Filmsite Movie Review
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Pages: (1) (2)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is a thrilling, disturbing classic science fiction/alien film from veteran producer Walter Wanger. [Note: Wanger had just been released from prison in the early 50s for attempted murder. He had been imprisoned for a short 4-month jail term for the 1951 shooting incident of the lover (MCA agent Jennings Lang) of his unfaithful movie-star wife, Joan Bennett. The incident provided an indirect inspiration for the Billy Wilder movie The Apartment (1960).]

It was originally based upon a three-part serial story written by Jack Finney that appeared in Colliers Magazine in late 1954, and then in 1955 was rendered into an expanded novel, The Body Snatchers. The screenplay, written by Daniel Mainwaring (who also wrote the script for the classic noir Out of the Past (1947)) was aided, according to some sources, with uncredited scriptwriting and dialogue direction by Sam Peckinpah (the great Western director who appears in a bit cameo part as a meter reader).

A quintessential, black and white B-picture, it was precisely-executed and packed with action by director Don Siegel, plus a scary musical score from Carmen Dragon. The subtle, low-budget film (at about $420,000) is very effective in eliciting horror with slow-building tension, even though there are no monsters (just indestructible plant-like pods), minimal special effects, no violence in the take-over of humans, and no deaths.

The film had a few preliminary titles: Sleep No More, Better Off Dead, and They Came From Another World before the final choice was made.

The theme of the cautionary, politicized film was open to varying interpretations, including paranoia toward the spread of a harmful ideology such as socialistic Communism, or the sweeping mass hysteria of McCarthyism in the 1950s and blacklisting of Hollywood, the spread of an unknown malignancy or virulent germ (read fear of annihilation by 'nuclear war'), or the numbing of our individuality and emotional psyches through conformity and group-think. Yet its main theme was the alien (read 'Communist') dehumanization and take-over of an entire community by large seed pods (found in basements, automobile trunks, a greenhouse, and on a pool table) that replicated and replaced human beings. And it told of the heroic struggle of one helpless but determined man of conscience, a small-town doctor (McCarthy), to vainly combat and quell the deadly, indestructible threat.

The psychological sci-fi film was re-made three times, as compared below. Although the remakes were inferior to the original, they were very well-made and philosophically thought-provoking and intelligent as well, earning critical accolades and solid box office:

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Don Siegel An allegory for Communism and McCarthyism; the traits of being "one of them" is being cold, unable to express emotion or closeness. This original film would become more and more revered and distinctive as time passed; with an added prologue and epilogue by the studio.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) Philip Kaufman An allegory for the psychological revolution of the 1970's and self-help books; the traits of being "one of them" is secretive groupthink, being too close and intimate; the end of the 60's and the foreshadowing of the 80's; with Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams (and featuring cameo roles by Kevin McCarthy as a man running on the freeway now warning "they're here" rather than "you're next," and Don Siegel as a cabdriver) and set in San Francisco and nearby Mill Valley, with the tagline: "You'll never close your eyes again"; critic Pauline Kael of The New Yorker commented: "It may be the best movie of its kind ever made. For undiluted pleasure and excitement, it is, I think, the American movie of the year."
Body Snatchers (1993) Abel Ferrara With the original title of Jack Finney's; the alien attack is no longer a psychological allegory; it now resembles a foreign, terrorist siege that takes place on a Southern military Army base; with Gabrielle Anwar, Meg Tilly and Forest Whitaker.
The Invasion (2007) Oliver Hirschbiegel An updated adaptation of the Jack Finney story in which the invading aliens are a flu-like virus brought to Earth by a crashed space shuttle, turning its victims into cold, emotionless persons after they sleep. The film stars Nicole Kidman as Washington DC psychiatrist Carol Bennell, whose son is inexplicably immune to the virus, and Daniel Craig as her co-worker Ben Driscoll.

