Wednesday, February 23, 2011

#35 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

"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, how dear. "

The first time I had heard of the movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” it was from a friend and neighbor from last year. I had told him about this little project of mine, and the first thing he asked was whether or not Invasion of the Body Snatchers was on the list. I checked, as he asked me at a time when I was creating the list, and I straightaway told him that it was. I almost immediately put his query out of my mind. It was about three months later when I was home from college and I was watching Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which is a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine, and in the episode I was watching involved the characters falling asleep and being assimilated by the plant-thing which was visiting them. I didn’t really make any sort of connection until the very end, when one of the characters pointed at one of the other characters and unleashed a chilling scream – a scream I recognized. I remembered being a kid and watching a movie which took place in San Francisco and involves plants assimilating people and that blood curdling scream at the end of the movie, something which had horrified me ever since. I soon looked the movie up and discovered that the title was Invasion of the Body Snatchers; I also learned that it was a remake. I soon also discovered that the original was on the list (and was the one my friend was referring to), but the remake was not. I was upset, being that it was a film which had a profound effect on me (and which has a fairly good IMDB/RT score), but ultimately didn’t. So we finally arrive at the present day, or rather the present day of three weeks ago, as that’s when I watched this movie. I came in, knowing that while the film held similarities to the one I had seen, it was different, but equally good if not better. All the same, I was expecting to be dissatisfied by the film in comparison to the Sutherland version which I had by this time come to adore, and to be completely honest, by expectations proved to be true, and I know what you’re saying: that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I disagree. I liked this movie, it was rather good, but all things considered, I still prefer the Donald Sutherland version.

The movie opens in a psychiatric ward in Los Angeles. Police have brought in a clearly deranged man to ask a psychiatrist’s opinion on his mental condition. The psychiatrist initially dismisses the man as crazy, but eventually hears his story. The man’s name is Dr. Miles Bennell, and several weeks ago he had returned from vacation to his home town. Almost immediately he is notified to strange goings-on which occurred in his town while he was gone; a large body of residents seemed to have become hysterical, and were demanding to see the Doctor, and yet now that the doctor had returned and was attempting to set up appointments with these residents who not two weeks before were desperate to see him, now didn’t care to see him at all. Additionally there were a number of people who thought one person was not who they said they were – a young boy who was insistent that his mother was not his mother, and a young lady who insisted that her grandfather was not her grandfather. Miles investigates these cases, but thinks them unfounded as there is nothing to suggest they are not who they say they are – their personality, memories, etc. were the same. However the people remained persistent, insisting that there was something deep down, something in their eyes that was disingenuous. Things continue normally for a time, as Miles pursues a rekindled romance with his old flame, Becky Driscoll. This reverie was cut short, however, when a friend of theirs calls both of them over to his house, to show him a strange body they had found in their house: the body was featureless and didn’t even have fingerprints, but physically it was similar to the man who had called them. We soon learn that there are plants which are able to create a body which takes your form while you sleep, eventually killing you and taking your place. We also learn that this is what had been occurring while Miles was gone, and now nearly the entire town was taken over. Miles tries to evade the efforts of the subverted town to forcibly change him, and watches as his escape attempts are thwarted and all of his friends are taken over, culminating, tragically, by the loss of his love Becky. Ultimately, Miles escapes the town, and the body snatchers pull off their chase, revealing that Miles’ escape would not foil their plans of world-subversion. Miles flees to the highway, where he learns that there are trucks laden with the body snatchers’ seed pods heading all over the country. Miles makes a desperate plea for help, and is ultimately taken in by the LA police force. So we return to the beginning of the movie as Miles finishes his story, and the psychiatrists are ready to commit the man, that is until another officer comes in talking of a crashed truck bearing large seed-like pods. The movie ends optimistically with the psychiatrists ordering the notification of the FBI to the existence of the body snatchers.

This movie was originally made as a B-movie, and true to B-movie form, the acting in this film is rather mediocre. There really was not a single actor in this move who I thought gave a “good” performance. Kevin McCarthy, who played Miles, was especially sporadic. His performance was plagued by overacting and hammy delivering of lines. He’s too forceful when subtlety was needed and too limp when he needed to be strong. Similarly, Dana Wynter, who played Becky was underwhelming as well. I especially didn’t like her melodramatic portions, which came off more as annoying than moving.

