There are strange things happening in Santa Mira, California. No, it’s not that new Silver Shamrock Novelties building breaking ground on the edge of town. This time, the mystery is much more personal. By all outward appearances, life in this small town is simple, pleasant and dependable. And yet, a subtle, humming shift is occurring within the hearts of its citizens. Friends, family, and loved ones are growing distant and cold. Rumors of impostors float on concerned whispers. Is it some form of mass hysteria? Or could it be, an Invasion of the Body Snatchers?!
A result of the 1950’s science fiction boom, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) embodies the quintessential underdog story. Based on a Collier’s magazine serial story by science fiction writer Jack Finney, Invasion of the Body Snatchers left space exploration, mutant insects or war mongering aliens to its peers. This alien invasion would be a covert, internalized affair. Recognizing the unique nature of the story, Allied Artists producer Walter Wanger bought the story’s film rights and brought it to director Don Siegel. For years, Siegel had been struggling to gain proper recognition as a feature film director despite having won two Oscars for short films. Invasion of the Body Snatchers offered Siegel a true opportunity at widespread, industry acceptance. As production commenced, it would go on to fight an uphill battle with everything from casting, editing, budgets and studio support. However, there was one arena where the stars aligned; hiring Carmen Dragon to score.
A popular and experienced composer, Dragon was no stranger to film scoring. By 1956 he had already worked on popular films like The Strange Woman (1946), Out of the Blue (1947), Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950) and Gunpoint (1955). His work on the 1944 film Cover Girl even nabbed him an Oscar. On top of his film work, Dragon had also logged 5000 hours of radio broadcast work and was a popular guest conductor of many famous symphony orchestras. These concerts and recordings made Dragon a composer with unique renown, both within the industry and the mainstream general public. With his work tending to be more traditional and pop music-oriented, it’s fascinating that Dragon was not only chosen to score this new venture in science-fiction horror, but that Dragon accepted the job at all. Never before had Dragon worked on a project that demanded as much suspense, terror and, darkness. However, with a reputation for being a relentless workaholic, perhaps Dragon saw the opportunity as both a personal and professional challenge.
“With his work tending to be more traditional and pop music-oriented, it’s fascinating that Dragon was not only chosen to score this new venture in science-fiction horror, but that Dragon accepted the job at all.”
One of the most common simplifications of a score’s purpose is to translate and convey a character’s emotion to the audience. With his years of experience working with symphonic orchestras, Dragon’s intimate knowledge and understanding or orchestration and instrumentation is on full display throughout the film. Anyone can own a toolbox, but it takes experience and knowledge to know how to properly and effectively use those tools. In the same way the film’s visuals are presented in black and white, Dragon’s score similarly remains black and white in motive. By utilizing just the right instruments, in just the right way at just the right times, Dragon creates an emotional mirroring effect that is shockingly effective. These days we often see a horror film’s score utilized in ways that can mislead, misdirect or aid in a jump scare. But here, we see Dragon’s music in full support of the storyline and the character’s emotional journeys.
For example, let’s take the track ‘Tell Me Who.’ As our leading man, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) and his love interest Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) visit their friends the Belicec‘s, they find a mysterious body in the living room. For us, and our characters, this is the first real glimpse at a ‘pod person.’ As Miles turns on the light, revealing the mysterious body, a low, sustained brass note creeps into the scene. Then, as Miles pulls back the sheet, a perfectly timed chorus of horns enters with quick glimpses of strings mirroring the surprise and questions darting through his mind. While his professional nature allows him to examine the body with composure, the music relays the unsettling concern that grows within Miles and the rest of the group. As chords progress, they step carefully and unpredictably. The lack of a recognizable melody creates and supports an air of mystery. Neither we or our characters know for certain what is happening or how the scene will play out. Higher pitched woodwinds and strings connect to the more logical, mental stance the group are trying to maintain. By trying to talk out the situation, the group collectively keeps their imaginations and fears in check. And yet, there at the base, lower horns, percussion and dissonant piano tones reveal the primal, creeping danger underneath it all.
