One of the most iconic science fiction films to come out of the 1950s, Don Siegel‘s Invasion of the Body Snatchers has not aged a day. Set in quintessential small-town Santa Mira, the film follows as Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) slowly realizes that something sinister is taking hold. The familiar faces he has known for years suddenly have become less familiar. Those who he is friends with all have a lifeless look in their eyes, while shady meetings behind closed doors show the townspeople scheming on how to bring everyone in line. It is a thrilling and terrifying look at the mundanity of sameness, infused with the political battles of the 1950s in a very personal way.
The biggest takeaway from Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the film’s attempt to bring this battle home. It can seem otherworldly and as a science fiction film, it is only natural for audiences to regard the film’s story as something that is simply not possible. Yet, Siegel expends great energy in not only drawing parallels to our society – especially the spread of communism and the fear of it – but also urging audiences to watch out for those who seem…different. It is reminiscent of British WWII thrillers such as Foreign Correspondent or Mrs. Miniver that emphasize citizen participation in the war effort. From assisting the military in any way needed or remaining vigilant over anything going on in their neighborhood, the films have a clear “the war is at home, too” message. Invasion of the Body Snatchers takes this to a typical small American town with familiar faces, storefronts, and situations. It is naturally comforting to 1950s audiences, finding many of these similarities to their own town. It is then that Siegel rips it apart and shows the sinister takeover occurring in Santa Mira, culminating in Dr. Bennell staring straight into the camera – shot in close-up, too – to yell the film’s famous lines, “Look, you fools, you’re in danger! Can’t you see?! They’re after you! They’re after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone! They’re here already! You’re next!”
The anti-communist political leanings are made apparent via repeated mentions of personal determination and self-actualization – Dr. Bennell nails the themes on the head as he ridicules the idea of everyone being “the same” – that drive against the communal nature of the rival Soviets. This individuality is further underscored via the us-against-the-world battle that Miles and Becky (Dana Wynter) find themselves in with nobody else to trust. In stark contrast to films such as High Noon – which some Hollywood figures, namely John Wayne, saw as “communist” – Invasion of the Body Snatchers finds an individual standing up to power, fending for themselves and defending what is theirs by any means necessary. It is staunchly American – the quintessential Americana touches do not hurt here either – and portrays a world that is not to be trusted if one’s personal liberty is challenged.
Beyond the well-realized and chilling themes, this version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers remains relevant despite a trio of remakes/reimaginations that have followed since its release. The terrific and detailed special effects with the pods and Kevin McCarthy’s performance as skeptic turned messenger ensure that this film retains a potency that has yet to wane. Simply looking into his eyes or watching as a pod begins to form into a person, Invasion of the Body Snatchers manages to create a lot of dread and terror without much prodding. This is the case throughout, following as a small-town descends into chaos, building from suspicion and rumor to a full-blown epidemic of unimaginable proportion.
Casting a long shadow in the world of science fiction horror and, in particular, when it comes to 1950s science fiction, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an absolute classic. The always economical Don Siegel keeps it moving at a brisk pace, building a casual suspense that leads into absolute horror at the end as the scale of the crisis is revealed. Blending in timely themes and Kevin McCarthy’s great lead performance, the film has a power lacking in most of its remakes – Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake comes the closest to capturing this power – and it is that quality, found in McCarthy’s terrified face at the end, that cements Invasion of the Body Snatchers as one of my all-time favorite horror films.