© 2019, by M. Keith Booker
Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a relatively low budget black-and-white film featuring a little-known cast and minimal special effects. Nevertheless, it went on to become one of the signature films of the 1950s—and one of the most important alien-invasion films of all time. Its paranoid theme of alien invaders who replace individual humans, becoming virtually indistinguishable from the original, resonated in a powerful way with any number of widespread anxieties in the America of its time. Most obviously, the film functions as an allegory of concerns about communist invasion and subversion. However, the film can also be read as a commentary on fear of anti-communist persecution, as well as concerns about the dehumanizing effects of a rapidly expanding capitalist system that was increasingly becoming a dominant factor in every aspect of human life in America. All in all, the texture of the film is as much horror as science fiction, suggesting the way in which fear was such a crucial element of the American experience, even in the supposedly placid 1950s.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a relatively faithful adaptation of a novel of the same title by Jack Finney, first published in serialized form in Collier’s magazine in 1954. The plot of the film is taken almost directly from the novel, including the fact that most of the characters are taken from the novel with names unchanged. The setting in a small California town is also essentially unchanged, though the Mill Valley of the novel is renamed Santa Mira in the film. The major change has to do with the ending. In the novel, protagonist Dr. Miles Bennell heroically battles against the alien invaders, inflicting so much damage that, in the end, the alien invaders decide to leave earth to seek out a planet that will be less resistant to colonization. The film also ends on a relatively positive note as Bennell (played by Kevin McCarthy) finally manages to get the authorities to listen to his incredible story of alien seed pods growing into human replicants, and to begin to mobilize against the invasion. The ending, however, is left open: it is not entirely clear that this mobilization will succeed or that the invasion can, at this point, be stopped. This ambiguous ending was imposed at the insistence of Allied Artists, the small studio that produced the film. Initially, director Siegel had envisioned a much more pessimistic ending in which a near-hysterical Bennell would be left standing in the midst of a busy highway, screaming out warnings that go unheeded by the passing drivers, many of whom may already be alien replicants.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers begins like a classic film noir—director Siegel also made The Killers (1964), an important late noir film—as a police car rushes through dark streets to a hospital emergency room. There, a frantic Miles Bennell, having been picked up on the busy highway where he was trying to flag down traffic to warn of an alien invasion, is being held on suspicion that he is a madman. A Dr. Hill (Whit Bissell) arrives from the State Mental Hospital to interview Bennell, who begins to tell him his story. This hospital scene, to which we return at the end of the film, thus becomes a frame narrative around the main part of the film, which relates the story that Bennell tells to Hill, giving the film a flashback structure that is typical of film noir.
As this story begins, Bennell is returning from a medical convention to Santa Mira, the quiet small town where he was born and raised and where he now practices family medicine. He immediately senses something strange about the familiar town, but is unable to find any concrete reason for the feeling of apprehension he experiences on his arrival. His nurse, Sally Withers (Jean Willes), picks him up at the train station, warning him that he has a waiting room full of patients anticipating his arrival at the office. As they drive to the office, they nearly hit young Jimmy Grimaldi (Bobby Clark), who runs out into the street fleeing his mother. Bennell notices that the once-thriving Grimaldi fruit stand seems to have closed down. When he gets to his office, he finds that most of his patients have canceled their appointments. Then old flame Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter)—who has been married and away in England—arrives with news that she, like Bennell, is recently divorced. Meanwhile, she seeks his advice concerning her cousin Wilma Lentz (Virginia Christine), who swears that her Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) has been replaced by some sort of impostor. Soon afterward, Jimmy Grimaldi comes to the office in near hysteria with a report that his mother has been similarly replaced.
