Reviewer: Simon Paul Augustine
Ratings (out of five): **** 1/2
Oh, it came out of the sky, landed just a little South of Moline. Jody fell out of his tractor, couldn't b'lieve what he seen. Laid on the ground and shook fearin' for his life. Then he ran all the way to town screamin' ‘it came out of the sky.’
Well, a crowd gathered round and a scientist said it was marsh gas. Spiro came and made a speed about raising the Mars tax. The Vatican said, ‘woe, the Lord has come;’ Hollywood rushed out an epic film And Ronnie the Populist said it was a communist plot.
– Creedence Clearwater Revival, “It Came Out of the Sky”
Before director Don Siegel created a cultural icon of vengeance by helming the first Dirty Harry installment, he directed a film that established an even more deeply lodged, recognizable cinematic touchstone in American cultural consciousness. (Anti-) hero Harry Callahan and his speeches to doomed criminals are famous among cinema worshippers, but the influence of its predecessor in Siegel’s oeuvre, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, has gone beyond the confines of theater-geeks to ensconce itself in several generations of minds, with decades-long household-name status in terms of the influence of both its phraseology and its universally terrifying core concept.
A film with a title that sounds like the epitome of the goofy 50’s sci-fi trifle – something to be forgotten after the rainy afternoon long ago during which it gave ephemeral chills to its teenaged target audience – the first adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel, has instead grown into not only a classic of the genre, but a lexicon of imaginative paranoia seeped deep into the collective American brain. Farther than that: with a sustainable vocabulary of images and ideas, it has given masterful expression to a basic component of the psyche that contains our most fundamental fears about identity, perception, and relationships.
Today, when most adults and many kids hear the words “body snatchers,” even if the term is not immediately identifiable, it bears such a long history in American culture that – like a pop variant of a Jungian archetype in miniature – it will most likely strike a resonant chord deeply implanted (pun gloriously unavoidable) at some time during our lives, causing a familiar dread to emerge – evoking similar thought-associations: phrases like “they are among us,” “don’t trust anyone” and “you never really know someone” inevitably arising.
The theme of an overwhelming distrust – of the government, of other cultures, of the people closest to us, of our own minds – has been reiterated in so many films and real-life instances in politics at this point that it consists of a mini-genre unto itself. And yet it is easy to forget the power of the 50’s original that started it all – presenting scenarios that by now have become cliché and yet, paradoxically, accurately reflecting social forces and mind-sets we still cannot seem to escape. One need only to look at the latest newspapers to witness current versions of the Body Snatchers conceit: self-destructive, implosive paranoia such as the “Birther Movement”, or anti-Muslim fervor gripping a witch-hunt American Tea Party faction. We are still perpetually on the hunt for the “body snatchers” in new iterations and incarnations.
But the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers of 1956– in which Miles (Kevin McCarthy) and his staid, suburban middle-class friends begin to realize that plant-like alien life are invading earth, attempting to replace every human being with look-a-like imitations that possess no emotion, no humanity, and are only concerned with replicating, spreading, and insuring the survival of their own interstellar species – was one of the first films to dramatize this essential nerve of paranoia so vividly and memorably. Amazingly, technical and special effects notwithstanding, it has never been topped in terms of execution or suspense. So many cult classics and acclaimed films have followed in the mold of Body Snatchers or bear its imprint, it would be hard to underestimate its influence – from the acclaimed The Manchurian Candidate to Warren Beatty’s Watergate-era political thriller The Parallax View to John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of another 50’s classic chiller The Thing to the very recent The Invasion with Nicole Kidman; not to mention the sublimely creepy remake done in 1978 by Phillip Kaufman (a minor classic in its own right, employing an aged McCarthy in what has got to be one of the cleverest cameos in movie history); as well as the 90’s Body Snatchers by grind/art-house maven Abel Ferrara.
At first, the invasion is written off as mere childish paranoia, even by the calm and supremely rational Miles himself. But soon, the barriers of pretension break down and the undeniable crisis of what is actually happening cannot be ignored. The pods are being planted and wreaking transmutation in a systemized way – planetary conquest in the form of a social virus is widening its tendrils with no end in sight. These seminal images and concepts sown by Body Snatchers in 1956 were not only a supremely crafted example of a horror film working on two levels – the literal and allegorical – seamlessly and unrelentingly, but its initial symbolism came to be in succeeding years downright prescient, taking on increasing, spooky relevance on so many different levels concerning American life.
