“There’ll Be No More Tears” The Shifting Identities of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Preview)
by Robert Cashill
Sometimes a film transforms itself into something else right before your eyes. Ten years ago, after a particularly difficult day caring for my infant daughter, I went out at night to unwind with a movie. My judgment was clearly impaired, as Revolutionary Road was not exactly a flick to relax with. But I felt for anxious Kate Winslet, a Rosemary stuck in suburbia with her babies. Once I made that association, I saw everything in a different, macabre light—that the very house she lived in was feeding on her, sapping her soul, as in Burnt Offerings (1976) and other thrillers; that Leonardo DiCaprio, her ladder-climbing, neglectful, cheating husband, was a Jekyll and Hyde type; and, especially, that their emotionally disturbed neighbor (Michael Shannon) was a Frankenstein monster, whose unbalanced truth-telling seals their fate. I duly reported this phenomenon online, where I was gratified to find that others had similar experiences, of strange echoes pinging through movies never intended to generate them.
I fully expected Ben Is Back to be another somnolent drama about teenage drug addiction, in the manner of Beautiful Boy, which preceded it into theaters last fall. But that film was based on father-and-son books about their experience; unbound by autobiography, writer/director Peter Hedges goes in a different direction, one that again intersected with my cinephile past. Ben (sensitively, nervously played by Hedges’s son, Lucas) is back, and mother Holly (Julia Roberts) is pleased to see him. But Ben, a painkiller addict since a skateboarding accident in high school, is back from rehab, and his family is mostly wary of a son who is, but isn’t, the one they knew. Feeling like a suspect in his own home (it’s Christmas Eve, and everyone is struggling to maintain a false front of seasonal cheer), Ben goes mall shopping with his mother, but the ghosts of his recent reckless past come back to haunt them. The elements were familiar—a small town, familiar on the outside, suddenly rendered alien and hostile; a panicked flight through a secretive underworld whose inhabitants have succumbed to a force they can’t shake; a frantic race to rescue a loved one from a death sleep.
I’d seen this movie before. And so have you, when it was set in another small town, in California, in 1956; San Francisco, in 1978; a Southern military base, in 1993; and Washington, DC, in 2007. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, from Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers (serialized in Collier’s in 1954, then published as a Dell paperback in 1955), is one of the best-traveled concepts in science fiction cinema, though its essentials don’t change much from version to version. (Quite unlike the humans completely transmogrified into emotionless “pod people” by alien spores in each telling.) But the differences are intriguing. With a definitive version of Don Siegel’s original classic (now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films), Blu-rays of the three remakes, and the fine essay collection Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute by my side, it was time to open those pods and root around. (A Tribute, a 1999 title updated in 2006, was republished last year for Kindle and other e-book readers by Stark House Press.)
First, the source material. It’s still a great read—Our Town with monsters. But Finney didn’t like the pods (“The best I could do,” he commented) and no one liked his optimistic ending, in which the protagonist, Dr. Miles Bennell, pretty much shoos the creatures back to outer space, to find a less resistant planet to overcome. (Seeing that we were wasting our natural resources, the aliens thought they could come to Earth, take us over, and waste our resources themselves, leaving our big blue marble a husk before moving on.) Finney was about the only person who liked the title, which the first cadre of adaptors found silly and exploitative (and too reminiscent of Val Lewton’s 1945 production The Body Snatcher, which was then in rerelease), but no one could think of anything better. “How could I take my mother and father to see something called Invasion of the Body Snatchers?,” recalls co-star Dana Wynter in a colorful commentary track she shares with the first Bennell, Kevin McCarthy, and genre director Joe Dante. Distributor Allied Artists, which ordered revisions to Siegel’s original, more dystopian cut, had the same feeling, and premiered it not in glamorous Manhattan but lumpen Brooklyn. From there it was dumped into the lower halves of double bills, then onto TV, where it seeded the imaginations of budding filmmakers such as Dante, John Landis, Larry Cohen, and Stuart Gordon, all of whom attest on the disc to its hardboiled brilliance and continuing influence.
“A genre picture for grownups” is how the film is described on Olive’s Signature Edition Blu-ray, which is accurate, if unfair to the likes of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Them! (1954), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and the alien control movies that preceded it in 1953, Invaders from Mars and It Came from Outer Space. But none of them burrowed under the skin quite like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Like pimples, the pods erupted across the fresh, clean face of Eisenhower-era America, disturbing its well-ordered façade.
To recap: Miles, a physician in the small California town of Santa Mira, is bewildered by a rash of patients convinced that their family members are no longer their family members, but identical impostors. Becky (Wynter), a former flame newly returned to town, joins him on his rounds. Miles diagnoses the mounting stresses of modern life as a possible culprit (“People have allowed their humanity to drain away…slowly instead of all at once…we harden our hearts, grow callous”) and is joined in his assessment by the local psychiatrist, Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates), who chalks it up to “an epidemic of mass hysteria.” Not exactly reassuring, yet the complaints fade—as do the complainants, who join their loved ones in a state of watchful affectlessness. It is an inhuman condition, as Miles, Becky, his friend, mystery writer Jack Belicec (King Donovan) and wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) come to learn, upon discovering extraterrestrial seedpods that breed duplicates, a replication of body and mind completed when humans sleep. Once-concerned adults lull their children to bed (“There’ll be no more tears”) and Kauffman, transformed, remarks, “Love, desire, ambition, faith—without them life’s so simple, believe me.” But Miles can’t. With his friends lost to the phenomenon, he and Becky are forced to make a run for it. “Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, how dear,” he says. When Becky, too, slips away he’s left alone on the highway, futilely attempting to warn drivers, “You’re in danger. They’re after you. They’re after all of us. You’re next! You’re next!”
That’s a thumbnail survey of the perfect Invasion of the Body Snatchers, before test audiences and the studio suits objected to the gloom and insisted on adding a more upbeat prologue and epilogue. (A crazed Miles and a convenient traffic accident that exposes the pods convince a doctor to call the FBI, clumsily undercutting a chilling scene, used in all four movies, where the doctor is unable to reach government authorities on the phone. But it was better than having Orson Welles bookend the film with War of the Worlds-style on-camera segments, another idea that was considered.) Still, Siegel got very far, evoking a panicked paranoia that the revised climax can’t dispel. Neither he nor producer Walter Wanger worked in science fiction again, and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring had only minor credits in the genre. Crime and film noir were more in their wheelhouse (Siegel and Wanger had just collaborated on the hit prison picture Riot in Cell Block 11, and Mainwaring adapted his best-remembered novel, Build My Gallows High, into the classic 1947 noir Out of the Past) and the film unfolds with the ruthless efficiency of a procedural, pausing just long enough to take in the repulsive pods, its most fantastic element, before sprinting once more toward its fatalistic almost-climax. The edgily unresolved—or underresolved—quality of the film hangs in the air decades later. What was Invasion of the Body Snatchers driving at?…
Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste, Inc.
Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 2