Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)
Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is a small-town doctor whose patients are becoming increasingly overwrought and accusing their loved ones of being emotionless imposters. They’re right! Plant-like aliens have invaded Earth, taking possession of humans as they sleep, and replicating them in giant seed pods. Convinced that a catastrophic epidemic is imminent, Bennell, in a terrifying race for his life, must warn the world of this deadly invasion of the pod people before it’s too late. (From Olive’s official synopsis)
Post-WWII, the American public was wracked by the fear that the Cold War brewing between them and the Soviet Union would heat up and the consequences would be nothing short of the end of the world. The threat of nuclear annihilation gave rise to a series of escapist films that, nonetheless, dealt in allegories that lay beneath the fear. These films acted as a catharsis for theatrical patrons and their messages were cloaked in innocuous science fiction tropes. Monsters, like the giant ants of Gordon Douglas’ Them! (1954), acted as stand-ins for the bomb, while alien invaders became stand-ins for Communist aggressors. The two key American films of the era were (arguably) Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Both films were made on lower budgets, shot in black & white, and utilized dramatic styles that were about to feel very out-of-date as the next decade rolled around. Yet, they were also significantly more sophisticated than the majority of drive-in fodder, in that each dealt with post-WWII social fears and political baggage.
Wise’s film, based on Harry Bates’ short story Farewell to the Master (originally published October 1940 issue of Astounding Science Fiction), introduced audiences to an ultimately benevolent, humanoid alien, and a diplomat representing an interplanetary UN of sorts. He comes to Earth in order to (among other things) warn the populous against expanding their nuclear technologies. Though his warning comes with the promise of possible annihilation, he offers the world a chance to change its ways. Siegel’s film, however, didn’t offer humanity the same option for salvation. Based on the novel by Jack Finney (initially serialized in 1954 for Collier’s Magazine), Invasion of the Body Snatchers paints a bleak, apocalyptic picture of an alien race sent to copy and replace humanity with a single-minded population. But, unlike other malevolent space invaders of the period, the “pod people” don’t mindlessly destroy monuments, decimate the military, or leave scorched corpses in their wake. Their infiltration is subdued, their victims die peacefully in their sleep, and, when discovered, they calmly, dispassionately explain their genocidal purpose, as if they are Sears employees trying to sell microwaves to bored housewives. In short – they are terrifying, because they are utterly indifferent to us.
Depending on which expert, fan, or casual movie watcher you ask, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is either a warning about the supposed rising tide of Communism or a reaction to McCarthyism and other anti-Communist ethos. The fear of Communism slant works better within the context of the film’s story, because the body-snatchers aren’t merely replacing humans with inhuman clones – they are replacing emotional beings with a placid, apathetic hive-mind. The anti-Communist propaganda machine was quite fond of painting the Reds as the enemies of free thought, after all. On the other hand, there is a sweet, pulp-friendly irony to the idea of a story that appears to be about one social phenomenon, but is actually an indictment of backlash against that phenomenon. Historically, allegorical sci-fi (especially the brand read in magazines and short story collections during the ‘50s) is littered with similarly subversive tales. When pressed, Siegel, who has joked that the pod people represented the movie executives he despised working with, eventually admitted that he was referencing the House Un-American Activities Committee, but tried to downplay the comparisons. The most damning evidence in favor of the McCarthy theory is the fact that screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring was almost a victim of the Hollywood blacklist himself and may have been keen to make a subversion statement on the subject.
And yet others theorize that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a dual indictment of Soviet infiltration and unchecked McCarthyism, since both issues were weighing on the minds of left and right-leaning audiences. There’s little in the way of direct correlation between the events of the film and either Communism or McCarthyism, as one might expect from similar stories and movies from the period. For comparison, The Day the Earth Stood Still ends with the benevolent alien scolding humanity about their nuclear weapons and obsession with war. Perhaps Finney, Siegel, and Mainwaring were – as many involved with the production have insisted – simply tapping into universal terrors of cultural change/substitution and lost identity (both self identity and the identities of those we love). Any socio-political connotations might just be in the minds of the audience or, at the very least, open to interpretation.
Ambiguous moral lessons aside, Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ themes were evergreen and the film grew into a defining piece of Americana, as well as a guideline for socio-political horror. While the shared influence of older pulp sci-fi novels and short stories should not be overlooked (Robert A. Heinlein’s 1950 novel, The Puppet Masters, for instance, is very similar to Finney’s story), its impact cast a shadow over a number of genre films that exploit the concept of stolen/lost identity, including John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982 – itself based on a 1951 Howard Hawks film and John W. Campbell 1938 novella, Who Goes There?), Hammer’s Quatermass series (based on Nigel Kneale’s 1953 BBC broadcast drama), David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) and Videodrome (1983), Bryan Forbes’ The Stepford Wives (1975, based on Ira Levin’s 1972 novel), Larry Cohen’s The Stuff (1985), Robert Rodriguez’ The Faculty (1998), and George A. Romero’s catalogue of zombie movies. It also spawned an international surge of rip-offs, spoofs, and extensions, such as Gene Fowler Jr.’s I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), Gerry Levy’s The Body Stealers (1969), Peter Manoogian’s Seedpeople (1992), Greg Ford & Terry Lennon’s Bugs Bunny short Invasion of the Bunny Snatchers (1992), and Justin Jones’ Asylum mockbuster Invasion: The Beginning (2007).
