Welcome to Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a look at a classic old Hollywood horror film or hidden gem. We’ll explore its history and juicy behind-the-scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror.
This February, in celebration of No One Can Hear You Scream Month at Nightmare on Film Street, we’ll take a look at one of the most effective and terrifying 50s B-Movies ever made, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). It’s a film I originally selected because it’s one of the best alien invasion films of all time. But in light of current events, I was prompted to reflect on how its story of community panic is just as relevant today as it was in the mid-1950s.
A Legend of B-Movie Artistry
Emerging from the paranoid womb of 1950s America like a goo drenched pod person, the 1956 horror sci-fi film Invasion of the Body Snatchers still holds up as a timeless metaphor for political panic, community terror, and the dangers of American conformity. Its legacy is so powerful that the original film itself is often buried in discussions of its impact, meaning, and notoriously censored ending. But the film is a masterpiece of noir-inspired suspense, effective practical effects, and understated sci-fi horror. Its ability to shake even a modern viewer speaks to the timeless terror of a silent takeover of those we thought we knew.
Invasion of The Body Snatchers is based on the 1955 novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney, but in the hands of screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring and director Don Siegel, the story transformed from an unremarkable serialized sci-fi story into a subtle work of terror that maintains its power to disturb. It’s famously bleak ending, notoriously changed by studio demand, only further deepens the legend of the film. Its allegory has been read as a critique of McCarthyism and 1950s American conformity, but what does Invasion of the Body Snatchers have to offer a modern audience? It turns out, plenty. In fact, it’s continued relevance for over half a century is why Invasion of the Body Snatchers holds up as the most effective 1950s B-Movie ever made.
Something’s Not Right
The most effective aspect of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is its eerie, unsettling opening sequences. Ignoring the tacked-on prologue that forces the main storyline into flashback, the beginning, when Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is called back early from vacation to his hometown of Santa Mira, California — are stunning. I have a soft spot for horror film openings. My favorite parts are often the table setting before the threat really kicks in. I love the different ways in which the horror is foreshadowed, the quiet and unsettling beginnings. Give me Brody posting no swimming signs in Amity, or Carol Anne talking to the TV, or Barbara noticing a disoriented man at the cemetery, any day. A good horror opening is worth a hundred scares at the end in my book.
Miles has cut his time off short due to a sudden influx of panicked patients requesting appointments, insisting they can only speak to him. But upon returning, all the appointments have suddenly been canceled, with no explanation. Driving to his office with his secretary, Miles nearly hits a young boy fleeing across the street in a panic. His mother explains that the child simply doesn’t want to go to school, but Miles senses a fear in the boy’s actions that is beyond the normal dislike of classes.
“The brilliance of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is how it’s horror can be accomplished with very little special effects and mere suggestion.“
After he returns to his office, Miles is greeted by his childhood sweetheart, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), newly returned from England after a divorce. She wants Miles to talk to her cousin Wilma (Carolyn Jones), who is convinced that her beloved Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) isn’t her uncle. Later, the grandmother of the panicked boy brings him into the office. She explains that she found him hiding in her cellar, saying his mother isn’t his mother at all. Miles gives the boy a sedative and sends him to stay with his grandmother overnight. The town psychologist, Dr. Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates) explains to Miles that the town seems to be experiencing an epidemic of mass hysteria, but that it’s purely psychological. Yet during a date with the newly single Becky, the couple is called to visit their friends Jack and Teddy (King Donovan and Carolyn Jones aka Morticia Adams!!!). The couple has discovered a male corpse in their home with strangely blank features and no fingerprints, but a vague resemblance to Jack.
As the events of Invasion of the Body Snatchers unfolds, the opening becomes increasingly chilling. When we realize the truth of what’s happening — that people are being replaced by emotionless alien replicants in their sleep, we second guess every interaction that Miles has had since the beginning of the film. We try to pinpoint at which moment people in the town were replaced, and realize in horror that half of Santa Mira was likely replaced before Miles even returned.
The Art of Paranoia
Invasion of the Body Snatchers was shot on a B-Movie budget of $350,000 over twenty days. Siegel, producer Walter Wagner, and the cast envisioned a more “elevated” film than the studio, Allied Artists Pictures, had in mind. But even as they couldn’t stop all of the more commercial changes insisted upon by the studio, their intent is what made Invasion of the Body Snatchers the classic it is today.
Cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks shot the film in a film noir style, with evocative shadows and angles throughout. Siegel insisted on shooting night scenes at night, as opposed to the usual low budget hack of using a day for night filter. This caused the film to go three days over schedule and put Kevin McCarthy at risk of being hit by a car during the film’s famous highway scene. The sequence was shot at dawn with stunt drivers, and McCarthy was so exhausted that his ability to dodge upcoming cars was impaired. Much of his disorientation in the scene was genuine.
The film is low on special effects, but the ones it does feature are shockingly good. The famous greenhouse scene, when Miles, Becky, Teddy, and Jack witness massive seed pods expelling their future replicas, holds up to the best practical effects of the modern era. The sudsy foam that emerges from the opening seeds and the gooey, membrane-covered human forms that spill out seem more at home in a Cronenberg film than a 50s B-Movie. It’s gross and goopy in a way that screams the 80s, but it’s all the more effective in midcentury black and white. The effect required full body casts of the lead actors, made in a harrowing process that asked the actors to submerge themselves fully in hot casting material and breathe through straws.
Invasion of the Studio Cuts
Among the changes that the studio pushed on the film was the rejection of Siegel’s preferred title, Sleep No More, which Allied Artists deemed too highbrow. The more B-Movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers was agreed upon, though Siegel and the cast complained it sounded like it belonged to a cheesier film. But the biggest change was the prologue and ending, insisted upon by the studio when the original cut tested poorly with audiences.
The film was originally set to conclude with Miles screaming a warning to ignoring drivers on the highway, with the close up of his terrified face directly addressing the camera, shouting “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next! You’re next!” But the studio mandated a more hopeful conclusion in which the authorities who have picked up Miles ultimately believe his story and alert the FBI. Granted, all of Santa Mira, including Becky, have already been replaced, so it’s not exactly a happy ending. But perhaps the worst part of the re-edit is that, by empowering Washington to save the day, the edit contradicts the film’s critique of American conformity and McCarthyism. The film was released in 1978 in a Director’s Cut, without the prologue and epilogue. But even in the more widely available studio version, the film is powerful.
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a timeless warning that community is about love, not emptiness. It’s as relevant a message as ever.“
The brilliance of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is how it’s horror can be accomplished with very little special effects and mere suggestion. The deep held fear that one day someone you know and love could become a stranger to you has haunted humans throughout history. The myth of the faerie changeling was used to explain why a child or loved one might suddenly begin to seem like a stranger, when in reality it was most likely due to mental illness, dementia, or childhood developmental delays. Capgras delusion is a widely recognized psychiatric disorder in which a person believes that a loved one has been replaced by an identical pretender. The horror of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is how its premise plays with love, trust, and perception, ramping up our paranoia until we don’t know who we can trust.
And while the film has been analyzed to be about cold war paranoia or a warning against complacency to government fascism, Siegel has only ever admitted that the film was about the threat of conformity and the loss of emotion in modern society. The film’s themes have proven to be applicable to every age. From the masterful 1978 remake that reframes the story as a late 70s paranoia thriller, to revisits to the original, the film speaks to the fears of audiences to this day.
Even without the environment of the cold war, we are faced with a world in which fear leads to blind conformity, and we regularly hear of people losing the people they thought they knew to internet extremism, radicalization, or mental illness. The current situation, in which we are all facing an unprecedented worldwide pandemic, is a good time to revisit Invasion of The Body Snatchers for new and relevant wisdom. In many ways, the silent invasion at its center resembles a viral epidemic, not of disease but of panic and complacency. And during times of community crisis, it’s far too easy to become “pod people” rejecting love and emotion to stay safe. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a timeless warning that community is about love, not emptiness. It’s as relevant a message as ever. Give it a watch during your quarantine, and then facetime a good friend and tell them you care and that you’re happy they haven’t been replaced by a pod person.
Until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those Silver Screams! Share your thoughts on Invasion of the Body Snatchers with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! Or, while you’re here – check out previous editions of Silver Screams for your classic horror fix!