Bennell goes to see Wilma, who reports that the man purporting to be her Uncle Ira resembles Ira exactly and even has all of Ira’s memories, but seems oddly lacking in all feeling and emotion, very unlike her real uncle. Bennell concludes that Wilma is suffering from some sort of delusion and suggests that she go to see psychiatrist Dan Kaufman (Larry Gates). Meanwhile, Bennell and Becky make a date for dinner, realizing that much of their old mutual attraction is still there. Outside the Sky Terrace Playroom, where they plan to have dinner, they run into Kaufman, who reports that there have been several recent cases in the area of people swearing that relatives or close friends are not the people they claim to be. He interprets the phenomenon as a psychological reaction to “worry about what’s going on in the world”—leaving it up to Bennell and Becky (and the audience) to interpret that phrase, but also providing a key to the success of the film, which directly addresses so many contemporary worries. After Kaufman agrees to talk with Jimmy and Wilma, Bennell and Becky go in for dinner and find the once-popular club nearly deserted. Then, just as they start a pre-dinner dance, a phone call comes in for Bennell from local mystery writer Jack Belicec (King Donovan), who urgently asks the doctor to come see him.
Bennell and Becky drive to the Belicec home where Jack and wife Theodora (Carolyn Jones) show them a body lying on their pool table. Bennell examines the body and finds the face vague, unfinished, somehow lacking in features. They try to take the fingerprints of the corpse, but find that it has none. Theodora is convinced that the body is a blank waiting to take on the stamp of its final features—those of her husband. Bennell asks them to sit up to observe the body during the night and to call the police if anything happens.
Bennell takes Becky home, where hey find her father emerging from the basement, which seems odd at this late hour. Meanwhile, back at the Belicec residence, Jack falls asleep, and Theodora sees the body on the table beginning to take on Jack’s features and to stir into life. She becomes hysterical and awakes her husband, who takes her to see Bennell. In turn, Bennell calls Kaufman and asks him to come over, even though it is the middle of the night.
Realizing that something very out of the ordinary is going on in Santa Mira, Bennell suddenly has a feeling that Becky is in danger. He drives hurriedly over to her home, where he sneaks into the house by breaking a basement window. Inside, he finds another of the blank bodies, this one resembling Becky. He rushes upstairs, grabs the sleeping Becky out of bed and carries her down the stairs and out to his car. Back at his house, he greets Kaufman. He and Belicec leave Becky with Theodora and take Kaufman back to see the body at the Belicec house, but the body has now disappeared. Kaufman argues that Bennell probably just hallucinated the body in the Driscoll basement. The three men go to the Driscoll home and indeed find no body there. Police Chief Nick Grivett (Ralph Dumke), having been called by Becky’s father, arrives with news that the missing body, that of a man with his fingerprints burned off with acid, has recently been found in a burning haystack and is now in the morgue.
Becky and the Belicecs stay the night at Bennell’s house. The next morning, Bennell and Becky seem well on the way to a romantic involvement as she cooks his breakfast. Later that day Wilma flags Bennell down to tell him that she now realizes she was wrong about Uncle Ira. The doctor then arrives at his office to find Jimmy Grimaldi in the waiting room, now perfectly comfortable with his mother. When Bennell returns home for dinner, he finds Jack preparing dinner on the outside grill. Soon afterward, Bennell notices a strange, oozing seed pod inside his greenhouse. Jack immediately concludes (somehow) that such a pod was also the source of the blank bodies. The others agree and instantly conclude (in a rather sudden deductive leap) that all of the strange cases of suspicious identity in the town have arisen from replacements coming from such pods.
Realizing that Kaufman and Grivett may have already been replaced, Bennell attempts to call the FBI office in Los Angeles to report the strange events in Santa Mira, explaining to Becky that the pods may arise from a radiation-induced mutation, or perhaps a weird alien organism. The telephone operator reports to Bennell that the FBI is not answering, then that all circuits to Los Angeles or Sacramento are busy, making it clear that the pod people are now in charge of the local phone system, cutting off communication with the outside world. Meanwhile, the pods in the greenhouse are gradually growing into replacement bodies for all four of the occupants of the house.
