Thrice Told Tales (Halloween Edition): The Body Snatchers

 

When Jack Finney first told it, it was a California story. So were the first two cinematic tellings. 

Maybe you’ve read other things by Finney? He wrote a lot of time-travel stories, including arguably the best novel in the genre, Time and Again, but The Body Snatchers is easily his most famous work.

He set the novel in Mill Valley in Marin County. Like the actual community (where Finney lived), the fictional town is an idyllic place; materially comfortable, pleasant weather, and a homogeneous community. But one day, something seems off. People say their dearest friends and family are no longer really their dearest friends and family. They’re imposters. 

Which was absurd. 

But somehow it wasn’t, and eventually it becomes clear that invaders from space, plant-based beings, are taking over human lives for their own.

The story was rife with conspiracy and paranoia. It first appeared as a serial in Collier’s Magazine in 1954 and then came out as a novel. The first film adaptation, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, came out two years later, directed by Don Siegel, who set the film in the fictional Central Valley town of Santa Mira. Though set in a different part of California, the small town in this film seems to share the Small Town with a Main Street Americana feel of the novel.

But the film doesn’t open in that small town. It opens in a Los Angeles hospital with a hysterical man being treated by a couple of doctors (the omnipresent Whit Bissell and Mel Cooley himself, Richard Deacon). The crazy guy claims to be a doctor himself, telling a strange story of a bizarre epidemic in his small town.  He explains that when he returned home from a medical conference, he encountered one patient after another who said that someone close to them (an uncle, a husband, a mother) isn’t who they say they are, but an imposter.

Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) wonders whether it is a contagion of madness, but when friends, Jack and Theodora Belicec (the actor with the awesome name King Donovan and, yes, that is Morticia herself, Carolyn Jones) present the doctor with a half-formed body that seems to be taking on the likeness of Jack, the good doctor begins to believe something odd is afoot. And when his nurse and girlfriend, Becky (Dana Wynter) tells him her father is not her father, Dr. Bennell starts to investigate in earnest.

A good portion of the good folks in town, such as the police, the politicians, and (most frighteningly), the telephone operators, try to assure the doctor that there is nothing wrong that a good night’s rest won’t take care of.

The doctor discovers strange pods (from outer space, no less) that form into the body of sleeping people. When the process is complete, the real people crumple away and the “new” person is just like the old — same appearance, voice, even memories, but without any emotion. And all the “new” people are somehow mentally connected.

When Dr. Bennell loses everyone to the pod people, he escapes to the Los Angeles Hospital, warning everyone, “They’re here, you’re next! You’re next!”

Fortunately, one of the good doctors (Deacon or Bissell) learns of a truck accident that spread strange pods onto the freeway. He goes on alert, phoning all the proper authorities (the police, the FBI, Washington!) and we know that everything will be okay.

Legend has it, that wasn’t supposed to be the original end of the film. Originally, it would have ended with Dr. Bennell madly trying to warn passing vehicles to no avail. But the studio wanted things to end more happily.

The film works very well as a science fiction/horror film, but there has been great debates about the film’s subtext. There are those who have argued that the film was a metaphor for communism, which would take over ordinary people and link them in a hive mind. And then there are those who have argued the film was instead a critique of McCarthyism. It’s fairly amusing that opposite sides of the political debate took the film as their own. (I can’t say definitely who’s right and who’s wrong. But I can’t believe director Siegel, also the director of Dirty Harry, would make lefty propaganda.)

It’s a great little genre gem and one would think it didn’t at all need to be remade. Until you see 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and realize that this film had to be made.

It has the same premise of plants from space that take over people, replicating them in every way except the lack of emotion, becomes a very different thing when set in the San Francisco of the 1970s. One of the poignant moments in the film is someone talking about how San Francisco isn’t the city it used to be, and to realize how that is even more true today.

It has a wonderfully eclectic cast: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy, each bringing a very different feel to the story. The first film had such a white bread, generic cast, which worked well with the premise of ordinary people just being the slightest bit off. But these are strange personalities and the worrisome thing is to see them transformed into ordinary people. (Kevin McCarthy has a cameo as a madman in the streets warning of the invasion.)

There are so many wonderful things about this cast. This is probably Nimoy’s most famous role outside of Mr. Spock. He plays a best-selling author of self-help books whose theories seem to be to think logically and not be run by emotion. He seems to be a stand-in for Werner Erhard and the EST movement, so the subtext seems to be much more psychological than political.

Also it’s fun to see Veronica Cartwright – who the next year fights a very different Alien (and would appear in a later retelling of the Invasion story). And, of course, Goldblum would later deal with other plant-based invaders from outer space in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (directed by W. D. Richter, who wrote the screenplay for this version of the Snatchers.)

