The Body Snatchers, Jack Finney’s novel about an insidious and silent alien invasion that threatens to turn the world’s population into a horde of emotionless, single-minded replicant drones, was published in 1955 after starting life as a magazine serial. Although inspired, at least in part, by Robert Heinlein’s 1951 novel The Puppetmasters and possibly William Cameron Menzies’ 1953 Invaders from Mars, Finney’s novel took a much darker tone and employed a handful of standard noirish elements, which left the story open to countless social and political interpretations.
It’s been held up as a shining example of Cold War paranoia, reflecting American fear of communist infiltration. On the flipside, it was also seen as a cautionary tale about creeping totalitarianism in the wake of the McCarthy Era. It was read as an indictment of the suburban conformity of the Eisenhower years and, more generally, as a protest against the loss of emotion, imagination, and individual identity in a mechanized age.
Finney would deny all those things, insisting he was just trying to write an exciting sci-fi thriller. It’s worth noting, after all, that at novel’s end, the aliens decide the human race is too resistant to their plan, so they pack up and go home.
Fortunately, most of the filmmakers who’ve taken a stab at bringing Finney’s novel to the screen have politely ignored that part of the book. Ending aside, it remains a relevant, even prescient story all these years later, which may help explain why film versions continue to crop up every decade or so, and why they seem to be appearing with greater and greater frequency.
Shortly before he died, director Don Siegel noted that the world seemed to be increasingly populated by pod people. Director Philip Kaufman has said the same thing. They may well be right about that. The ongoing legacy of cinematic adaptations of The Body Snatchers is an odd, twisty, and, at times, confounding one with more than a few hints that the pods themselves might be behind it all.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
There’s little new to be said about Don Siegel’s enduring and justified sci-fi classic. Yes, there’s some undeniable political and social commentary afoot here, which you can dig out if you so choose, but it’s secondary to a taut and still terrifying film that hasn’t aged at all in its portrayal of creeping paranoia and isolation, of a man alone in a world that has no more use for his type. But it was a production beset with problems, most of them exacted by studio executives who may well have been pod people themselves.
First came the wrangling over the title. The fear was if you call the movie “The Body Snatchers,” you run the risk of people confusing it with the 1945 Val Lewton number inspired by the Burke and Hare case. After dozens of pretty miserable and forgettable suggestions were bandied about, they luckily agreed to settle by simply tacking “Invasion of” at the beginning. So it all worked out for the best.
Then Allied studios chopped down both the budget and the shooting schedule, which meant the producers had to abandon plans to cast a couple of name actors in the lead roles. Instead they opted for reasonable unknowns Kevin McCarthy and Dana Winter, so that worked out for the best, too as they brought a decided realism and strength to the story with some memorable performances.
The real trouble, though, came in post-production. Daniel Mainwaring’s original script (which stuck fairly close to Finney’s novel) and Siegel’s final edit contained a good deal of humor and what you might call overt humanity. The thinking was that characters with undisguised emotions, characters who actually smiled and laughed now and again, would provide more of a contrast with the increasing pod population. But at the time Allied executives were dead set against mixing horror and humor in any way, so ironically took the film and lopped out most of the humanity, leaving it much cooler and more clinical.
Then, just to double up on the irony, they decided Siegel’s original ending, with McCarthy running down the freeway banging on cars screaming, “You’re next! You’re next!” was too much a bummer, so they ordered Siegel to shoot a cheap framing device. By making the body of the film a flashback and leaving off with a more potentially upbeat ending, they changed the entire tone of the picture, and not for the better in most eyes. Certainly not Siegel’s, who remained bitter about it to the end. Skip those bookends, though, and it remains one of the most chilling endings in film history.
Quatermass 2, aka Enemy From Space (1957)
Perhaps worth noting is that the American title of Val Guest’s sequel to his earlier Quatermass Xperiment was coincidentally one of the proposed but discarded titles for the Siegel film. Indeed, a number of people have cited this as a direct descendant of the Finney novel.