Bennell sends the Belicecs away in their car so they can seek help from another town. He himself insists on staying in case the operator calls back so that she will not know anyone has gone. Becky insists on staying in Santa Mira with Bennell, who goes into the greenhouse and destroys the newly forming bodies with a pitchfork. He and Becky then decide to drive off to seek help. When they stop for gas, the attendant puts more seed pods in the trunk while Bennell is attempting to get help via the pay phone. Realizing what has happened, Bennell drives away, then stops and destroys the pods in the trunk. They drive to Sally’s house, hoping she can still be trusted. Unfortunately, they find a group of the pod people meeting there. Bennell and Becky barely escape, while the police put out an all-points bulletin emphasizing that the two must not be allowed to leave town. They nevertheless manage to make it to Bennell’s office, seeking a place to hide. Bennell deduces that the final stage of the replacement process change occurs while the original human sleeps, so he insists that they stay awake at all costs. Musing on the situation, he tells Becky, “In my practice I’ve seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away, only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn’t seem to mind. … All of us a little bit. We harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us.”
The next morning, a Saturday, Bennell looks out his office window onto the town square, finding it oddly busy. He watches as three truckloads of seed pods arrive, distributing them for transport to neighboring towns. Then Belicec and Kaufman arrive at the office, both having been replaced. In a speech that fills in many of the questions raised in the film, Kaufman explains that the pods grew from seeds that drifted in from space and that they can produce exact duplicates of any form of life. He urges Bennell and Becky to give in to the change, which he assures them will be to their benefit, though neither he nor the film as a whole explains what happens to the original bodies once the replacement bodies take over. He assures Becky and Bennell that the replacement process will be entirely painless, occurring while they sleep. They will then be “reborn into an untroubled world.” Bennell retorts, “Where everyone’s the same?” “Exactly,” agrees Kaufman, though he obviously disagrees with Bennell’s implication that such sameness would be a nightmare. He goes on to explain that the new life, free of emotion and competition, will be much easier. “Love, desire, ambition, faith—without them life’s so simple.” However, Bennell and Becky, having rediscovered each other, would rather opt for love, despite its pitfalls, so they continue to resist.
They manage to inject Kaufman, Belicec, and Grivett with sleeping drugs, then dash out of the building, hoping to make it to the highway by pretending to have been changed. Unfortunately, they blow their emotionless cover when Becky cries out as a dog is nearly hit by a truck. They flee cross-country in rough terrain, with the other townspeople in hot pursuit. Still struggling to stay awake, they take refuge inside an old mine tunnel. While they rest, they hear angelic, ethereal singing, and conclude that, being so beautiful, it must be produced by genuine humans. Bennell leaves Becky in the tunnel as he goes to seek out the singers. Unfortunately, he discovers that the music is simply coming from a radio in a truck being loaded with seed pods at a large greenhouse facility growing thousands of pods. He returns to the tunnel to find Becky, seemingly near sleep. He lifts her in his arms and starts to carry her, but trips and falls. He kisses her and then realizes from her emotionless response that she has been replaced.
Becky calls for help from the other pod people as Bennell rushes out into the night. He manages to make it to a busy highway, where he rushes out into the traffic, crying for help. The passing cars ignore him as a madman or drunk. To make matters worse, he jumps onto the back of a truck, which he finds is loaded with seed pods, which are apparently now being shipped out of Santa Mira. Eventually, Bennell is picked up and taken to the hospital, taking us back to the beginning of the film. Then, just as Dr. Hill is about to conclude that Bennell is a lunatic, an accident victim is brought into the emergency room, having been hit by a truckload of giant seed pods from Santa Mira. Hill frantically orders the police to sound the alarm to all law enforcement agencies in the state and to block all roads out of Santa Mira. He himself calls the FBI, seemingly setting into motion forces that might be able to resist the alien pods. On the other hand, it is not at all certain that these forces will succeed, and this ending even leaves open the possibility that the FBI, police, and military may themselves already be controlled by the pod people.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers was shot in 3–4 weeks with a total budget of approximately $400,000, perhaps one-tenth that of the roughly contemporaneous Forbidden Planet, the other truly important sf film of 1956. Invasiom employs very little in the way of special effects or other fancy visual techniques. Nevertheless, it is a skillfully made film that does an excellent job of creating an atmosphere of foreboding and suspense, largely by tapping into numerous basic anxieties that informed American society in the 1950s.
