Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)


Introduction

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a 1956 American science fiction horror film produced by Walter Wanger, directed by Don Siegel, that stars Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter. The black-and-white film, shot in Superscope, was partially done in a film noir style. Daniel Mainwaring adapted the screenplay from Jack Finney’s 1955 science fiction novel The Body Snatchers.

The film’s storyline concerns an extraterrestrial invasion that begins in the fictional California town of Santa Mira. Alien plant spores have fallen from space and grown into large seed pods, each one capable of reproducing a duplicate replacement copy of each human. As each pod reaches full development, it assimilates the physical characteristics, memories, and personalities of each sleeping person placed near it; these duplicates, however, are devoid of all human emotion. Little by little, a local doctor uncovers this “quiet” invasion and attempts to stop it.

The Body Snatchers TV series and film collection.

Outline

A psychiatrist, Dr. Hill, is called to the emergency room of a California hospital, where a screaming man is being held in custody. Dr. Hill agrees to listen to his story. The man identifies himself as a doctor, and recounts, in flashback, the events leading up to his arrest and arrival at the hospital.

In the nearby town of Santa Mira, Dr. Miles Bennell sees a number of patients apparently suffering from Capgras delusion – the belief that their relatives have somehow been replaced with identical-looking impostors. Returning from a trip, Miles meets his former girlfriend, Becky Driscoll, who has recently come back to town after a divorce. Becky’s cousin Wilma expresses the same fear about her Uncle Ira, with whom she lives. Psychiatrist Dr. Dan Kauffman assures Bennell that these cases are merely an “epidemic of mass hysteria”.

That evening, Bennell’s friend, Jack Belicec, finds a body with his exact physical features, though it appears not fully developed; later, another body is found in Becky’s basement that is her exact duplicate. When Bennell calls Kauffman to the scene, the bodies have mysteriously disappeared, and Kauffman tells Bennell that he is falling for the same hysteria.

The following night, Bennell, Becky, Jack, and Jack’s wife Teddy again find duplicates of themselves, emerging from giant seed pods in Bennell’s greenhouse. They conclude that the townspeople are being replaced while asleep with exact physical copies. Miles tries to make a long-distance call to federal authorities for help, but the phone operator claims that the long-distance lines are dead or busy. Jack and Teddy drive off to seek help in the next town. Bennell and Becky soon realize that all of the town’s inhabitants have been replaced and are devoid of humanity. They hide at Bennell’s office for the night, vowing to stay awake.

The next morning, Bennell and Becky watch from the office window as truckloads of the giant pods arrive in the town centre. They listen as Nick Grivett (the chief of police) directs the others to take them to neighboring towns to be planted and used to replace their populations. Kauffman and Jack, both of whom are now also “pod people”, arrive at Bennell’s office with new pods for Becky and Bennell. They reveal that an extraterrestrial life form is responsible for the invasion; the pods, capable of replicating any life form, traveled through space and landed in a field. After their takeover, Kauffman explains, humanity will lose all emotions and sense of individuality, creating a simplistic, stressless world.

After scuffling with and knocking out Kauffman, Jack and Grivett, Bennell and Becky escape the office. Outside, they pretend to be pod people, but Becky screams at a dog that is about to be hit by a car, exposing their humanity. A town alarm is sounded and they flee on foot, pursued by a mob of “pod people”.

Exhausted, they manage to escape and hide in an abandoned mine outside town. Later, they hear music and Bennell leaves Becky briefly to investigate. Over a hill, he sees a large greenhouse farm with hundreds of giant seed pods being loaded onto trucks. Bennell returns to tell Becky, and upon kissing her he realizes, to his horror, that she fell asleep and is now one of them. Becky sounds the alarm as he runs away. He is again chased by the mob, and eventually finds himself on a crowded highway. After seeing a transport truck bound for San Francisco and Los Angeles filled with the pods, he frantically screams at the passing motorists, “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next!”

The flashback ends with Bennell finishing his story back at the hospital. Dr. Hill and the on-duty doctor step outside the room, the latter expressing his certainty that Bennell is psychotic. A truck driver is wheeled into the hall after being badly injured in an accident. The orderly tells the doctors that the man had to be dug out from under a load of giant seed pods. Finally believing Bennell’s story, Dr. Hill calls for all roads in and out of Santa Mira to be barricaded and alerts the FBI.

