Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a story so sinister and full of suspense that it has been put onto film no less than four times. Its life began as a three-part serialized story by Jack Finney which appeared initially in Colliers Magazine in 1954. It was then adapted into a novel called The Body Snatchers in 1955.
Shortly after that in 1956, the first film version was made and it is considered one of the all-time greatest sci-fi movies. This version was written during the Cold War ‘Red Scare’ when the American public was regularly reminded by the government to keep vigilant of Communist infiltration. This was the era of McCarthyism, mass hysteria, and the HUAC. The HUAC’s controversial tactics contributed to the fear, distrust, and repression that existed during the anticommunist hysteria of the 1950s. The idea of evil alien Pod-People who look exactly like us but are secretly infiltrating and dehumanizing our society is a rather obvious allegory for the fears people had at the time. The original film was directed by Don Siegel, who later went on to make the Clint Eastwood hits Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz.
While this version is brilliant, it is the 1978 version of the film that I will be discussing here today. The 1993 (Body Snatchers) and 2007 (The Invasion) remakes don’t even come close—Hollywood, please stop trying to better something that has already been made perfectly. Twice!
What the 1978 film does that the 1956 film doesn’t, is that it leaves you with a kick in the gut. You feel nervously riveted throughout, the atmosphere is almost stifling—there is no let-up in this, and you don’t feel any relief as the credits roll.
But before we get to that infamous end scene, let’s talk about the plot. Director Phillip Kaufman’s (The Right Stuff) remake has a similar storyline to the original but makes a different stance. Instead of Communism, this film is about the fear of the loss of identity through cultural pressure and influence. It captures the growing fears of dehumanization through government intrusiveness and technology, as well as our loss of individuality and emotional psyches through social conformity. It addresses issues of personal identity and freedom similarly to shows like The Prisoner.
The brilliant Donald Sutherland is our leading man, Matthew Bennell, a health inspector for the civil service. His colleague Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) picks an unusual flower that she finds growing in a children’s play area. This flower is an alien form that has been blown to earth by solar winds. Stranger things have happened folks—and I think that’s what makes this story so eerie. It really could happen.
Thousands of the plants have arrived on earth without people realising what they are. Elizabeth takes one flower home and leaves it in a cup next to her husband’s side of the bed. As it goes, her husband appeared to be a complete dick, so you don’t have too much in the way of sympathy for what happens to him overnight. You do feel for Elizabeth though when she comes to realize that an identical but emotionless duplicate has replaced her husband.
She tries to tell her good friend Matthew what she believes is happening, but understandably, he doesn’t believe her. Instead, he refers her to another friend, the noted psychiatrist Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), who writes self-help books. Kibner tries to make her believe that her paranoia comes from her dissatisfaction in her relationship. Now, for someone with a face as recognisable as Leonard Nimoy, it must be extremely difficult not to be type-cast into certain roles, so kudos to him for making me forget he was Spock. Kibner is intense and quite creepy. It is jarring to see him play a part where he is not the comforting, calm voice of reason and wisdom. I mean this in a positive sense—it is discomforting to watch, and that only adds to the atmosphere of the film.
Matthew begins to question what is really going on when other people start complaining that their loved one ‘is not them’. They look like them in every sense, but on the inside, they are not. Matthew starts to become convinced when his friends, Jack (a very young Jeff Goldblum) and Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright) have an experience that leads them to the same realisation—a duplicate version of Jack begins forming on the treatment table at Nancy’s clinic. Matthew tries warning the authorities, but all the stalling and unhelpfulness of the police leads Matthew to believe that the alien doppelgängers have infiltrated the local government.
Meanwhile, the ‘Pod-People’ begin assimilating more and more of the population. Panic and paranoia intensify quickly as the foursome realise they can’t trust anyone. The Pod-People are everywhere. The Bellicecs try to escape, but Jack is caught and podded. Matthew and Elizabeth hide but are caught by Kibner and Jack, both of whom are now Pod-People. Kibner explains who the aliens are and why they are there. Honestly, I am not convinced that Kibner was ever anything but a Pod-Person.
Throughout this increasingly tense build-up, Matthew and Elizabeth’s relationship begins to blossom (excuse the pun). It’s clear from the beginning that Matthew has more than a friendly fondness for her, but she is with another man so does not try it on. God, I want someone to look at me the way Donald Sutherland looks at Brooke Adams in this movie. Oh my lord, I could feel my heart racing for her. They do have wonderful on-screen chemistry. As they sit together enjoying a glass of wine in his yard, he tells her to do this amazing party trick, where she makes her eyes shudder from side-to-side. It’s a sweet and silly moment, and one that lets you know for sure that Elizabeth is still the real Elizabeth—there’s no way a Pod-Person could do something so bizarrely human.