Director Don Siegel had made a number of competent, but unremarkable, B-pictures before Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Still, his work on this film indicated considerably greater promise as a director of commercial features, promise that would ultimately come to fruition in a number of later classic genre films, including crime thrillers such as The Killers (1964), Coogan’s Bluff (1968), and Dirty Harry (1971) and Westerns such as Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) and The Shootist (1976). Indeed, Invasion of the Body Snatchers already shows some of the same deft handling of action and suspense that made those later films so successful. Siegel did not return to the science fiction genre after Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but then that film, in many ways, has more the texture of a thriller than of science fiction, given that it depends largely on suspense for its effectsand that it features essentially nothing in the way of scientific or technological speculation. Even the alien invaders did not come to earth via spacecraft or any other technological device: the seeds simply drifted through space until they happened to land on earth.
Indeed, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is in ways as much a horror film as a science fiction film, indicating the ways in which these two key American film genres often overlap. Meanwhile, the lack of the usual science fiction hardware made it possible to produce Invasion of the Body Snatchers with virtually no special effects. Similarly, the fact that the alien replacements look exactly like humans meant that the film required nothing in the way of alien makeup or prosthetics. Probably the most striking effect that does occur in the film involves the partly formed replicates that are shown vaguely to resemble Bennell, Becky, and the Belicecs in Bennell’s greenhouse. This effect works well, but it is a very simple one, achieved by the straightforward expedient of dipping the actual actors in plaster of Paris to make molds from which the plastic replicates could be made.
Still, what Invasion of the Body Snatchers lacks in the way of eye-catching visuals is more than made up for by its mind-catching theme. The notion of stealthy invaders who essentially take over the minds of normal Americans, converting them to an alien ideology, resonates with the Cold War fear of communist subversion in an obvious way. Indeed, the film has come to be widely regarded as an iconic cultural representation of its contemporary climate of anticommunist paranoia. It is certainly the case that the replacements, who look the same as everyone else, but feel no emotion and have no individuality, directly echo the era’s most prevalent stereotypes about communists. Thus, the assurances given Bennell by the replacements that his life will be far more pleasant if he simply goes along with the crowd and learns to live without emotion can be taken as echoes of the supposed seductions offered by communist utopianism.
On the other hand, the makers of the film (and, for that matter, the author of the original novel) have stated that they intended no such allegorical commentary on the threat of communism. Meanwhile, even if one does choose to see communism as the indirect topic of the film, it is also quite possible to read the paranoid vision of the film as a subtle critique of anticommunist hysteria. By this reading, the film suggests that the notion of communists secretly taking over various aspects of American life (as envisioned by anticommunist alarmists like Sen. Joseph McCarthy) is about as likely as tiny seeds blowing in from outer space, then developing into large pods that grow perfect replicas of specific human beings, whom they then do away with and replace. In this view, the film suggests that the communist takeover warned against by McCarthy and others is incredibly farfetched, the stuff of B-grade science fiction.
Of course, there were many much more overtly anticommunist films of the 1950s, including such science fiction fare as Red Planet Mars (1952) and Invasion U.S.A. (1952), in addition to more mainstream films such as I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951) and the John Wayne vehicle Big Jim McLain (1952). But even these films, in retrospect, can be read as critiques of anticommunist hysteria, simply because they are so extreme that they make anticommunism look ridiculous. In the case of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, meanwhile, the allegorical significance of the film is complicated by the fact that many of its elements can be taken as direct criticisms of the emergent consumer capitalism of the 1950s.
