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Review: ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956) – Creeping Dread and Paranoia

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Review: 'Invasion of the Body' Snatchers (1956) - Creeping Dread and Paranoia

Great art always means different things to different people. Meaning and interpretation aside, that ability to create a connection for the viewer is what makes the art great. Oftentimes, we can connect with art without having a clear understanding of the artist’s intention. Stare into Rothko’s huge canvases, feel his colors overwhelm and speak to you. You may not know what the artist wanted to do with the painting, but you’ll definitely feel something being expressed, abstract though it may be.

Or contemplate, as millions have, the mysteries of the Mona Lisa: Is she smiling coyly? Are her lips pursed in cold dismissal? What is she looking at? Where is she? As long as we, the viewer, are asking these questions, the painting is a successful piece of art. Whatever da Vinci’s intentions were in painting his most-famous subject, we’re captivated. It’s like his painting becomes our canvas, onto which we project our feelings, our guesses as to who she is and why she’s smiling that way.

What we take away from great art changes as we get older. Our interpretations grow and evolve with us. For school children, George Orwell’s Animal Farm might just  be a straight-forward -if slightly weird- tale about barnyard friends and enemies. But as the reader grows up, and as they better understand the world and its history, it becomes clearer that Orwell was writing about politics. Our capacity to understand allegory expands as we pick up on context throughout our lives. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis is one of the greatest works of fantasy and fable in modern literature. Depending on one’s familiarity with the Bible, it is either more or less clear how much Lewis intended the story to tell the story of Christ. Despite being filled with imaginative settings and wondrous characters, with a little digging, it becomes clear that the story is rooted heavily in Christian themes and morality.

Allegoresis is the term for applying these interpretations to art. And it’s been around almost as long as art itself. When we see art, we have a pretty strong desire to apply meaning to it, whether we’re right or wrong. Sometimes it goes too far, and the prevailing interpretation of an artwork becomes so widespread as to become publicly accepted, even if it’s off-base. J.R.R. Tolkein vehemently maintained that his The Lord of the Rings was never intended as allegorical. In his own foreward to the second edition of the trilogy, Tolkein wrote: “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.” So the One Ring may not have been meant as a stand-in for nuclear weaponry, it seems, despite public speculation. None of this invalidates any of the meaning we might find in any particular piece of art, but it does point to how audience interpretation and authorial intention can stray pretty far apart.

Depending on who involved in the production was being interviewed, 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers either does, or does not, have some rich underlying allegorical meaning. Some of the powers behind the movie assert that there was always some political metaphor involved, while others insist that this is just a simple, compelling thriller. Whichever of these oral histories contains the truth, the fact of the matter is that this original Invasion of the Body Snatchers is perfectly entertaining either way. It’s a low-budget B-movie that adapted a brilliant novella and really captured a zeitgeist. Regardless of how we interpret the action, it’s clear that this is a movie that stays with you. It’s a straight-forward story that the audience can bend into whatever mold they’d like, projecting meaning where there maybe isn’t any, and using the framework to apply allegory to its characters and action.

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Kevin McCarthy, a relatively unknown commodity at the time, stars as Dr. Miles Bennell, and the whole movie rests on his shoulders. That lead performance is so important to this film, as Dr. Bennell goes from unaware, to skeptical, to believer and beyond during the arc of our story. And what a story it is. There’s a reason why so many people want to assign so much deeper meaning to this tale. It’s simple, superb and exploits a lot of our worst fears. There’s a real universality to the feelings in this movie. Even if you’ve never been body-snatched, you will relate to Dr. Bennell’s paranoid fervor as the plot unfolds.

As the well-respected doctor returns after some time away, things seem uncharacteristically curious in his small town. A little boy runs away from home and when his grandmother brings him to Dr. Bennell, the boy claims his mother isn’t his mother. The boy says she just isn’t herself; she looks the same, and sounds this same, but it just isn’t his mother. Like any adult in this situation would, the doctor tries to calm the boy down and tell him it’ll all be alright.

As an isolated incident, that event wouldn’t be cause for alarm. But something makes the boy’s story stick in his mind. As a favor, the doctor performs a housecall for a friend. When he gets there, she has a similar story, insisting an uncle isn’t really her uncle. Surely, this is a coincidence, and not yet quite evidence of a pattern, right? That friend of the doctor’s is played by Carolyn Jones, a full eight years before she’d play Morticia in TV’s The Addams Family. She’s great, and it’s no wonder television executives chose to place her in another spooky ensemble later.

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A bewildered Dr. Bennell puts his worries aside and takes a date, Becky, out for dinner and drinks. But when he gets there, he’s almost run over by two colleagues, both of them psychologists. They’re drunk, and merry, but they mention a strange shared-delusion reported all over town. It seems that the population has experienced mass hallucinations, or so these psychologists claim. They’re so casual, so off-handed that Dr. Bennell pays little worry to their report until much later. But by then, it’s too late.

Instead of heeding these ominous premonitions, Dr. Bennell tries to continue his date, only to be interrupted by a phone call at the restaurant. Another house call, this one an emergency from his friend Jack, and Doctor and date are off. When they get there, Dr. Bennell and Becky find that their friends have a body in their basement. Only, they’re not sure if it’s alive. Strangely, the body is nearly featureless, with no unique facial characteristics, and no fingerprints. Its only distinctive trait is that it looks kinda like Jack. It’s an uncanny resemblance, down to the height and weight. Who was this body lying on the table? Is it even a human? Before they can find any answers, Dr. Bennell and Jack run off to seek help, but by the time they get back, the body is gone.

There is one single moment in this movie that changes its course and tone so dramatically without feeling anywhere close to jarring. As Dr. Bennell and Jack are searching around Jack’s house, they find in his yard these giant organic-looking pods, which split open to birth human-like lifeforms. And, miraculously, the scene works. Despite the film’s low budget, there’s no questioning the effectiveness of these extraterrestrial pod people. They’re creepy! The pods burst open and bubble and froth before the weird human-adjacent creatures flop out, and none of it looks hoaky at all.

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That’s the real key to Body Snatchers. In addition to Kevin McCarthy’s great performance, the story does a lot of legwork to ground itself in reality. There’s almost two full acts before we’re even aware of anything supernatural or paranormal or alien. The decision to rest the story’s believability with the action and thoughts of a trusted doctor works beautifully. By the time Dr. Bennell finally does believe that there are pod people among us, we believe too, because he’s been skeptical the whole time. There’s a lot of heavy lifting establishing the town and its residents, but that all pays off when the facade begins to unravel. And oh boy does it unravel in frightening ways. The sense of paranoia displayed in this movie is just so exceptionally palpable. Everybody has felt that “They’re all looking at me,” sensation. Particularly in a scene where Dr. Bennell and Becky have to blend in with the pod people, the filmmakers do a great job of heightening the tension.

The legacy of this movie, however, has been dictated by public misunderstanding of a central allegory. It’s a good enough story that tons of people want to ascribe their own interpretations to it, and those readings have kind of outgrown the movie itself. To really enjoy Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, I implore you to distance yourself from the “communism” narrative usually associated with the movie. Whether or not the filmmakers conceived it as a scathing rebuke of communism, the text of the movie shows us pod people. And pod people are scary enough on their own! On the contrary, many have read the movie as a critique of then-contemporary McCarthyism, with the like-minded pod people all sussing out those who aren’t aligned. This reading is also super unnecessary for the enjoyment of this picture. It’s paranoia for dread’s sake, not a political screed. And Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a much more compelling B-movie than it is a manifesto.

For some real feeling of psychosis and unease, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is available to rent or own on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Fandango and Vudu.

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