Jack Finney’s seminal novel of paranoia and alien invasion in idyllic, pastoral America was instantly recognised (or sequestered, depending on your point of view) as a polemic about the ‘communist’ threat of the 1950s. Reds under the bed? In Finney’s nightmarish vision, first published in 1955, there were reds in your head…
1: The Novel: ‘The Body Snatchers’ – Jack Finney, 1955…presents the apparently insane narrative of small-town doctor Miles Boise Bennell, for whom the welcome return of his high-school sweetheart unexpectedly coincides with a bizarre outbreak of mass-hysteria in Santa Mira. Having escaped as a youth and now returning as a divorcée, Becky Driscoll quickly becomes both Miles’s renewed love-interest and fellow investigator as they uncover a string of cases where people they have known all their lives declare, rationally but with unshakeable conviction, that their loved ones are not themselves. Literally.
The hysteria is defined by belief that wives, mothers, children, friends and colleagues have become ‘different’ overnight, retaining all the key memories, habits and knowledge that defines identity, but not…seeming like the same people anymore.
Consulting with town shrink Dr. Kaufman only unearths yet more bizarre instances of the sickness. Suddenly many of the early, fearful patients turn up tranquil and dismissive of their former ravings and…slightly off, somehow.
Only when Bennell’s friend Jack Belicec presents the incredulous doctor with a full-size version of himself growing like a newly forming template on his own billiard table does Bennell understand that there is something substantial behind the mania, and that Santa Mira’s population is being taken over by some terrible replicating force capable of absolute mimicry and total dissolution of the original spirit of the host.
It is established that sleep represents the moment of possession, the transference of being between the inhabitants of Santa Mira and the itinerant space-borne pods that have settled around the town, and survival is a struggle to stay awake at all costs. The ‘possessed’ explain to the pair that life after their ‘absorption’ will be free of war, pain…and love, and offer their take on a better existence under the concept of a common mind and goal.
Soon the doctor and Becky are outnumbered by the pod-people of Santa Mira, hunted down into the outlying country. Fighting back with gasoline fires and determined to defy their aggressors/possessors until the bitter end, the invaders finally decide that the spirit of the human race is too indomitably allied to concepts of independence and free-will to be worth the struggle of invasion, and the pods fly back up into space…for the time being.
2: Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956)The rapidly-acquired rights to Finney’s novel bore the first screen adaptation in very short order under the helm of long-time Clint Eastwood collaborator Don Siegel. With Kevin McCarthy as Dr. Miles J. Bennell and Dana Wynter as Becky Driscoll, Siegel’s vision followed Finney’s with uncommon fidelity until the ending, where the half-insane McCarthy finally manages to persuade the doctors and policeman who are about to have him committed that his story is true: one of the trucks carrying the alien pods out to new towns and cities has been involved in a road accident, and a ‘clean’ police-officer has reported ‘the strangest plants I ever saw’.
But it is the preceding scene – of McCarthy madly trying to flag down cars on a motorway and warn their inhabitants of the pending alien menace – that is the hallmark horror of Siegel’s version, and the leitmotif of all versions since: the lone voice of truth in an unbelieving world, fleeing the lies and easy conceit of a common enemy.
That Becky Driscoll returns to the goodness of small-town America from some ‘other’ place under the ‘stigma’ of divorce is probably no coincidence, in the moral etymology of both book and film. Is this a fallen Eve bringing corruption and possession to the garden of Eden – the booming and innocent America of Norman Rockwell?
There is no tacit connection between Becky’s state of morality either in the source story or in Siegel’s adaptation, but Bodysnatchers marked the beginning of a period where Hitchcock in particular was visiting gruesome horrors on independent-minded females in films such as Psycho (1960), Marnie (1964) and The Birds (1963) – to boot, this is a business he didn’t lay to rest until after the brutal rape and murder of independent businesswoman and divorcée Barbara Leigh-Hunt in Frenzy in 1970. If Becky’s prodigal disgrace is bringing down hell on Santa Mira, she is nonetheless the messenger, rather than the message, of Bodysnatchers.
The message rather is that the acceptance of an ‘alien’ idea can be very inviting and seductive, and that it can enter irreversibly into ‘pure’ spirits who are not adequately vigilant. The sleep of the Santa Mirans, like the sleep of Goya, breeds monsters.
The film remains a science-fiction staple. Though its concerns are too much of its time, and it has been too often re-made and re-imagined to offer the perennial chill of stable-mates like The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), it retains gruesome and iconic imagery which still has the power to shock and unsettle.
3: Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)Kaufman’s version moves the action to bustling, post-hippy San Francisco, where health inspector Matthew Bennell – played by Donald Sutherland – teams up with colleague Elizabeth Driscoll –played by Brooke Adams – to determine the source of the outbreak of ‘unpeople’, and the first of these is Adams’s own husband.
Sutherland is initially sceptical and takes Adams to see his psychiatrist friend, the very trendy and primal-therapy obsessed Dr. David Kibner, played by Leonard Nimoy, but a revealing trip to the sauna run by his friends Jack and Nancy Belicec quickly establishes the ugly truth: the tiny spores that have been falling on San Francisco in recent days are growing into pods that can replicate people and discard the original as a withered husk.