Connected to this idea is Dragon’s fascinating implementation and overall usage of the piano. Throughout the film, Dragon builds the presence and utilization of the instrument. While we first hear the addition of low, staccato style notes played in ‘Where Are You?/Don’t Worry About Me,’ the technique takes on particular importance near the end of the film in ‘Open The Door.’ At this point, Miles and Becky attempt to escape by faking their way through their now fully infested city. As they attempt to evade detection and try their best to mimic the pod people’s behavior, sporadic, solo piano notes accompany. By slowly building the instrument’s presence and utilization, it now becomes fully evident that these syncopated, atonal piano progressions represent the growing suspense and paranoia of our characters. While seemingly simple, this technique and patient, deliberate implementation would go on to later influence countless composers and become a staple for film composition.
Hand in hand with Dragon’s masterful understanding of innate emotional resonance within each instrument comes his creative knack for song structure and composition. While there are moments and ideas that return here and there as needed, overall, the score for Invasion of the Body Snatchers is filled with unique and original progressions. Rarely does Dragon repeat themes or phrases. Instead, he continuously crafts new and fresh material that keeps audiences subconsciously engaged and on edge. For example, let’s take a look at the track ‘No More Tears/Waiting for You.’ With a running time of 5:44, the track is one of the larger singular pieces in the film. However, the motion and forward momentum of the piece remains fresh, engaging and effective throughout. Every bit and piece of the orchestra takes its turn and is utilized with tact and precision. Frantic, twittering strings alternate in the spotlight with punctuated, bold horns and timpani. Subtle, restrained moments are replaced with powerful and intensely commanding segments. And then, just like that, Dragon reigns it all back in. Despite the diversity in emotion and instrumentation, Dragon possesses a unique talent for stitching together seemingly disparate moments into one united sonic front.
“Rarely does Dragon repeat themes or phrases. Instead, he continuously crafts new and fresh material that keeps audiences subconsciously engaged and on edge. “
Even with all of these amazing traits, perhaps the most incredible part of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers score is the fact that a standalone version of it exists at all. Remember, the year was 1956 and film scores for such films were rarely, if ever, fully appreciated or preserved. Nobody, not even those directly involved, expected Invasion of the Body Snatchers to garner the acclaim, longevity and cult status that it has. Therefore, it makes sense that the studio wouldn’t bother with a physical release or even archive the film’s score. But not everyone felt that way about the score, including Dragon himself. Perhaps it was because of the score’s unique place in his discography, or the fact that it was his last feature film score, but for some reason, Dragon held on to the original tapes. However, they would remain ‘lost’ until 2014 when Dragon’s son-in-law, Richard Henn, discovered the tapes in the back of a storage closet. Considered the only existing copy of this work, Henn, the Carmen Dragon Music Library, and La-La Land Records teamed up to finally release the score in 2015.
After being restored, mastered and transferred, La-La Land would release the score on both CD and LP. Appropriately pressed on a 180g ‘Pod Green’ vinyl, the LP edition was limited to 1000 copies. The CD version was limited to 2000 copies and even includes a few bonus tracks. While both copies are still easily available and reasonably priced, the importance of Dragon’s score cannot be undervalued. Not only does the score hold a unique place in Dragon’s distinctive career, it helped cement Invasion of the Body Snatchers as one of the most iconic, remake-able, and enduring sci-fi horror movies of all time. Like so many aspects of history, this musical moment could have easily been forever lost or tossed out with the rubbish. Thankfully, that is not the version of reality we are currently living in.
What are some of your favorite black and white horror scores? Which version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers do you prefer? Let us know over on Twitter, our subreddit, or at The Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook! And if you’re looking for more of horror’s best scores, make sure and check out my other installments of Terror on the Turntable!