Plants have never made for the most convincing of antagonists. Just take M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening as a contemporary case in point, which culminated with a decidedly demur Mark Wahlberg trying to reason with a probably perplexed pot plant. The results were more unintentionally humorous than they were haunting. For plants just fail to instil a hostile tone. It’s hard to buy into the idea that something we give as a beautiful gift would actually be trying to kill us.
Yet somehow, Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers manages to do just that, implanting this most ridiculous of notions into our minds through effectively subtle means. For this isn’t a film about “pod people” and alien invasions, that’s all just supplementary to the narrative that has far more depth than it first suggests.
Adapted from Jack Finney’s novel, the film plunges us into the middle of a small Californian town that’s in the midst of a large problem. Dr Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) has just returned from a trip to discover that members of his town have begun to suspect that their loved ones have been replaced with imposters. And soon enough Bennell, with the help of his girlfriend Becky (Dana Wynter), discovers this to be the truth. Giant alien plant spores are replicating humans, and nearly every member of his local community is now an emotionless alien doppelganger intent on turning every other human into a “pod person”.
It isn’t a criticism to call the film ridiculous. From beginning to end, Siegel’s picture is a gloriously absurd rollercoaster ride, with more twists, turns, and loop de loops than anything you’ll find at your local theme park. Daniel Mainwaring’s script is swiftly paced, Carmen Dragon’s score is piercing, and Kevin McCarthy’s performance is hammier than a deli counter. Though the ending, forced on Siegel by the studio bosses who were unconvinced by his dourer climax, fails to pack the punch you would hope for, the journey to that final destination is fast and fun. Even the SFX, despite the film’s substantial age, hold up surprisingly well on the big screen; although the spores themselves look like preposterously oversized cardboard fish.
None of this pinpoints the reason why Invasion of the Body Snatchers continues to be so palpably effective though. Through Bennell’s discoveries, Siegel slowly orchestrates an ominous atmosphere of all-encompassing paranoia that creeps up and consumes you whole. We are made to question all those whom Miles comes into contact with, yet at the same time there’s a seed of doubt surrounding Miles himself; is he telling the truth, or is he in fact a mad man?
What the film is actually trying to say has divided critics for years. Though both the director and star have both gone on record in the past to say that no political allegory was intended, it’s hard not to think differently when watching it. Many consider the idea of the extra-terrestrial doubles to be a symbol for the loss of personal autonomy within an era of growing communist systems. Although when watching it now, what’s particularly striking is the fear that stems from the growing mistrust of those around you, which menacingly channels the intrinsic terror of communism that was forged in a potent post-war/Cold War environment.
That the film has been remade three times speaks volumes as to its continuing effect, although none have come close to replicating the power of Siegel’s original. Sure, the plants may not be particularly scary, but the people are bloody terrifying.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is playing at the BFI Southbank as part of the ‘Days of Fear & Wonder’ program between now and November 13th. For more details, click here.