Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Posted By on Wed, Oct 26, 2005 at 12:00 AM

With President Bush slowly populating the Supreme Court with his own ideological clones, it’s the perfect time to revisit director Don Siegel’s seminal sci-fi classic. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers may be just shy of its 50th birthday, but the ever-adaptable allegory at the heart of this on-the-cheap B-masterpiece remains as potent as ever. Whether you choose to read it as a “better dead than red” cautionary tale, a seething indictment of the McCarthy era or an all-purpose cry against conformity, there’s enough subtext here to fuel a grad semester in film theory. It’s like an episode of The Twilight Zone written by Kafka — and it’s still creepy as hell.

What really sets this movie apart from the legions of clumsy ’50s drive-in flicks that ended up on Mystery Science Theater 3000 is its blunt, almost primal simplicity, combined with a low-budget technical skill that was, at the time, unseen in the genre. Adapting Jack Finney’s tale of “pod people” bent on human destruction — or rather, replication — Siegel and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring strip the story down to the essential elements: the seething mistrust that sweeps across a small Southern California town, the breakdowns of family members distraught over their suddenly lobotomized relatives, and the breathless, sleepless foot-chase two lovebirds embark upon to avoid the encroaching throngs of replicants.

One by one, Siegel sets up an array of increasingly freaky images, without ever resorting to cheesy-looking special effects (no Ed Wood-style flaming paper plates here). There’s the wild-eyed spectacle of the previously mild-mannered doctor Miles (Kevin McCarthy) repeatedly plunging a pitchfork into his girlfriend’s alien look-alike. Or maybe it’s the chilling, birds-eye view of a once-bustling town now spilling over with automatons. Even the foam-oozing “pods” that hatch all over basements and backyards are crafted and shot to appear believably, sickly mysterious. And no matter what you think the drones represent, it’s hard to argue with the scene where Miles looks deep into the camera lens and shrieks, “You’re next!”

Even those just looking to satisfy their fetish for Eisenhower-era living will have a field day: There are enough unfiltered cigarettes and neat tumblers of bourbon to supply a lounge singers’ convention. Sure, there’s a smattering of campy lines, including the classic admission “I didn’t know the meaning of fear until I kissed Becky.” But since so much of Invasion of the Body Snatchers remains chillingly applicable, part of the fun is dreaming up associations the filmmakers never could’ve predicted. Just try to hear the line “There’s no emotion, none — just the pretense of it!” and not think of our fearless leader.


Showing at the Redford Theatre (17360 Lahser Rd., Detroit; 313-537-2560).

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to


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