It seems to make sense at first. The themes of Nigel Kneale’s story are certainly similar, with a lone man who knows the truth attempting to thwart an invasion by invisible and silent aliens who inhabit human hosts, turning them into mindless automatons. The only problem with that theory is that prior to this film version, Kneale’s script had been produced as a BBC miniseries in 1955.
Who knows? Maybe he was inspired by the Heinlein novel and Invaders From Mars, too?
The Invaders (TV series, 1967-’68)
A few years before he started directing blaxploitation pictures and indie horror wonderments like the It’s Alive! films, God Told Me To, and Q: The Winged Serpent, Larry Cohen created and wrote this seminal sci-fi TV series, which bore more than a passing resemblance to Siegel’s film from a decade earlier. This time around, Roy Thinnes stars as David Vincent, an architect who slowly comes to realize the human race is being taken over by alien invaders who look and sound just like people we know, save for one small distinguishing characteristic.
He spends much of the series’ two-season run trying to find anyone who will believe him and join the fight, not an easy task considering most people think he’s a paranoid nutjob, and those who don’t are probably aliens themselves. Although neither Finney’s novel nor Siegel’s film were credited, the connection was pretty obvious, especially in the second season, when Dana Winter, co-star of the ’56 version, was brought in to co-star.
Interestingly, and this says something about the strength of Finney’s premise, the show’s timing demanded it be interpreted in different ways. Joe McCarthy was ancient history, and commie infiltration wasn’t exactly at the forefront of most American minds anymore. We had other things to deal with. The country was still reeling after a string of public assassinations; the war in Vietnam was escalating; college campuses were exploding; the civil rights movement had people in a tizzy; radical groups across Europe in America were blowing crap up; it felt like the whole world was on fire.
Some kind of major shift in thinking seemed to be underway, few over the age of 30 could make a damn bit of sense of it, and people who no longer felt like they fit in were scared to death. The Invaders was smart enough and subtle enough to leave itself open, much like The Prisoner around that same time, to all sorts of readings. But after two seasons, viewers grew weary of endless fictional paranoia every week, given that they had to deal with it every waking moment as it was, and the show was cancelled.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Given how much I loved (okay, was obsessed with) the 1956 original, I wasn’t holding out much hope for the first official reboot, but director Philip Kaufman surprised the hell out of me, crafting an intelligent, beautifully shot and darkly atmospheric film that comes in a close second to Siegel’s. The smartest move Kaufman made (apart from the casting) was to completely ignore the studio-ordered framing device that bookended the original.
Although we see the alien spores leave their home planet, drift through space and land in San Francisco during the title sequence, the unstated premise here is that, 22 years after first landing in Santa Mera, the pods are still gradually making their way across the country, and poor Kevin McCarthy (in a fantastic cameo) is still making his bedraggled, filthy, exhausted and frenzied way down the California coast, still banging on cars, and still screaming “Your next!” after over two decades though, he’s only made it as far as San Francisco and no one’s paying any attention.
After that, all of which is implied in McCarthy’s 10-second cameo, the film becomes a fairly straightforward and stylish remake, albeit with new characters and a new setting, but many of the same situations and relationships. The cast is stellar with Donald Sutherland as a city health inspector, Leonard Nimoy as a smug, too-rational pop psychologist, and Jeff Goldblum as a resentful struggling poet.
Without studio interference this time around, Kaufman was able to reinsert a good deal of the humor and humanity that had been excised from Siegel’s film. He was also free to go with a downbeat ending, closing with a freeze-frame shocker that’s (almost) as chilling as the original’s true final shot. What’s not to love about a film that illustrates the aliens aren’t quite as perfect as they appear by way of a well, pod dog with a man’s face?
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983)
No, the John Carpenter-produced attempt to reclaim the idea of Halloween as an anthology franchise was not any kind of direct descendant of Finney’s story. More of a cousin. Although he later had his name removed from the credits, the original screenplay was written by the great Nigel Kneale, whose previously-mentioned Quatermass 2 is sometimes mistaken for a Body Snatchers rip-off.