If in the 1950s, the most obvious allegorical body-and-mind “snatching” enemy may have been the McCarthy-hunted Communists of the Cold War, after the disillusionment of Vietnam and Watergate, in which we discovered not only the danger of external invaders but also that, in many ways, “the enemy is us,” the power of the film’s vision has been imbued with new layers of nuanced meaning and further propelled by a culture given more and more reasons to be justifiably paranoid – by technologies, ideologies, ecological threats, terrorists from within and without, and its own arrogance and willingness to be inhumane in order to prevent threats or “takeovers.” In the wake of geo-political “domino theory,” “pre-emptive strikes,” and the deranged, solipsistic language of “known unknowns,” the line between an irrational paranoia and understandable concern has been increasingly blurred in American life.
At the time of its release, the film was one of the first to portray tangible fears regarding visitors from another planet, a concept that was just beginning to become ubiquitous in American culture after the incident at Area 51, combining and spreading in a complex web mixing fact, folk-tale, psychology, legend, and speculation, and since swelled by the proliferation of sightings and increasingly documented lore. The film also lends dramatic weight to a suspicion of being watched or manipulated by a technology greater than our own, given that the fears of extraterrestrial-type control increasingly take on a “real-life” overlap with today’s new “outer space eyes” – such as unprecedented government surveillance, satellites that can zoom in on rooms in houses, drones, and a world-wide “web” holding us all enthralled, connected, and signaled by a series of images or concepts that “go viral” – some of them actual, many of them hoaxes, a few a potent combination of both fiction and reality. (As Hunter S. Thompson put it more than a decade ago: "This is the Nineties, Bubba, and there is no such thing as Paranoia. It's all true.") The list of allegories and variations on that first prophecy of Body Snatchers, proliferating in a culture we simultaneously create and defend ourselves against, goes on and on.
The original Body Snatchers was also a groundbreaker in the sense of an alien invasion being portrayed in partially abstract terms – on a literal level, the replicants grow from pods and then emerge to take over their human counterpart – but the transition (and its processes) remain largely mysterious, obscured, and, instead of being etched graphically with fighting spaceships or armies on the march, they are wisely leaft to the imagination. This is why it was such a staple of several generations of afternoon TV horror fans in their youth – a first introduction to how creepy a movie could be, without blood and guts, scaring you in ways you sensed you did not yet even fully comprehend. Body Snatchers is the perfect film to induct young minds into the pleasures and terrors of horror movie-going. But not merely because of its relative lack of graphic content.
For, perhaps the most significant aspect of the story’s appeal hits upon a basic childhood anxiety which only grows and takes different forms as one gets older: a sneaking and nagging fearful suspicion that in some essential sense we cannot fully understand or correct, we do not belong. That we are, and can never be, one of the whole – an integrated part of the community, or furthermore, part of the ruling systems.
This anxiety stems not merely from a sense of individual oddness, or strangeness, or an inability to reconcile our private idiosyncratic selves with the “beautiful people;” it is deeper – speaking to a psychological truth each child and person contends with: namely, the dreaded possibility that each persona and mind is inevitably and irrevocably alienated from the community at large, or even our closest loved ones, not merely because of social convention, but because of the very cognitive and emotional structure of our psyches – the impossibility of fully reconciling ourselves to the demands of a cold, organized world.
Who among us, as a child, has not had that feeling, glimpsing the imposing, towering world around us, that the external world is a foreign place in which no one feels completely comfortable? Or worse – in which everyone but your tiny self has learned some trick that makes the world bearable – that each person EXCEPT YOU is in on some horrible, inside existential joke, one somehow involving a numbness and relinquishment you have not learned the secret of – whether it be selling out, giving up or just joining the party line. Siegel’s film takes that root anxiety, both rational and irrational, both immature and wise, and converts it into a palpable scenario: slowly, everyone does change, succumb, is transformed into a community where you, if you are foolish enough to want to hold onto your humanity, may be the only one left standing.
Miles, once he is in full combat with the body snatchers, describes it this way: “in my practice I’ve seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away…only it happens slowly instead of all at once. They didn’t seem to mind…” Becky then insists: “just some people, Miles.” To which he replies: “All of us. A little bit. We harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us.” Invasion of the Body Snatchers has always been at the same time a scathing critique of humanity and a championing of its most precious vulnerabilities and inescapable need to trust others.
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