Both the 1956 and 1978 films are classic films in their own right, but the 1978 version, directed by Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff) is much more frightening (especially one moment, that final scream from Sutherland). This time, the studio allowed pessimism to prevail.

So there really didn’t need to be another version of the story. 

And yet Hollywood made another, which I hadn’t watched until I was getting ready to write this post. I didn’t hate it as much as I expected to.

2007’s The Invasion, like the other two versions, acknowledges Jack Finney’s work in the credits, but it is quite different from the other two versions. For one thing, the studio cast much more traditional movie stars – very pretty people Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig (the year after his first appearance as James Bond). And if we know movies, we know these pretty people will be okay. (Kidman does seem like an inspired choice when she needs to impersonate the “pod people” because she is the master of emotion-free acting.) Veronica Cartwright returns in another role, as one of psychiatrist Kidman’s patients. 

This is the first version not set in California, but rather in Washington, D.C., where we’re less surprised to find the pod people. In this film, though, there aren’t any of the pods that play such a central role in the other two films. The invasion spreads through fluids, through beverages served or a kiss or a cough. The pharmaceutical companies are a part of spreading the virus while claiming they are fighting “the flu.” Sleep is still an essential part of the transformation.

Once again, the “pod” (but podless) people have no emotion. Newspaper headlines explain the results of a world without emotion. Peace breaks out everywhere. No more war, no more crime. 

Unlike the other versions, the transformed people don’t always seem to be free of emotion. Kidman’s ex-husband (Jeremy Northam) still seems to be capable of jealousy and anger as he tries to reform his family. 

In this film, a cure is found for the invading virus, and the invaders are fought successfully. When the scientist, played by Jeffrey Wright, is asked whether they have truly been successful in battling the alien invaders he responds, “Look at the newspapers. For better or for worse, we are human again.”

This film does look very different now, on the other side of COVID, seeing the government, the media, and the drug companies through very different filters. It is an interesting story, but not a classic like the other two. But who knows? Someone else’s take on the story will again achieve greatness.

(This is the fourth post in a series on ‘Thrice Told Tales.’ The first was about Yojimbo, the second about The Maltese Falcon, and the third about Emma.)

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  1. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Thanks. The 56 and 78 films are terrific and yet different. I have not seen the 07 version but would expect it to be inferior to the predecessors.

    • #1
  2. EODmom Coolidge
    EODmom
    @EODmom

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):

    Thanks. The 56 and 78 films are terrific and yet different. I have not seen the 07 version but would expect it to be inferior to the predecessors.

    I agree. I remember seeing the ‘56 version as a kid as a re-run on TV sometime in the very early ‘60’s. It scared the socks off me, white bread actors or not. So much so that I was really afraid to see the Sutherland version. But I did. I understand the consideration of it as parable, but it was just a really scary, well told tale to me. It’s a great story with the same threatening foundation as Jaws. Which also scared the socks off me in summer ‘74 – I didn’t sleep well for 3 days, in the middle of studying for comps. So I don’t watch scary movies anymore. 

    • #2
  3. Eustace C. Scrubb Member
    Eustace C. Scrubb
    @EustaceCScrubb

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):

    Thanks. The 56 and 78 films are terrific and yet different. I have not seen the 07 version but would expect it to be inferior to the predecessors.

    Your expectations would be met.

    • #3
  4. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Eustace C. Scrubb (View Comment):

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):

    Thanks. The 56 and 78 films are terrific and yet different. I have not seen the 07 version but would expect it to be inferior to the predecessors.

    Your expectations would be met.

    How do you beat the human/dog mix that just shows up in the 78 version? You don’t.

    • #4
  5. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    An excellent comparison, ECS! Great detail work in these reviews of yours. 

    • #5
  6. Mad Gerald Coolidge
    Mad Gerald
    @Jose

    Eustace C. Scrubb: Also it’s fun to see Veronica Cartwright – who the next year fights a very different Alien (and would appear in a later retelling of the Invasion story).

    Was Veronica Cartwright typecast as a perpetually disgruntled victim?  I don’t remember about Invasion but she was in Alien.  She was also the uptight goody two-shoes victim in Witches of Eastwick.

    • #6
  7. Mad Gerald Coolidge
    Mad Gerald
    @Jose

    I commented a while back about reading Assault on a Queen by Jack Finney.  I read it 40 years ago, and decided to read it again in the last year.  It held up pretty well.

    Avoid the movie with Frank Sinatra.

    • #7
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