Even more tangentially, when I first saw the film in ’83 I assumed whoever wrote it was ripping off Larry Cohen, not for The Invaders so much, but the string of smart and strange horror films he’d made in the ’70s and early ’80s.
But those are neither here nor there, the real Body Snatchers connection comes by way of director Tommy Lee Wallace. Wallace has repeatedly and publicly made it clear Siegel’s original had a deep and profound impact on him, and apart from the core story about modern Druids with a diabolical scheme to celebrate Halloween the old fashioned way, he saw the film as a chance to pay homage to his inspiration.
So not only do you get a raving lunatic claiming, “They’re going to kill us all,” humans transformed into replicants, a single, desperate man trying to stop a devilish plan, and an ending that deliberately echoes McCarthy on the highway, Wallace took it even one step further by setting most of the action in the little northern California town of Santa Mera, the same as the novel. He even shot the film on a number of the same locations Siegel used (watch the two films side by side and you’ll see). In the end, even if the resemblance is only fraternal, it may well be the most respectful outing of all the films mentioned here.
Body Snatchers (1993)
A quarter century after The Invaders, Larry Cohen (with some help from Stuart Gordon) finally gave Jack Finney a little credit, writing the third official adaptation of The Body Snatchers for director Abel Ferrara. Although the general premise remains intact, the story veers wildly away from the source novel, which in the end may have been its downfall.
This time around, the focus is on a teenage girl named Marti (Gabrielle Anwar), the daughter of an EPA inspector. One summer, her dad brings her, her stepmother (Meg Tilly), and six-year-old stepbrother to live on a military base with huge stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. As her father conducts tests on the surrounding environment, Marti falls for a chopper pilot (Billy Worth) and is befriended by the wild punk daughter of the base’s bastard of a commanding officer (the inevitable R. Lee Ermey), as everyone around them becomes podified.
I do love Larry Cohen and Stuart Gordon both, and can run hot or cold with Ferrara, but the film was produced by the same man responsible for the ’78 version, so I don’t know what the hell happened here. What they had in mind was pretty obvious. They wanted to make some comment about the military as a dehumanizing force. Nothing terribly new or radical in that, but fine. Audiences were getting dumber, so maybe a reminder was due.
They also wanted to say something, I guess, about the alienation felt by teenagers trying to deal with stepfamilies they didn’t much like. That’s fine too, I guess, but the execution here is so sluggish and hamfisted, and the performances so flat, that it’s hard to tell the humans from the pods.
In fact, it’s sometimes difficult to shake the notion the film itself was directed by a pod person. Maybe part of the problem is that almost 40 years after the original, and with so many copycats in between, there’s no shock or surprise left in the story. We go in knowing exactly what to expect.
Cohen can be a fine writer, but he has a tin ear when it comes to teenage girls, which is a problem when you have one of those as a heroine and narrator, and when so much of the film plays like a teen romance. Worse still, it’s a teen romance set on a military base full of alien pods. In the end, and oddly, the film (unlike its two predecessors) today feels painfully dated.
The Faculty (1999)
Although Robert Rodriguez gives no screen credit to Finney, there is a dialogue exchange halfway through the film that comes right out and says “Yeah, we’re shamelessly ripping off Finney here, but since Finney shamelessly ripped off Heinlein, it’s okay.” I get the idea Rodriguez saw the Ferrara version and decided to push it one step further. The ’93 version featured a teenage girl coming to the conclusion that soldiers were just like, totally pod people, and her stepmother was an alien. Why not take it to the next logical and fundamental level of teenagedom? I mean, what high school student hasn’t looked around and thought, “Man, these teachers have got to be pod people,” right?
And why stop there? Why not suggest all adults are pod people? What else could explain why they simply can’t understand the Young People of Today?
The film is set almost exclusively in and around a high school in a football-crazy Ohio town, and all your favorite teen stereotypes are here. So you get your jock, your geek, your Goth chick, your drug dealer, the snotty bitch head cheerleader (and editor of the school paper), even the new Southern girl desperate to make friends. After the geek finds a weird sea creature or plant or something on the football field, well wouldn’t you know it? In a blink, all the teachers start acting strange. Then the cops, then the parents, even a couple of the other students.
