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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956)

Don Siegel’s famous low-budget chiller puts most of the era’s other alien invasion pics in the shade. Stylish, scary, swift & believable, its basic idea of extraterrestrial vegetal pods usurping our bodies, if not our souls, has seeped into our brains like a malignant virus and seen three slick official remakes (1978; ‘93; ‘07) and dozens of unofficial cousins. But none come with the alarmingly straightforward verisimilitude Siegel and his gifted cameraman, Ellsworth Frederick, brought to this jarring b&w nightmare. Though usually listed in the Sci-Fi/Horror stable, the film is more noir than anything else, a legacy from its scripter, Daniel Mainwaring, past master of the form in OUT OF THE PAST/’47 which he wrote under the name Geoffrey Homes. The film finds the claustrophobic atmosphere just beneath the soil of a small sunny California town, just as Hitchcock & Thornton Wilder did upstate in Santa Rosa for SHADOW OF A DOUBT/’43. With unexpectedly top-notch acting from an over-achieving cast, the film now looks richer and more socially pointed than ever. At the time, half of the audience thought the invasion an allegory about McCarthyism, half thought it was a warning about Communists in our midst, and everyone thought it was some sort of cri de cœur against ‘50s Eisenhower conformity. Good grief, haven’t any of these people ever sat thru a story meeting with clueless Hollywood Yes-Men? (Extra personal note: I’ve listed this as Family Friendly, but my older brothers terrified me with a MidNite tv showing of this back when I was five. Many, many, many nightmares. Oh, those foaming pods!!)

DOUBLE-BILL: Of the official remakes, Philip Kaufmann’s 1978 has the best rep, but it’s really too polished to match the jangly edge of the original. And with 35 minutes of extra running time, it’s forced to explain too much while giving us too much time to think for ourselves.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The producers found the original cut so bleak, they insisted on bookending the film with a flashback structure that allowed them to sneak in an ending with a small ray of hope. This is probably why such well-known actors as Whit Bissell & Richard Deacon, who only appear in the Prologue & Epilogue, received no screen credit. Yet, it hardly matters, watching Kevin McCarthy in his signature role yelling straight at the camera to warn the world is the ending that sticks with you.

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