Kaufman’s is the very bleakest and most potent of the four filmed versions, and adds a signal trait to the ‘possessed’ humans that will forever be associated with the story: when a ‘pod-person’ identifies a not-yet-infected human, it points to it and screams a ghastly and haunting lament to alert its fellows to the danger.
There is some truly alarming horror-imagery in the 1978 version – when Sutherland finds a nest of clones forming, he attacks them brutally with a spade in a scene that is gory even for the Romero era. Equally horrifying is the dog/human hybrid that seems to have been formed when a pod was left equidistant between a sleeping tramp and his equally torpid mutt. The result is a sprightly canine with a tramp’s face, and it is this ghastly horror that forces Adams to give herself away with a shriek of disgust when she is trying to ‘pass’ among the legions of pod-people now dominating San Francisco.
Haunting and horrifying by nature, another signal scene is where exhausted lovers Sutherland and Adams head for a departing ship from which ‘Amazing Grace’ is poignantly emerging, only to find pods being loaded onto it. Going to investigate, Sutherland returns to find Adams asleep; she crumbles in his arms, sending Sutherland almost into madness as her naked ‘pod-double’ emerges from the nearby bushes, urging him to join her in a world free of pain and pleasure and preoccupation.
It is difficult to determine exactly what comment Finney’s story could really make upon the late 1970s – the post-Watergate era found America depressed but awake, and genuinely beginning to live the radical ideals of the 1960s in a more practical way. Kaufman toys with themes of alienation, and indeed the Driscoll (Adams) character is unavailable to her suitor Sutherland at the beginning, and so the film reflects the practical concerns of the easy-divorce age and the sexual crises of the 1970s. Nonetheless, there is nothing in the culture for the theme to take a true grip upon, and what remains is a first-class chiller with an array of original horror iconography, superb atmosphere, performances, script, music and cinematography…but nowhere, thematically, to really go.
4: Body Snatchers (Abel Ferrara, 1993)Ferrara’s take on Finney’s apocalyptic tale deviates so far from the source material as to barely warrant inclusion. The attempt to associate alien invasion with the trendy theme of the irresponsible management of toxic waste is not only derivative of Dan O’Bannon’s far-more-entertaining Return Of The Living Dead (1986), but remains a specious connection to the powerful core theme of the original.
Marti Malone (Gabrielle Anwar) travels to a military base with her EPA inspector father and the rest of her family, because dad has to investigate some mysterious toxic by-products at the base. Advised by a scared-looking soldier to ‘not sleep’, Marti discovers that the troops stationed at the base are being taken over by insidious alien entities.
Setting an alien invasion in a military environment has a lot of potential, even now, for reflecting society’s schizophrenic attitude to the wartime military who –as in Vietnam- are both its beloved fathers, sons, husbands and brothers, and simultaneously killing machines living in another moral universe without the clear guidance of God or any other irrefutable motivation – engines of the horrors of war.
Unfortunately the usually adept Ferrara pisses this opportunity away in a muddily-scripted mess of under-funded and disjointed scenes and character studies. Uniquely among adaptations of the novel, if it indeed qualifies as such, all the names in Ferrara’s version are changed from the source material, as are the central character dynamics, and torpid scripting combines with an appallingly low-budget and bankruptcy of fresh ideas to make this neither effective horror nor cogent polemic.
On the plus side, this is the only re-make to repeat the effective ‘scream’ motif of Kaufman’s infinitely superior 1978 adaptation.
5: The Invasion (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2007)Switching the sexes on the Bennell/Driscoll pairing from the original novel, Nicole Kidman is the central character in Hirschbiegel’s astoundingly undervalued adaptation, whereas the excellent Daniel Craig fulfils the role of both her love-interest and investigative partner as the doctor who is beginning to believe her wild claims that something bad is spreading to the inhabitants of Washington D.C.
At no point in history since Siegel’s original adaptation has the time been more right for Finney’s material to point out the prevalent paranoia engulfing society. Both the beauty and the flaw of this version is that it is an equally effective warning both to those who see bombers on every bus they step on, and also those who see American hegemonists increasingly using terror – real or otherwise – to control the populace. One could only wish this ambiguity to have been resolved in a less commercial, if less adroit manner.
Veronica Cartwright returns from Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version to play psychiatrist Kidman’s latest patient, who is determined that her husband is ‘not himself’, just as Kevin McCarthy returned for her version as a mad proclaimer of doom, stepped straight off the streets of his version. These are nice touches, even if the by-now trademark ‘scream’ is missing from The Invasion (presumably because Abel Ferrara wasted the device in his 1993 knock-off).
But the core of the piece, then and now, is terror of being discovered among the treacherous, changed countenances of people that you once loved, and the most chilling scene takes place as Kidman is trying to get her son out of the city, and steps onto an underground train carriage full of non-possessed people who are trying to ‘pass’ among a society where the pod-people are now in control (tellingly, the police, army and authorities are the very first victims of these alien possessors). One terrified man on the tube train breaks cover long enough to tell Kidman ‘Don’t show any emotion – just look ahead. They can’t tell who you are if you don’t show any emotion’…