Original ‘Invasion’ still a good scare

If you’re looking for a scary classic DVD for this month of ghouls and goblins, you might consider the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

In this 1956 classic, big parasitical seed pods from outer space hatch out duplicates identical to their human hosts, but devoid of emotion or passion. Our hero, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy, who passed on last month just four years shy of a century old) and his gorgeous girlfriend Becky (Dana Wynter) are soon the only non-snatched people left in their small California community, and everybody in town is chasing them.

Over the years the movie, based on Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers, has been interpreted as both a Right-Wing allegory of Communist infiltration (in a modern version, I suppose the Body Snatchers would have to be Muslims or Mexicans) and a Left-Wing parable of gradual acquiescence to middle-class conformity. In all likelihood, it’s neither, or rather both: It’s one of those flexible, resonant sci-fi myths on which almost any interpretation can be validly projected (2001 is another of this sort).

The great, probably unintentional irony of the original Body Snatchers is that the characters are such generic ‘50s-style stock figures that there’s really no significant, obvious difference between the before and the after. It always struck me that in that final chase, as Miles and Becky flee, you can read the power of social pressure on Dana Wynter’s ravishing face: All her family and friends and neighbors have made the switch, and the only person who hasn’t is her sweaty, dirty, wild-eyed boyfriend, dragging her along by the arm. It always seemed to me like she was looking at him narrowly, wondering if maybe she was on the wrong side.

I also always wondered if the Pod People weren’t maybe a little overoptimistic about the perfect new emotion-free world they were founding. After all, having taken human form, isn’t it possible that they’d find human responses re-asserting themselves? There’s a chilling scene in which a Pod Guy walks into the living room with an unhatched pod and says “Should I put this in with the baby?” His wife replies “Yes, then they’ll be no more crying.”

It’s a terrific, grimly comic moment, but it also implies that she finds the crying irritating. If you checked in with these Pod People after a few months of human-style family and workplace life, I wondered how calm and dispassionate you’d find them.

The film has been remade three times, by the way, and there have been innumerable imitations and variations on the idea, like The Stepford Wives. But while the 1978 remake, starring Donald Sutherland, is excellent, none of the later movies can boast the original’s tense atmosphere or lean, austere simplicity of style.

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