Cast

  • Starring:
    • Kevin McCarthy as Dr. Miles Bennell.
    • Dana Wynter as Becky Driscoll.
    • King Donovan as Jack Belicec.
    • Carolyn Jones as Theodora “Teddy” Belicec.
  • Featuring:
    • Larry Gates as Dr. Dan Kauffman.
    • Virginia Christine as Wilma Lentz.
    • Ralph Dumke as Police Chief Nick Grivett.
    • Kenneth Patterson as Stanley Driscoll.
    • Guy Way as Officer Sam Janzek.
    • Jean Willes as Nurse Sally Withers.
    • Eileen Stevens as Anne Grimaldi.
    • Beatrice Maude as Grandma Grimaldi.
    • Whit Bissell (uncredited) as Dr. Hill.
    • Richard Deacon (uncredited) as Dr. Bassett.
  • With:
    • Bobby Clark as Jimmy Grimaldi.
    • Tom Fadden as Uncle Ira Lentz.
    • Everett Glass as Dr. Ed Pursey.
    • Dabbs Greer as Mac Lomax.
    • Sam Peckinpah as Charlie, the gas meter reader.

Production

Novel and Screenplay

Jack Finney’s novel ends with the extraterrestrials, who have a life span of no more than five years, leaving Earth after they realize that humans are offering strong resistance, despite having little reasonable chance against the alien invasion.

Budgeting and Casting

Invasion of the Body Snatchers was originally scheduled for a 24-day shoot and a budget of US$454,864. The studio later asked Wanger to cut the budget significantly. The producer proposed a shooting schedule of 20 days and a budget of $350,000.

Initially, Wanger considered Gig Young, Dick Powell, Joseph Cotten, and several others for the role of Miles. For Becky, he considered casting Anne Bancroft, Donna Reed, Kim Hunter, Vera Miles and others. With the lower budget, however, he abandoned these choices and cast Richard Kiley, who had just starred in The Phenix City Story for Allied Artists. Kiley turned the role down and Wanger cast two relative newcomers in the lead roles: Kevin McCarthy, who had just starred in Siegel’s An Annapolis Story, and Dana Wynter, who had done several major dramatic roles on television.

Future director Sam Peckinpah had a small part as Charlie, a meter reader. Peckinpah was a dialogue coach on five Siegel films in the mid-1950s, including this one.

Principal Photography

Originally, producer Wanger and Siegel wanted to film Invasion of the Body Snatchers on location in Mill Valley, California, the town just north of San Francisco, that Jack Finney described in his novel. In the first week of January 1955, Siegel, Wanger and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring visited Finney to talk about the film version and to look at Mill Valley. The location proved too expensive and Siegel with Allied Artist executives found locations resembling Mill Valley in the Los Angeles area, including Sierra Madre, Chatsworth, Glendale, Los Feliz, Bronson and Beachwood Canyons, all of which would make up the town of “Santa Mira” for the film. In addition to these outdoor locations, much of the film was shot in the Allied Artists studio on the east side of Hollywood.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers was shot by cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks in 23 days between 23 March and 27 April 1955. The cast and crew worked a six-day week with Sundays off. The production went over schedule by three days because of night-for-night shooting that Siegel wanted. Additional photography took place in September 1955, filming a frame story on which the studio had insisted (see Original intended ending). The final budget was $382,190.

Post-production

The project was originally named The Body Snatchers after the Finney serial. However, Wanger wanted to avoid confusion with the 1945 Val Lewton film The Body Snatcher. The producer was unable to come up with a title and accepted the studio’s choice, They Come from Another World and that was assigned in summer 1955. Siegel objected to this title and suggested two alternatives, Better Off Dead and Sleep No More, while Wanger offered Evil in the Night and World in Danger. None of these were chosen, and the studio settled on Invasion of the Body Snatchers in late 1955. The film was released at the time in France under the mistranslated title “L’invasion des profanateurs de sépultures” (literally: Invasion of the defilers of tombs), which remains unchanged today.

Wanger wanted to add a variety of speeches and prefaces. He suggested a voice-over introduction for Miles. While the film was being shot, Wanger tried to get permission in England to use a Winston Churchill quotation as a preface to the film. The producer sought out Orson Welles to voice the preface and a trailer for the film. He wrote speeches for Welles’ opening on 15 June 1955, and worked to persuade Welles to do it, but was unsuccessful. Wanger considered science fiction author Ray Bradbury instead, but this did not happen, either. Mainwaring eventually wrote the voice-over narration himself.

The studio scheduled three film previews on the last days of June and the first day of July 1955. According to Wanger’s memos at the time, the previews were successful. Later reports by Mainwaring and Siegel, however, contradict this, claiming that audiences could not follow the film and laughed in the wrong places. In response the studio removed much of the film’s humor, “humanity” and “quality,” according to Wanger. He scheduled another preview in mid-August that also did not go well. In later interviews Siegel pointed out that it was studio policy not to mix humor with horror.

