Combustible Celluloid
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With: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones, Jean Willes, Ralph Dumke, Virginia Christine, Tom Fadden, Kenneth Patterson, Guy Way, Eileen Stevens, Beatrice Maude, Jean Andren, Bobby Clark
Written by: Daniel Mainwaring, based on the magazine serial (and novel) by Jack Finney
Directed by: Don Siegel
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 80
Date: 02/05/1956

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Pod Couple

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jack Finney's magazine story-turned novel "The Body Snatchers" has proven remarkably resilient through the years. It has tackled everything from hippies to military personnel. But the truth behind it is the non-definable dividing line between individuality and collectivism. People have learned that there's more power in groups, but the larger the group, the more corrupting -- and corrupt -- it can become. Individuals can rail against them, but what good can one person do against so many?

Finney adds to the torment with the very primal and simple element of sleep. Normally sleep is a rest and an escape, but here it's the instrument of destruction. Literally, you fall asleep, and your soul never wakes up. Sleep becomes a weakness, and an enemy.

Don Siegel directed this, the first of four movie versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It was a low-budget effort, but not necessarily a "B" movie, though Siegel had risen -- and was still rising -- through the "B" movie ranks. It was shot in super-wide Superscope, and in black-and-white.

Kevin McCarthy stars as Miles Bennell, a doctor in a (fictitious) California small town, Santa Mira. The movie begins with a hysterical Miles telling his story to a psychiatrist. In flashback, we learn the story of how Miles is called back home from a conference because of an excessive number of patients. Some accuse their loved ones of being impostors.

Miles discovers a weird kind of unformed duplicate at the home of one of his friends, and later, a giant plant pod. He pieces it together: the pods are copying and replacing real people as they sleep. He tries to get help and tries to protect his girlfriend Becky (Dana Wynter) without falling asleep.

The movie ends with Miles yelling "You're next!" at the camera (and the audience) before he's able to actually prove -- thanks to an accident -- his story. (The movie's other notable star is Carolyn Jones, who went on to play Morticia on "The Addams Family" TV series.)

Siegel was one of the greatest of Hollywood genre directors, though his specialty was crime movies, with the occasional Western and war film. Invasion of the Body Snatchers remains his only sci-fi film (aside from a couple of "Twilight Zone" episodes). But he gives it his all, underscoring not necessarily characters, but character imperfections that make them seem all the more human: drinking, divorce, etc. Of course, he's helped by the gifted screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring (Out of the Past).

One of the film's most haunting moments comes when Miles and Becky, hiding in a cave, hear some music -- a sure sign of human souls -- wafting through the hills. Hopeful, Miles goes to check it out, but finds that it's coming from a radio that one pod person accidentally left on and quickly switches off.

Some saw the movie as a metaphor for godless, soulless communists (or perhaps even the godless, soulless McCarthyites who persecuted them), but for many kids, this was just a solid, entertaining sci-fi chiller. One of those kids was Joe Dante, who would grow up to be a director and cast Kevin McCarthy in at least five feature films.

But, as noted above, the film's themes could easily bend to new eras. In 1978, Philip Kaufman's remake Invasion of the Body Snatchers -- easily the equal of, if not superior to, Siegel's version -- took place in an era of psychologists and hippies. Abel Ferrara's excellent Body Snatchers (1993) was set in a military base, where everyone already behaves alike. And finally, Oliver Hirschbiegel's The Invasion (2007) was like a pod person itself, empty and soulless.

Olive Films has recently acquired several films that had once been owned by Republic Pictures, including Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Their new Blu-ray is superb, and the widescreen looks amazing in high-def (the old DVD release wasn't even anamorphic). Sadly, there are no extras, but this movie is worth it, even without them.

In 2018, the film received a special "Olive Signature" edition, with glorious picture and sound and a large collection of bonus features. These include: two audio commentary tracks, one with historian Richard Harland Smith and one with actors Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, moderated by filmmaker Joe Dante; a two-part visual essay by director Don Siegel's son Kristoffer Tabori; a featurette with filmmakers Dante and Larry Cohen discussing the film; a featurette on producer Walter Wanger; two featurettes with actors McCarthy and Wynter and filmmakers John Landis, Mick Garris, and Stuart Gordon; a 1985 archival interview with McCarthy; a featurette on the film's locations; a featurette about the film's title; a gallery of production documents; and a trailer.

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