The movie makes up for its mediocre acting with great directing, superb writing, and a very compelling premise. The cinematography in this film is clever and effective. There are several cool shots, such as the decision to show a number of driving shots from the perspective of someone sitting in the front seat of the car. Another good series of shots were the various escape or runaway scenes, which were very easily accomplished. Additionally, the modus operandi of the storytelling in this film is effective. I like that this movie is told through a flashback of a man who we know for a fact makes it out of town alive. This leads to a determinist viewing of the film in which you know, ultimately how the film is going to end, and yet the film plays up suspense, and makes the characters sufficiently likeable, that you still find yourself hoping that the movie does not play out in the way that you think it’s going to play out. The play with the lighting in this film is equally likeable, and it brought to me, visions of the spectacular plays on lighting of the famous film noirs such as Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon.

Most compelling of all for me is the premise of the film. The idea of alien plants which create seed pods which, essentially, steal your soul while you sleep, seems, at least to me, very original. The ultimate result is, in a similar vein to Hitchcock’s The Birds of 8 years later, a film which turns a harmless object, or something you wouldn’t consider at all terrifying, into something wholly horrifying. Perhaps the most striking portion of this film comes about 2/3 of the way through the film, when Miles, and by extension you, finally discover the full extent of the plant’s contamination. Previous to this point you had only known seriously of about three or four people who had been taken over, and suddenly you are shown that the entire town has been turned, and turned right under your nose. Ultimately, however, what makes this film effective in my mind is not the plant, or the main characters being taken over, but the overriding aims of the plants. They seek not to destroy; not to control, and not to subvert, but rather, their ultimate aim is to enrich humanity. The plant sees their actions as being beneficial to humanity – by removing love, happiness, sadness, anger, or any other emotion, any form of conflict is removed from the planet, and so world peace shall finally be brought about. Ultimately, however, this peace is brought about as a loss of any semblance of free thought will, or even personality, bringing up the question, is peace worth bringing about if you cannot fully appreciate the achievement? This notion carries obvious communist-capitalistic or anti-authoritarian connotations, and the ultimate horror of this film comes about as a result of the conflict of these ideas. The idea of subversion is abhorrent to you, but the idea of an end to conflict is not. So, while inside you feel for Miles, at the same time you wonder if the work of these plants is not, at least in some vein, a good course to follow, do their theories have merit. This conflict is shown in Miles himself, who opposes and resists the plants, but never truly gives a reason for why he is resisting other than human nature.

This conflict is where, in essence, the original differs from the remake. In the original, the plants, while disgusting, were not truly horrifying. There was very little sense of urgency in the film, and you never get the sense that the subverted humans are threatening, or in some cases, even dangerous. The remake takes this concept, and makes it infinitely more horrifying, by turning the humans monstrous. Whereas in the original the subverted humans are virtually indiscernible from their original persons, the humans in the remake were more zombie-like, more aggressive, and, when motivated, more monstrous. The thought of subversion is terrifying, assimilation is something to be feared and avoided, shown fully in the final, striking, terrifying, and chilling ending. This shift turns the late-70s remake into less of a question-raising horror which makes you answer questions, and more of a straight horror film. Ultimately I prefer the remake to the original; not because it takes place in San Francisco (which is awesome), not because it stars Donald Sutherland (also awesome), and not because the remake has the benefit of nostalgia for me, but rather because the remake achieves what I consider the original to have failed on; to successfully turn the plant into something horrifying. The remake is terrifying completely and totally. Just watching the ending to this day runs chills down my spine, which is something the original does not accomplish. This may be a result of the less optimistic ending of the 1978 remake compared to the original, but all the same, the original did not have the same effect as the remake.

Don’t get me wrong; I really liked this movie. It was the quintessential B-movie. It was very effectively carried out, and was enjoyable to watch. Its status as a classic, its great influence on the sci-fi and horror are profound and evident, and its quality as a directing and writing masterpiece is also evident. Its place on this list is secured in my mind. Ultimately, however, it fails as a horror, and I would consider it inferior to the remake. That being said, on the whole I like both films, but I like them in different ways. The remake is great when you want to quite simply have the bejeebus scared out of you, if you want a resonating chill and horror to remain with you for several days after the fact. But if you want to have a movie which makes you think, consider, and reconsider your views of the world for weeks and even months after seeing the film, then the original is a much more adequate, and it is this lasting, cerebral effect brought about by this film which is why the original is on the list and the remake is not.

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