Film Review: ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’


Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is a talismanic work of art, a piece of cinema that reaches through the ages to comment on present needs, wants and perceived existential threats. Even though it has been remade three times (by Philip Kaufman in 1978, Abel Ferrara again in 1993 and finally, for now, Oliver Hirschbiegel in 2007) with varying levels of success it has always been Don Siegel’s 1956 film that never fails to surprise you on every revisit. Focusing on the archetypal sleepy small town seen across American cultural product from the 1930s onwards, Invasion of the Body Snatchers opens in the California town of Santa Mira where Dr. Miles Bennell has returned after attending a medical conference.

Upon his return Mikes finds several of his patients suffering from the paranoid delusion that their friends or relatives are impostors. Initially skeptical, especially when the alleged dopplegängers are able to answer detailed questions about their victims’ lives, he is eventually persuaded that something odd has happened and becomes determined to find out what is causing this phenomenon. One of the first things that you’re aware of in Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the complete mastery that Siegel holds, from the first third where there’s a marked separation from what was and what is, and how this can become unclear the more one looks. Central to this thesis is Kevin McCarthy, who became transfixed in the collective consciousness because of this role and never was able to escape it.

The other element that Siegel decides on is to ground the film with a realistic context that transfixes the audience for a long time within an ironclad ambiguity that could fall either way. Is Dr. Bennell right or is he delusional? For a time this is completely left at the discretion of the viewer until finally, like Miles, we are left in a state of true knowledge that will ultimately be useless. Well that would have been the case if the original ending had been used, which left a braying Dr. Bennell screaming at cars and trucks about what is happening but having no one take any notice of him. The studio behind the picture Allied Artists Picture Corporation demanded a less pessimistic conclusion, which is why we’re presented with such a strange prologue and epilogue to the film, suggesting a more optimistic outcome to the story.

There have been myriad discussions about Invasion of the Body Snatchers throughout the years, some perceiving it to be a comment on the dangers of conformity in Postwar America, others about the dangers of McCarthyism (Joesph not Kevin, obviously) or more tendentiously about the loss of personal autonomy in the Soviet Union? In the DVD there is a 1985 interview with Kevin McCarthy, who says he never thought the film had any symbolism or allegorical message. “That came later,” he says. He quotes author Jack Finney as saying he [Finney] never wrote it that way. Whatever you point of view on these meanings it says something about the power of the film. Multiple perspectives from an individual’s political persuasion make the film what it is: a kinetic run towards freedom and all that means, a never ending fight against tyranny, or maybe it’s just a scary movie.

D.W. Mault @D_W_Mault