Sunday, April 17, 2016

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

Gothic, or horror, stories employ many conventions. One of them is the idea of the double, usually shown as the evil twin of a character. A prime example is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But, we also see it in vampire and Zombie tales, where humans turn into monsters, basically becoming the demon part of themselves. In this 1956 film, we have a variation on the above theme, as people in the California town of Santa Mira are replaced by automaton replicas of themselves. Given the time in which it was made, the movie feels like a McCarthy-like cautionary tale about the fear that the Communist Red Menace was subverting America from within its own borders. However, this subtext theme can be applied universally to the danger of any totalitarian ideology undermining a free society.
The movie starts with the sound of a police car siren. Symbolically, the story is announcing to the audience that this tale is trying to alert us to something bad that is happening. Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), is in a psychiatric ward, sounding paranoid and delusional, as he tells a psychiatrist, Dr. Hill (Whit Bissell), and the attending physician, Dr. Bassett (Richard Deacon) his fantastic story. Miles is the verbal alarm echoing the siren by telling us to pay attention to the warning signs.
Miles nurse, Sally Withers (Jean Willes) tells him that several patients had come in insisting on treatment only to cancel, saying everything was once again fine. However, two people say that their relatives aren’t whom they appear to be, despite looking identical to their former selves. One person, Wilma (Virginia Christine) says that her father has no emotion, that gestures and tone of voice lack feeling. The town psychiatrist, Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates), mentions that he too had seen many perplexing cases of people claiming that loved ones had somehow changed. Miles and his old flame Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), both of them now divorced and still having feelings for each other, have been out of town for quite a while. Because of this fact, these changes in the townspeople seem more dramatic, and their distance has not allowed them to be slowly converted to the new world order emerging around them.
Miles and Becky go to the house of Jack and Teddy Belicec (King Donovan and Carolyn Jones). They found an inert, featureless humanoid creature with no fingerprints, as if still unformed, in their poolroom that seems to be taking on Jack's features. It even bleeds from a hand as Jack did when he cut it on a piece of glass. This change occurred when Jack was asleep. Miles, who had taken Becky home to her father's house, returns there, worried that something might happen to her while she slept. Also, her father (Kenneth Patterson) had been in the basement, doing something unexplained. Miles breaks into the basement and finds another humanoid transforming itself into Becky. He sneaks upstairs and rescues Becky.

Evil things happen in underground places, like a basement, in horror tales, symbolizing that dark deeds are committed in hidden places. Also, the subterranean setting can mirror the id-like area of the irrational, potentially harmful, subconscious mind. It is significant that the replacement of real people occurs while they sleep. When one is unconscious, a person is not alert as to threats. If we see the film as a metaphor, the sleep state reflects what happens when a society drops its guard and lets an enemy enter into its world. There can be moles all around who have infiltrated the country, pretending to be neighbors, but who are really there to take over the culture. When we allow ourselves to forget to be vigilant, the movie is saying, against such enemies which will undermine individual freedom, it may be too late before these aliens (as is the case in this film, literally) take over. In this story, humanity itself, with its emotions and unique differences, is at stake. Becky says at one point that the creatures only need “minds” before they become complete, and she says while she slept she felt that her mind was being taken over. These statements translate into the fear at the time of the making of the film that communism could win over the minds of the people so that they could be converted to the cause.
The police in the town have been compromised and they tell Miles and the others that the body on Jack’s pool table showed up burning in a field, and it was probably a criminal who burned off his fingerprints. When those in law enforcement can’t be trusted, everyone is at risk. At Miles’ house, he discovers what appear to be large seed pods in his greenhouse. The pods open up and dispel bodies that start to look like Miles and his guests. The idea of using something vegetative that takes over the humans fits the theme of the movie. Seeds are small, almost undetectable, but once they become fertile and grow, they take root and flourish. As plants start to spread more seeds, eventually there can be whole fields of vegetation. An idea can work in a similar fashion in a person’s mind. As there are more and more pod people, these replacements start to grow more seed pods to spread the new world order. Also, the passive nature of plants just growing without any thinking process reflects the danger of not actively fighting the spread of a dangerous idea. When Becky and Miles go to his nurse’s house, the place is filled with pod people. How threatening this invasion is can be seen when the group says they will put a pod in a baby’s crib. Even the unsuspecting innocent are not spared from what is happening.

In many science fiction and horror movies, the scientist lets the monster loose. The obvious example is Frankenstein. In the Andromeda Strain, scientists bring back killer space germs. Of course you have all those rampaging dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park films. There were also many evil mutation flicks in the 1950’s that showed the dangers of nuclear radiation, a product brought to you by the men in the white coats. But, here, in this motion picture, the scientist is the savior. Miles uses his medical mind to diagnose the problem. He says, “In my practice, I have seen how people have allowed their humanity to slip away.” He recognizes the threat is like a “malignant disease spreading throughout the country.” He declares that he doesn’t want any part of this new way of living, because he realizes the only way to stay free is to hold onto those messy human traits of ambition, desire, and love. He uses medicine to stay awake so as not be taken over. Even after Becky succumbs to the sleep that overcomes humanity, he fights on. When the authorities discover a truck full of pods in a car accident, they begin to amplify Miles’ alarming warning.

The loneliness, but the necessity, of the crusader trying to help the apathetic is best seen at the end of the movie when Miles shouts out to the drivers in the highway that the evil is “already here.” He speaks right into the camera, telling each audience member, if you do not heed the warning, on the list of totalitarian victims, “You’re next!”
The next film is The Day the Earth Stood Still.

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