All your standard Body Snatcher clichés are here as well, from an elderly teacher warning, “They’re out to get us all!” to bodies appearing then disappearing inconveniently, to anything else you can imagine. The big difference here is that the transformations don’t happen silently as you sleep. Let’s just say they’re a little more action-packed than that. Also, instead of pods, the aliens take the form of slimy parasites with bad tempers.
Maybe in deference to the shrinking attention span of his target audience, Rodriguez also does away with any slow-growing tension and the piecing together of suspicions until they bloom into full-blown paranoia. No, about 20 minutes in, the audience and our two protagonists see exactly what’s going on boom-boom-boom.
In the film’s final third, it switches gears and shifts from a Body Snatchers ripoff to a blatant ripoff of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Then it’s back to Body Snatchers for a bit before switching to, Christ, I dunno, Blade? but it has a happy ending, and that’s what matters. Call it Pretty in Pod or Invasion of The Breakfast Club, what it boils down to is a John Hughes movie, but with more cursing, more extreme violence, lots of stated and unstated movie references, bad cover songs, and pod people.
The Invasion (2007)
I’ve long been convinced Nicole Kidman was a pod person. Sure, she’s pretty and everything, but there was nothing behind the eyes. Acting catatonic just seemed to come naturally. It was no big leap, then, to imagine her starring in the fourth adaptation of Finney’s novel, especially considering this remake, more than anything else, feels more like a remake of her earlier remake of The Stepford Wives.
My God, what a confounding and misguided trainwreck of a film this is. It’s like a pod film, one that perfectly resembles a real movie, but with none of the spirit or style that marked the ’56 or ’78 versions. It shouldn’t necessarily be blamed on director Oliver Hirschbiegel. By most accounts Hirschbiegel was trying to do something interesting here.
First, instead of pod-spawned replicants replacing humans (which seems less than efficient when you think about it), here the nefarious aliens, in what may be a nod to William Burroughs, take the form of a virus from outer space brought back to earth on a NASA shuttle. It spreads across the American South when the shuttle explodes on re-entry. Five minutes in, we’re given the whole premise. And for that conspiratorial angle, it’s made clear the government knows what’s going on. The highly resilient virus grows in human hosts, taking over their minds much like what happened in Quatermass 2.
The second, and more important move away from the source material is that Hirschbiegel tried to play up a theme that was the quiet, unspoken subtext of most of the previous adaptations. At one point or another in the earlier versions, a pod explains to the remaining and stubborn human that the alien way of life is much better. You get rid of fear, confusion, hatred and neuroses, do away with sickness and war, and since everyone is of a single mind; things actually get done as you all work toward the greater good. Those pesky “emotions” and “opinions” just mess everything up.
Well, Hirschbiegel’s initial cut seemed to argue, what if they’re right? I mean, human beings, for all their proud individuality, have made kind of a hash of things, so maybe these evil alien viruses, commies, or fascists, or whatever they are, might be on to something. Kidman or no, that would have at least been a radical interpretation, an interesting and unique direction to toss out there, but the studio was having none of it. I’m not sure if Hirschbiegel was a pod just trying to tell his side of the story, or if the execs (as usual) were the pods afraid of being too obvious about their intent.
In standard fashion, they wrested the movie away from him, brought in the Wachowskis (never a good idea) for an emergency overhaul of the script, and brought in an uncredited James McTeigue to direct a bunch of new scenes. What they ended up with, it seems, was a discordant jumble of scenes lifted from all the previously mentioned films (as well as the Stepford reboot). Then they slapped the whole thing back together and released some tediously traditional disease outbreak action film nonsense, albeit with some self-consciously Lynchian visuals and Nicole Kidman as a DC-based shrink and single mother(!).
Yes, it’s a movie made by pods, for pods.
At that point, half a century after the original and with the pod’s victory almost complete, it only made sense. And now over a decade later, it may help explain why there seem to be no more reboots on the immediate horizon, given they’re no longer necessary.