Star Kevin McCarthy (whose shared surname with Senator McCarthy provides an additional irony) has stated in an interview that he himself felt that the pod people were more reminiscent of the heartless capitalists who work on Madison Avenue than of communists. Indeed, if communism was perceived by many Americans of the 1950s as a threat to their cherished individuality, capitalism itself was often perceived in much the same way. While the burgeoning capitalist system of the 1950s produced unprecedented opportunities for upward mobility in America, this highly complex system also required, for its operation, an unprecedented level of efficiency and standardization. Thus, if the 1950s represented a sort of Golden Age of science fiction film, the decade was also the Golden Age of American homogenization, as efficiency-oriented mass production techniques pioneered by industrialists such as Henry Ford reached new heights of sophistication and new levels of penetration into every aspect of American life. While television helped to homogenize the thoughts and dreams of the rapidly expanding American population, General Motors, the great industrial juggernaut of the decade, achieved unprecedented success in the business in which Ford’s techniques had originally been developed. At the same time, Bill Levitt’s Long Island suburb of Levittown brought mass production to the housing industry, ushering in the great age of suburbanization, perhaps the single most important step in the commodification of the American dream. The 1950s were also the Golden Age of branding and franchising, as standard brands, aided by television advertising, installed themselves in the collective American consciousness, while chain franchises spread across the nation, informed by the central driving idea of homogeneity—selling identical products in identical ways at thousands of identical franchises across the country. Thus, if Levitt’s vision helped to homogenize the American home, Kemmons Wilson’s Holiday Inn chain made identical lodgings available to Americans wherever they drove on the nation’s rapidly expanding (and more and more homogeneous) highway system in their increasingly powerful, standardized automobiles. Similarly, Ray Kroc made homogeneous food available on the road when he took the fast-food production techniques pioneered by the McDonald brothers and made standardized hamburgers an indispensable part of everyday cuisine in America.
And so on. It is thus not for nothing that the 1950s developed such a reputation for homogenization, not only of material life, but of thought itself. Critiques of capitalism-driven conformism were central to the cultural criticism of the decade, as witnessed by the prominence of such works as David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950), C. Wright Mills’s White Collar (1951) and The Power Elite, and William Whyte’s The Organization Man (the latter two both published in 1956, the same year Invasion of the Body Snatchers was released). Whyte’s book was probably the most important single critique of conformity in the 1950s. In his book, Whyte argued that the growing regimentation of corporate culture in the 1950s was producing a population of corporate clones, virtually bereft of any genuine individual identity. For Whyte, the enforced corporate conformism of the 1950s represented a betrayal of American individualism in favor of an emphasis on the group.
If The Organization Man thus expresses some of the same anxieties that are central to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, McCarthy’s evocation of Madison Avenue, heart of the advertising industry, directly recalls Sloan Wilson’s best-selling 1955 novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, another iconic work of American culture in the 1950s. Wilson’s title image suggests the organization man struggling to make his way up the corporate ladder in competition with fellow young executives dressed in identical clothing while pursuing identical dreams of wealth and success. In so doing, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit comes as close as anything we have to being the decade’s signature novel, despite having received relatively little critical attention and even less critical respect as a work of literature.
Wilson’s title image became an emblem of the 1950s drive for conformism, a drive that threatened individual identity but that also offered a certain comfort level for those (mostly male WASPs) who were able to fit in. Indeed, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, despite some criticism of the era’s corporate culture, with its emphasis on the drive for success at the expense of all else, is ultimately an affirmative work that assures Americans that they can succeed and still be themselves. Granted, the flannel-clad protagonist, Tom Rath, is faced with considerable difficulties. Freshly arrived from a World War II tour of duty chock full of military and sexual adventures, Rath finds his new routine of job and family a considerable challenge. Yet he meets the challenge and is, in the end, able to adjust to marriage, fatherhood, and the demands of corporate life while keeping his individuality intact.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit thus soothes us with a demonstration that it is possible to be a happy and distinct individual without making any fundamental changes to our system or its institutions. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is much more anxious in its vision of conformism as a deadly threat to one’s individualism or even humanity. Surrounded by an army of emotionless and essentially interchangeable replacements, Miles and Becky become images of remarkable individuals who fight to maintain their own distinctive identities and their ability to experience human emotion. Scenes in which masses of townspeople pursue the two lone surviving individuals seem to make the film’s privileging of the individual over the community quite clear.
On the other hand, if the film’s anxiety over conformism can be taken as a critique of either capitalism or communism, it is also possible to see in the film an opposed anxiety over difference. After all, by the end of the film, Bennell is the only citizen of Santa Mira who has not been replaced by an alien replicant. He is a one-of-a-kind outcast from a community in which everyone else gets along perfectly. From this point of view, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a film not about conformism but about alienation, the seemingly opposed phenomenon that was also so crucial to the American experience in the 1950s. The particular form of alienation that was so prevalent in America in the long 1950s can be described as a fear of exclusion, as a fear of not fitting in. Surrounded by a pressure to conform, individuals feared the loss of their distinct individual identities. Yet they also feared their own inability to fit in; they feared being identified as different, as being, in fact, the Other. In short, Americans in the long 1950s suffered from two principal fears: the fear of being different from everyone else and the fear of being the same as everyone else.