This relentlessly haunting film received no Academy Award nominations. It was originally released at 80 minutes, and then reissued at 76 minutes in 1979. The prologue and its unconvincing matching epilogue were not in the original shooting of the film and were later tacked on. (The studio-imposed footage was removed in the 1979 re-issue.) Allied Artists wanted to soften the paranoia of the original and provide a more hopeful ending with the framing device. Executives at the studio also forced Wanger to release the film in SuperScope - an anamorphic widescreen process that altered the original 1.33:1 ratio that the cinematographer had used.

Director Joe Dante, an ardent aficionado of 1950's science fiction and monster films would, among other genre films, reference Invasion of the Body Snatchers frequently. He re-used Kevin McCarthy in a number of film cameos: The Howling (1981), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Innerspace (1987), the comedy spoof Matinee (1993), and including an appearance reprising his Dr. Bennell character in Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), now elderly, clutching a seed pod and still muttering that everyone was next. Dante often included the seed pods in his films as well -- Dr. Catheter (Christopher Lee) clutches one in Dante's manic parody Gremlins II: The New Batch (1990).

Plot Synopsis


In the exciting opening prologue with extended narration, disheveled physician Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), distraught and seeming to be psychotic and mad about alien invaders, shouts to an unbelieving group of nurses, interns, psychiatrists (including Whit Bissel as Dr. Hill), and doctors (including Richard Deacon as Dr. Harvey Bassett) in the emergency room of the city's Emergency Hospital where he has been brought by a police car, that seed pods are taking over the planet:

Doctor, will you tell these fools I'm not crazy? Make them listen to me before it's too late.

General practitioner Dr. Miles Bennell explains, in a series of flashbacks from a few days earlier, the terrifying take-over of the town of Santa Mira, California.

[Note: The fictitious town was first planned to be modeled after Mill Valley - a town in the Bay Area north of San Francisco. But then the town of Sierra Madre was chosen for filming, just northeast of Pasadena in the greater Los Angeles area.]

[This was the point where Don Siegel wanted the film to begin.]


After returning from a medical convention by train, Dr. Bennell is confronted with reports of strange behavior in the small community of his practice. In voice-over:

Well, it started - for me, it started - last Thursday, in response to an urgent message from my nurse. I'd hurried home from a medical convention I'd been attending. At first glance, everything looked the same. It wasn't. Something evil had taken possession of the town.

In a mood of disquiet, he is met in the rural town of Santa Mira by his nurse Sally (Jean Willes) at the train station. She explains how his office has been besieged by patients in a near epidemic during his absence:

Miles: What's the matter with them?
Sally: They wouldn't say. You know, usually people can't talk enough about what's ailing them.

But strangely, only a few of Miles' patients appeared for their appointments, while many were cancelled. He hears examples of alienation from a few sources - each example includes suspicions that relatives have changed their identities or don't seem to be themselves. One is provided when Miles is visited by his intelligent ex-girlfriend/sweetheart-fiancee, now recently divorced, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter). Becky tells him that her middle-aged cousin Wilma Lentz (Virginia Christine) is suffering from strange delusions that her favorite Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) is an imposter and has been replaced.

You know her uncle, Uncle Ira?...Well Miles, she's got herself thinking he isn't her uncle. She thinks he's an imposter or something.

When he discovers that, like himself, she is recently divorced, he kids: "Well, I guess that makes us lodge brothers now...except that I'm paying dues while you collect them."

Later that afternoon, Miles is visited by the grocer's son, an hysterical small boy named Jimmy Grimaldi (Bobby Clark) who is brought in by his grandmother (Beatrice Maude). He learns of a second case of alienation. The boy is panicky and agitated about returning home, insisting that his mother Anna is not his mother. Dr. Bennell treats him with a pill to calm him down.

