even that Kidman-Craig one has its moments. It’s just a bulletproof story that’s hard to wreck if you stick to its basics. And we so often wonder what the heck the masses are thinking so we can all relate to the feeling in any era. Plus it’s just a plain ol’ GREAT movie you can enjoy without reading a thing into it.

  6. Wonderful review!
    Here’s some stuff that’s included in my forthcoming entry on
    STRANGER ON HORSEBACK on Toby’s McCrea blogathon.
    In STRANGER ON HORSEBACK McCrea was very impressed
    by Kevin McCarthy who played the bad guy.
    “I’m going to tell the studios all about you” McCrea told the
    young actor.
    McCrea’s next film was WICHITA his first of four films that he made
    for Allied Artists.Don Siegel was working for AA at the time and
    earlier had wanted to make BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK with
    McCrea in the lead
    Invasion’s producer was Walter Wanger who produced one of
    McCrea’s biggest hits FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT.
    Sam Peckinpah apart from his bit in Invasion also played
    a bank teller in WICHITA.
    I have often wondered if McCrea had anything to do with
    McCarthy’s casting in Invasion.
    Siegel was of course Peckinpah’s mentor.

    I am a huge Siegel fanatic-he’s my favorite director.
    I am pleased that Twilight Time have announced that they
    are releasing EDGE OF ETERNITY on Blu Ray.
    The Sony MOD was gorgeous so the Blu should be
    jaw dropping. EDGE OF ETERNITY is one of Siegel’s
    most underrated movies-stunning use of widescreen,

    BTW, with all due respects to Spencer Tracy and John
    Sturges,John at Greenbriar Picture Shows thinks the McCrea/
    Siegel combination would have made a better film-I totally agree,
    although I love Sturges’ film.
    Final note,spare a thought for 12 year old Bobby Clark-
    1956 was quiet a year for him. Apart from dealing with the
    “Pod People” he was also kidnapped in RANSOM! and
    gunned down in REBEL IN TOWN

    1. Thanks! Such a big fave of mine, and these are all interesting connections! Love what Siegel did with this and most of his I’ve seen, last week watched COUNT THE HOURS and have CHINA VENTURE waiting. I haven’t got around to doing my monthly review (I can’t keep up with myself!) but since you mention Sturges, in Sept. I had myself a John Sturges fest: HOUR OF THE GUN, SATAN BIG, BACKLASH, LAW & JAKE WADE, ESCAPE FROM FT. BRAVO. That was fun!

  7. I only watched the 1956 version and was impressed. I was thinking, all the time, about what you called “the futility of being a lone voice against a mindless crowd”: I’ve felt this way sometimes in my life, and I couldn’t believe that a horror/sci-fi film from the 50s could portray it so well.
    Thanks for co-hosting the event! I learned a lot, for sure!
    Kisses!

    1. Yes, that feeling of being the only normal one is something we’ve all felt sometime! Thanks so much for being part of the blogathon, always love to have you at the party.

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