Alienation was a central concern of American culture in the 1950s. It was a great theme of the Beats and of the decade’s literature as a whole: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield are nothing if not alienated. American film of the 1950s also responded to the decade’s alienation anxieties. Central film icons of the decade, such as Marlon Brando and James Dean, owed much of their popularity to their ability to radiate alienation on the screen, thus making their alienated audiences identify with them. Given the pervasive concern with alienation in the culture of the 1950s, it should come as no surprise that the science fiction of the decade was often concerned with this issue. For example, Mark Jancovich notes in his book Rational Fears: American Horror in the 1950s (Manchester University Press, 1996) that the fiction of writers such as Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson and the films of Jack Arnold are centrally concerned with the phenomenon of alienation. But Invasion of the Body Snatchers is virtually unique among American films of the 1950s in the extent to which it is able to address contemporary concerns over both alienation and conformism.
This double focus no doubt accounts for much of the film’s iconic status in 1950s American culture, though the more obvious reason for this status has to do with the way in which the film has been seen as a marker of the communism-anticommunism confrontation of the decade. The film addresses other contemporary concerns as well. For example, the fact that both Miles Bennell and Becky Driscoll are recently divorced (a situation taken directly from the novel) is something of a landmark in American film, indicating the way in which divorce was becoming more socially acceptable amid a general climate of changing gender roles. On the other hand, the gender roles occupied by these two central characters are still rather traditional. As the film begins, Bennell is a successful professional, while Becky seems to have no occupation other than keeping house for her father, with whom she lives. There is one scene in which Bennell expresses doubt in his ability to take on a group of replicants, causing Becky to remind him that there are two of them and that she can help in the battle, despite being female. Mostly, though, Becky plays the weak, endangered female who must turn to a strong male for protection and support, though the fact that Bennell ultimately fails to provide this protection can be taken as a sign of anxieties over masculinity in the decade.
If the film thus at least touches on contemporary concerns over changing gender roles, it engages even more extensively with the 1950s American fascination with Freud and psychoanalysis. This fascination, like the twinned concern over alienation and conformism, was double-edged. On the one hand, in an era terrified of abnormality, mental illness came to be a central marker of the abnormal—thus Bennell’s horror at being considered insane when he attempts to warn others of the alien invasion. On the other hand, while an awareness of Freud and psychoanalysis became part of American popular culture in the 1950s, there was an increasing concern that the mental health establishment was acting to suppress individual difference in the interest of psychological conformism. It may thus be no accident that the psychiatrist Kaufman is perhaps the most important leader of the pod people, while the film’s vision of an enforced placidity, in which the emotional aberrations of individuals have been suppressed, can be taken as a warning against the potential negative effects of the decade’s drive for “mental health.” It might be noted, in this case, that the central advertising campaign in with Tom Rath becomes involved in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is in support of a national mental health committee headed by the president of his firm (who had formerly been in analysis in an unsuccessful attempt to cure himself of his workaholism).
Finally, the opposition between Kaufman and Bennell can be seen as a comment on the 1950s concerns over professionalism and specialization. As Mills pointed out in The Power Elite, American society was coming increasingly to be dominated by technical specialists whose work the general population could not understand. The psychiatrist Kaufman can be seen as a representative of this elite group of specialists, while the general practitioner Bennell can be taken as a representative of older, more generalized form of knowledge whose work relies on a direct and personal understanding of people rather than mere technical expertise. In short, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, though a seemingly simple genre film,has a rare ability to address any number of issues in its contemporary historical context, making it one of the central cultural products of its time and putting to rest any notion that science fiction needs to disengage itself from contemporary reality in order to be imaginatively powerful.