Miles pays a visit to Wilma with Becky to see if her claims about her Uncle Ira are true or not. Wilma insists that Ira looks like Ira but something is missing ("There is no difference you can actually see. He looks, sounds, acts, and remembers, like Uncle Ira...There's something missing....there's no emotion. None! Just the pretense of it. The words, gesture, the tone of voice, everything else is the same, but not the feeling. Memories or not, he isn't my Uncle Ira"). Miles suggests that the problem may be inside of Wilma, and recommends that he set up an appointment for her with the town's psychiatrist.

But then, Miles seems intrigued by the similarity between all the cases, but is skeptical that anything is wrong. He thinks to himself:

In the back of my mind, a warning bell was ringing. Sick people who couldn't wait to see me, then suddenly were perfectly all right. A boy who said his mother wasn't his mother. A woman who said her uncle wasn't her uncle. But I didn't listen. Obviously, the boy's mother was his mother. I had seen her. And Uncle Ira was Uncle Ira. There was no doubt of that after I talked to him.

Miles takes old flame Becky to dinner at a local restaurant at 7 pm , to rekindle their romantic love interest. In the parking lot, they discuss the similarities in the two strange cases (the boy and Wilma) with the town's only psychiatrist, Dr. Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates). The indifferent doctor, who also has had a number of troubling referrals in the past few weeks, dismisses the cases of delusional paranoia as an "epidemic mass hysteria":

Dr. Kauffman: A strange neurosis, evidently contagious, an epidemic mass hysteria. In two weeks, it spread all over town.
Miles: What causes it?
Dr. Kauffman: Worry about what's going on in the world probably.

After Dr. Kauffman drives off, Miles jokes with Becky - he hopes they won't 'catch' the neurosis, with a prophetic statement: "I'd hate to wake up some morning and find out that you weren't you." They passionately kiss each other, and he notes that the kiss confirms her identity: "You're Becky Driscoll."

Their intimate dinner in the nearly empty restaurant is immediately interrupted by a call from his office, with a request for a house visit from writer friend Jack Belicec (King Donovan) and his wife Theodora (Carolyn Jones). At Jack's residence, Miles is shown a strange, corpse-like cadaver lying on his pool table - with an unfinished, half-formed, mannequin-like humanoid face: "It's like the first impression that's stamped on a coin. It isn't finished." Awed, Miles adds: "It's got all the features but no details, no character, no lines." An attempt to take fingerprints fails - and Jack surmises: "Waiting for the final finished face to be stamped onto it." Miles guesses that the mysterious corpse approximates the size of Jack himself - "five ten...maybe 140 pounds." His description of a similarly-sized body startles Jack, causing him to drop a bottle and cut his hand at the bar as he prepares drinks. Miles brings the bad news to Jack: "This isn't you yet, but there is a structural likeness."

Miles asks that Jack keep vigilant and call him if anything changes or happens. After Miles delivers Becky to her home, the replica body awakens, takes on human features, flutters its eyelids, and acquires the cut palm in the hand. Theodora notices the clone becoming more defined and screams - she shouts to her husband: "Look, Jack! It's you! It's you!" By the time Miles gets home later that evening, Jack arrives with his wife - they are hysterical that the repugnant corpse has now cloned or turned into and become totally identical to Jack, even down to the bleeding cut on the palm of his hand - and its eyes are open ("It's alive! It's alive! The hand was cut and bleeding! And the position of the body had changed!").

On a premonition that Becky is also in danger, Miles races to Becky's house at 2:30 am, enters through a basement window, and in the darkness discovers a smooth-faced, replica "double" for Becky hidden in a bin - and obviously placed there by her father Stanley Driscoll (Kenneth Patterson). Frightened, Miles wakes her from a drugged sleep state upstairs and carries her away to his house. By this time, Dr. Kauffman has been notified of the weird happenings, but he is skeptical and ridicules their fears (even after both corpses disappear). He explains away the incidents as:

"...a completely normal mystery. Whatever it is, it's well within the bounds of human experience, and I don't think you ought to make any more of it."

He interprets their suspicions as hallucinations and nightmares.

Next Page