Weekend Film Recommendation: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

IVBPolitical paranoia month continues with my recommendation of a film that is at once a sci-fi chiller, a B-movie classic and an utterly unnerving destruction of any ability you may have to trust the people around you. It’s the legendary original adaptation of Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Made for peanuts in 1956, the film tells the story of a seemingly peaceful small California town where nothing ever happens. In the only starring role of his career, Kevin McCarthy plays town doctor Miles Bennell, who begins encountering a number of patients claiming that their loved ones are no longer who they used to be. They look exactly the same, but something’s not quite right about them. Dr. Bennell offers these worriers the standard reassurances about learning to relax, getting enough shut eye etc. It seems to work at first. The people who were once complaining soon become every bit as pleasant and vacant-looking as the loved ones they were so recently fretting over. Indeed, it is amazing how much better people feel when they just…go…to…sleep.

As strange events compound, Dr. Bennell and the woman he loves (Dana Wynter) realize that a sinister force is rapidly taking over the community and it’s almost impossible to tell who is afflicted and who is not. When they discover the extraterrestrial source of the change in the townspeople, they realize that their own lives are in danger and that it will be hard to convince anyone in the wider world that what they have seen is more than a figment of their imaginations.

My Name is Julia Ross (soon to be recommended here at RBC) is often cited as the prototype of a fine film made on a low budget; this B-movie is another sterling example of cinematic brilliance on the cheap. The only real expenses of consequence were the then ground breaking special effects. The town in which the movie was filmed — Sierra Madre — was used in its natural form; there are no fancy sets. Director Don Siegel went on to significant cinematic fame but the cast are unknowns and character actors who stayed unknowns and character actors. Producer Walter Wenger was an established figure in Hollywood, but his career was almost over when he made this movie. But none of that matters: This is grade A entertainment, loaded with suspense, shocks and solid performances.

IVB2The meaning of the story has been much debated over the years. Some have seen it as a parable about the dangers of Communist infiltration. Others see it as a warning about conformity in the era of McCarthy. I never met Jack Finney, but I know some of his close friends and members of his family. When asked, they describe him as a New Deal liberal and no one’s Red baiter. They don’t think he wrote the story as political allegory but simply as a good story.

You can certainly enjoy this nail-biter as Finney thought of it: A good story. But it also will resonate with you emotionally if ever you have been in a situation where you felt that everyone but you was in on a joke you hadn’t been told or where you felt persecuted for being different. The most disturbing thing about the film is how banal and pleasant the enemies are. Like the worst of the world’s villains, they don’t see themselves as evil. Rather, they think they are doing everyone else a favor by bringing them under their tent.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers deserves its reputation as a classic film. Don’t miss it!

p.s. Carolyn Jones who has the second female lead part here, went on to play Morticia on television’s The Addams Family.

p.p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

6 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Invasion of the Body Snatchers”

  1. And the 1978 remake (Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Leonard Nimoy) is also worth a viewing; Kevin McCarthy has a bit at the beginning. It's a darker take, with the paranoia which one might take away from the original much more pronounced.

    I remember reading the story (long before I saw the movie cut to ribbons on late-night TV, and then on videotape); it is a deeply disturbing read.

    1. I agree, that is a good remake, not least because Kaufmann put his own spin on it rather than simply recreating the prior version.

  2. Three weeks ago, and then again this week, I have been having a problem with this blog. For the last week, until this morning, whenever I looked at the blog, the most recent post was the movie of the week posing dated 5/15. This was the case on 2 different computers (one at home, one at work on a college campus (so a reliable internet hookup)), for different browsers (opera, firefox and chrome). Then, this morning (at home, in opera), a bunch of posts dated from the 18th through this morning on the 24th IHumprheys on Omphaloskepsis… ). Any suggestions about what is going on? Something similar happened around the beginning of the month, again the previous week's movie recommendation being the most recent post to show up for a whole week. I had been wondering if you people were collectively getting blogged out.

    1. Thanks Marcel — yes, there is something wrong that our tech people have been trying to figure it out.

      1. Here's another piece that might help your techies solve the puzzle:

        I had the same problem as Marcel described above, including the use of several different browsers. HOWEVER, all along I was able to read the blog on my iPhone, using Safari, with no problem at all.

        (Picture Arte Johnson saying "verrrry interesting.")

        1. Thanks for this. I have had the same experience. Have passed all this along to the tech people.

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