Kaufman’s film is the darkest and most intoxicating of the four versions, and adds a signal trait to the ‘possessed’ humans that will forever be associated with the story: when a Pod-Person identifies a not-yet-infected human, it points to it and screams a ghastly and haunting lament to alert its fellows to the danger. It reminds me of the horror screaming face at the end of Sleepaway Camp—there’s something so horribly wrong about the contortion of the mouth and jaw, something so inhuman it makes the pit of my stomach sink. All is not well at all, and my brain just can’t process what exactly that is.
There is some genuinely alarming horror imagery in the 1978 version. For example, when Matthew finds a nest of clones forming, he attacks them brutally with a spade, smashing his double’s face to a pulp. It is a scene that is gory even for the Romero era. Equally disturbing is the dog/human hybrid that seems to have formed when a pod was left midway between a sleeping tramp and his manky mutt. The result is a sprightly canine with a hobo face, and it is this ghastly horror that forces Elizabeth to give herself away with a scream of terror when she is trying to inconspicuously pass among the legions of Pod-People now dominating San Francisco.
Haunting and horrifying by nature, another stand-out scene is where exhausted lovers Matthew and Elizabeth head for a departing ship from which ‘Amazing Grace’ is poignantly playing, only to find pods being loaded onto it. Going to investigate, Matthew returns to find Elizabeth asleep (which is not good news, the Pod-People get you while you’re sleeping). He tries to wake her, but she crumbles in his arms until she is just a withered husk. Plunging Matthew almost into madness as her naked doppelgänger emerges from the nearby bushes, urging him to join her in a world free of pain and pleasure and preoccupation.
Still, Matthew fights on. Or at least that’s what we think. It appears that he’s learned a way to survive by blending in with the Pod-People, going about daily tasks without emotion or thought. He doesn’t question or fight the system any longer. This would be the only way to survive realistically—and that is perhaps the most depressing part of the story. Even without becoming a Pod-Person, you have to behave like a Pod-Person. What is worse? Succumbing to the monsters or having to battle and pretend and go against everything you believe in out of fear?
Matthew did succumb. Nancy, who is still alive (yay!) comes across Matthew and tries to get him to flee with her. He raises his arm and lets out the high-pitched shriek that only a Pod-Person could make. This presumably signals Nancy’s demise, but not only that, the loss of hope.
I love Veronica Cartwright. She’s a hugely underrated actress in my opinion. Her face is so full of expression and can change from attractive jubilance to satanic bitch in less than a second. She reminds me of Sheryl Lee in that way. It is her utter devastation that Matthew has turned which is the real kick in the gut at the end of the film. I think we can all empathise with how she feels, especially in the current political climate.
People we love and admire—friends, family, celebrities we thought were cool—when they make what feels to us like the incomprehensible decision to vote for Trump, or for Brexit, or to sit idly by while our politicians separate children from their parents and keep them in cages, we feel bewildered. We are dismayed by those who don’t bat an eyelid while their President poses for pictures with their thumbs up next to a baby whose parents have just been shot dead by a white supremacist terrorist.
We are still upset by those who are apparently ok with the fact that assault weapons can be easily bought in stores across America and that the right to bear arms is more important than the right for a child to go to school without a good chance of them being shot to death. That the life of a ball of cells is more important than that of an actual living human being. We are appalled that people go along with and truly agree that people of a different colour of skin, sexual preference, or gender are of lesser importance than white, straight men. It is mystifying and frustrating because it seems the more outrageous it becomes, the less people seem to take notice.
I feel like how Nancy looks when my father tells me he voted for Brexit for me because he remembers how good it was back in the ’50s before the European Union and immigration. That he says it despite knowing that he and his wife, his children, and grandchildren have all had their lives saved by immigrants working for the National Health Service. I feel how Nancy looks when my mother says she feels sorry for the man convicted of rape who has now lost his promising career over ‘one stupid decision,’ and that the girl did lead him on by kissing him and she was drunk. That she says this knowing her daughter was raped.
How could these once otherwise great people feel and think this way? They brought me up to know that this stuff is abhorrent, what happened to them? It feels like they have been replaced with emotionless, inhuman versions of themselves. They look the same, but their souls are lost. It is hard to deal with, and it is easy to let it defeat you, but you can’t. Now it is more important than ever as we have been infiltrated, we are already at war, and the enemy is ourselves.
They will point and shriek, ‘snowflake!’, ‘leftwing scum!’ and my personal favourite, ‘Do-gooder!’ (I mean, why would being a person who does good be considered an insult?), but soon they’ll realise that—and to paraphrase IDLES here—an army of snowflakes makes an avalanche.
I never meant for this article to take a political turn, but everything is political. Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is 40 years old. I am 40 years old, and society has learned a lot in that time, but it’s also forgotten to learn from its mistakes in history. Thankfully we have brilliant cinematic masterpieces like this to remind us that we need to keep resisting. The movie’s tagline is a message, “You’ll never close your eyes again,” as that’s when it gets you—as soon as you turn a blind eye to what is happening, you have become one of them.