Wanger saw the final cut in December 1955 and protested the use of the Superscope aspect ratio. Its use had been included in early plans for the film, but the first print was not made until December. Wanger felt that the film lost sharpness and detail. Siegel originally shot Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Superscope was a post-production laboratory process designed to create an anamorphic print from non-anamorphic source material that would be projected at an aspect ratio of 2.00:1.

Original Intended Ending

Both Siegel and Mainwaring were satisfied with the film as shot. It was originally meant to end with Miles screaming as truckloads of pods pass him by. The studio, wary of a pessimistic conclusion, insisted on adding a prologue and epilogue suggesting a more optimistic outcome to the story, which is thus told mainly in flashback. In this version the film begins with a ranting Bennell in custody in a hospital emergency ward. He then tells a consulting psychiatrist (Whit Bissell) his story. In the closing scene pods are found at a highway accident, confirming his warning. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is notified.

Mainwaring scripted this framing story and Siegel shot it on September 16, 1955, at the Allied Artists studio. In a later interview Siegel complained, “The film was nearly ruined by those in charge at Allied Artists who added a preface and ending that I don’t like”. In his autobiography Siegel added that “Wanger was very much against this, as was I. However, he begged me to shoot it to protect the film, and I reluctantly consented […]”.

While the Internet Movie Database states that the film had been revised to its original ending for a re-release in 1979, Steve Biodrowski of Cinefantastique magazine notes that the film was still being shown with the complete footage, including a 2005 screening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, honouring director Don Siegel.

Though disapproved of by most reviewers, George Turner (in American Cinematographer) and Danny Peary (in Cult Movies) endorsed the subsequently added frame story. Nonetheless, Peary emphasised that the added scenes changed significantly what he saw as the film’s original intention.

Release

Invasion of the Body Snatchers was largely ignored by critics on its initial run.

Theatrical Release

When the film was released domestically in February 1956, many theaters displayed several pods made of papier-mâché in theatre lobbies and entrances, along with large lifelike black and white cutouts of McCarthy and Wynter running away from a crowd. The film made more than $1 million in the first month, and in 1956 alone made more than $2.5 million in the US. When the British release (with cuts imposed by the British censors) took place in late 1956, the film earned more than a half million dollars in ticket sales.

Home Media

The film was released on DVD in 1998 by US-label Republic (an identical re-release by Artisan followed in 2002); it includes the Superscope version plus a 1.375:1 Academy ratio version. The latter is not the original full frame edition, but a pan and scan reworking of the Superscope edition that loses visual detail.

DVD editions exist on the British market (including a computer colorized version), German market (as Die Dämonischen) and Spanish market (as La Invasión de los Ladrones de Cuerpos).

Olive Films released a Blu-ray Disc Superscope version of the film in 2012.

Remakes

The film was remade several times, including as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Body Snatchers (1993), and The Invasion (2007).

An untitled fourth remake from Warner Bros is, apparently, in development. David Leslie Johnson was signed to be the screenwriter.

Related Works

Robert A. Heinlein had previously developed this subject in his 1951 novel The Puppet Masters, written in 1950. The Puppet Masters was later plagiarised as the 1958 film The Brain Eaters, and adapted under contract in the 1994 film The Puppet Masters.

There are several thematically related works that followed Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers, including Val Guest’s Quatermass 2 and Gene Fowler’s I Married a Monster from Outer Space.

A Looney Tunes parody of the film was released, entitled Invasion of the Bunny Snatchers (1992). The adaptation was directed by Greg Ford and places Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, and Porky Pig in the various roles of the story.

In 2018, theatre company Team Starkid created the musical parody The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals, the story of a Midwestern town that is overtaken by an singing alien hive mind. The musical parodies numerous horror and musical tropes, while the main character also wears a suit reminiscent of Bennell’s within the show.

The May 1981 issue of National Lampoon featured a parody titled “Invasion of the Money Snatchers”; the gentile population of Whiteville is taken over by pastrami sandwiches from outer space and turned into Jews.

The film was also parodied in the 2012 SpongeBob SquarePants episode “Planet of the Jellyfish” (likely mocking Planet of the Vampires and Planet of the Apes in the title, but more similar to Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the plot).

Trivia

  • The slang expression “pod people” that arose in late 20th century American culture references the emotionless duplicates seen in the film.
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers was selected in 1994 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s): Don Siegel.
  • Producer(s): Walter Wanger.
  • Writer(s): Daniel Mainwaring.
  • Music: Carmen Dragon.
  • Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks.
  • Editor(s): Robert S. Eisen.
  • Production: Walter Wanger Productions.
  • Distributor(s): Allied Artists Pictures.
  • Release Date: 05 February 1956 (US).
  • Running Time: 80 minutes.
  • Rating: PG.
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English.

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