The Legacy of Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is perhaps the classic alien invasion film, especially of the 1950s, when Cold War anxieties made that genre particularly prominent. Among the numerous alien invasion films of the decade, several closely resemble Invasion of the Body Snatchers in their focus on alien invaders who are able to take on the appearance of humans, if none of them are quite as successful at evoking the terror of this possibility. For example, in Invaders from Mars (1953), a young boy, David Maclean (Jimmy Hunt), is initially the only one who realizes that a series of authority figures (including his own parents) are turning into robot-like zombies, controlled by the Martian invaders. Gene Fowler’s I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), described by Cyndy Hendershot in her book Paranoia, the Bomb, and 1950s Science Fiction Films (Popular Press, 2005) as a “feminine analogue” of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, gives the theme still another twist. In this film, aliens from the “Andromeda constellation” are scouring the universe trying to find females with whom they can mate in order to preserve their species, all of their own females (presumably being weaker than males) having been killed when their sun became unstable. The alien males come to earth, inpersonating earth men and replacing most of the male inhabitants of a small American town in order to mate with their women.
Despite its obvious embeddedness in the 1950s, Invasion of the Body Snatchers has also exerted a powerful influence on a number of subsequent films in the alien-invasion genre. In particular, it has spawned two remakes: Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1993). The former is an important film in its own right. It features Donald Sutherland as the central character (now named Dr. Matthew Bennell) is relatively faithful to the original, except that it updates the setting to the late 1970s and moves the action to a more scenic San Francisco. It even features Kevin McCarthy in a cameo role, running into traffic and screaming warnings about the alien invaders, much as he did near the end of the original film. However, this film ends on a pessimistic note: surrounded by aliens, Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright), still human, is thrilled to spot her friend Bennell, but when she runs up to him she realizes that he, too, has been replaced by an alien replicant.
The second remake drifts much farther from the original. It is set in a small Southern military town and features an EPA agent who has brought his family with him on a trip to inspect a toxic chemical storage facility on the army base that dominates the town. This film actually has the best special effects of the three, but lacks much of the drama of the others, substituting effects for substance. It is also the most pessimistic of the three, ending with the suggestion that the alien replicants have virtually completed their takeover of the entire planet.
Another film, The Invasion (2007) is extensively based on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but differs enough that it should be considered an independent work, rather than a remake. In this big-budget film The Invasion (2007) makes its protagonist a woman (played by megastar Nicole Kidman); she is also a psychiatrist (Dr. Carol Bennell). Meanwhile, the alien possession is in this case spread by a virus, though a vaccine is eventually created, and the virus is eliminated, saving the world. This film was not a critical or commercial success, though it was important enough to trigger a mockbuster version entitled Invasion of the Pod People, also released in 2007. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, meanwhile,has been parodied in films such as Strange Invaders (1983) and Invasion of the Body Squeezers (1998).
Of other alien-invasion films that can count Invasion of the Body Snatchers as an important predecessor, the most obvious is Stuart Orme’s The Puppet Masters (1994), also starring Sutherland and based on the 1951 novel by Robert A. Heinlein of that title. This film follows the book fairly closely, except that it is set in the 1990s and drops Heinlein’s transparent anticommunist allegory. It features essentially the same story as Invasion of the Body Snatchers: an army of alien parasites invades earth and begins taking over the bodies and minds of humans toward the eventual goal of world domination. In this case, however, the aliens are opposed (and ultimately defeated) by powerful forces, including a top-secret government intelligence organization headed by Andrew Nivens, Sutherland’s character. Actually, the parasites are killed when Nivens and his group infect them with encephalitis, recalling H. G. Wells’s classic novel The War of the Worlds (1898, also made into an important film of the same title in 1953), in which Martian invaders die off because they have no resistance to the common microbes in the earth’s atmosphere.
The paranoid atmosphere of Invasion of the Body Snatchers also links it to films outside the science fiction genre. It is related in a particularly direct way to Cold War espionage thrillers such as John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), in which the takeover of individual humans by alien invaders is replaced by the takeover of individual American minds by communist brainwashing. Invasion of the Body Snatchers also bears a clear family resemblance to paranoid conspiracy thrillers such as Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974).