But the Invasion of the Body Snatchers legacy didn’t end there, it was fodder for a series of name-brand remakes; each of which tweaked the formula to fit the social malaise of a given era. Future versions didn’t leave their metaphorical meanings quite as open-ended, especially not Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version, which started the tradition and remains the superior version of the story. Along with Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), it mocked the post-Vietnam “Me Generation” by casting post-counterculture hippies as the victims of their own apathy (to clarify the comparison: Kaufman’s aliens were an upper-class, white American extension of Romero’s working-class rural and urban victims of the zombie apocalypse). Abel Ferrara’s 1993 Body Snatchers relocated the story to a remote military base and recast the main protagonist as an EPA agent, thus tapping into early ‘90s fears of ozone holes and unrequited wars with Iraq. The new millennium was robbed of a proper retelling when Oliver Hirschbiegel’s The Invasion (2007) fell victim to massive rewrites, re-shoots, studio meddling, and other production issues, but, given the apparent lack of another official adaptation in the next two years, I think that Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) should be the honorary Invasion of the Body Snatchers of the 2010s for obvious reasons.
From what I can gather, following Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) and Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), Olive Films isn’t rescanning anymore of these Signature releases. Instead, they’re cleaning up and re-color-timing the scans they already have on hand. Unfortunately, I don’t have the previous Olive disc on hand for comparison, so I’m unable to offer quite as substantial of a video review. Instead, I’m doing my best to grade the image quality based on assumptions about the conditions of the materials and the look of previous HD releases of the film. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was advertised as being shot using a short-lived process known as SuperScope, which was only utilized officially between 1954 and 1957, before evolving into a litany of other spherical anamorphic processes. The format’s aspect ratio is listed as 2.00:1, though, over years of home video releases, the film has been framed to 2.10:1, 1:85:1, and 1.33:1. Those that claim Siegel preferred the 1.85:1 AR are probably correct, given the sometimes awkward tightness of close-ups. I’d personally take it further and say that it looks best in 1.33:1. For better or worse, Olive’s remastered Blu-ray opts for the 2.00:1 AO and is presented in full 1080p.
Overall, this is a solid transfer with clean blends, tight element separation, consistent details, and, perhaps most importantly, good dynamic range to balance the clarity of the darkest sequences. There are artifacts strewn throughout, but most of them appear to be issues with the footage itself, such as slight edge haloes along the high contrast edges and fuzzy details, which I’m pretty sure are emulsion effects and the camera struggling to maintain focus. On the not so great side, Olive’s restoration leans too heavily on the ol’ DNR button. Not to say that the image quality is over-smoothed or flat – however, looking at screen-caps from the company’s previous, bare-bones Invasion of the Body Snatchers Blu-ray, it seems that there is actually less grain here than there had been on that otherwise fuzzier transfer. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the image quality of these caps, because I didn’t take them, but some of the other Signature remasters share this issue. Bottom line: the DNR is disappointing, but not invasive enough to ignore all the other upgrades.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and its original mono sound. It’s not an aurally aggressive movie, but the lack of compression still makes a notable difference, because it prevents hissing and distortion at high volume levels. The sound floor is good and low without causing many obvious noise-reduction side effects. Composer Carmen Dragon’s driving, super-insistent score is the loudest element and it largely overcomes the limitations of a single channel arena, thanks to high dynamic ranges and, again, the lack of high-end distortion.
Almost every home video release of Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been basically a barebones affair. The Italian DVD & BD had some extras, but they were mostly tangential material, like a documentary about Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast. Apparently, Paramount prepped a special edition more than a decade ago, but decided not to go through with it. Olive’s Signature Edition re-release mixes those unreleased supplements with brand new one and a couple of other extras that were released via older DVDs.
The disc includes:
Commentary by Richard Harland Smith – The genre historian and critic offers up a professional, tightly-packed expert track, which was recorded exclusively for the Olive release. This is the type of commentary that is so full-bodied and descriptive that you don’t really need the video accompaniment. It would work just as well as a podcast or short audiobook (I promise that I mean that as a compliment).
Commentary by actors Kevin McCarthy & Dana Wynter, and filmmaker Joe Dante – Dante, who most of you probably know for his work directing cult horror comedies, like The Howling (1981) and Gremlins (1984), hosts this long-lost actor track with McCarthy (who passed away in 2010) and Wynter (who passed away in 2011). The actors require a bit of moderation and Dante is there to keep them on task until about 25 minutes in, when everyone kind of runs out of steam and the content turns a little spotty.
The Stranger in Your Lover’s Eyes visual essay (11:54, HD) – Siegel’s son, Kristoffer Tabori, reads from his father’s book, A Siegel Film: An Autobiography (pub: 1993/1996) in this two-part visual essay about the making of the film, concluding with Tabori talking about the movie in his own words.
The Fear is Real (12:26, HD) – Dante and fellow cult director Larry Cohen of God Told Me To (1976) and Q: The Winged Serpent (1982) fame (he also co-wrote the Abel Ferrara Invasion remake), share their memories of the film.
I No Longer Belong: The Rise and Fall of Walter Wanger (21:08, HD) – Film scholar and author of Walter Wanger, Hollywood Independent (pub: 1994) Matthew Bernstein discusses the long career of Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ producer.
Sleep No More: Invasion of the Body Snatchers Revisited (26:35, SD) – This slightly corny, probably made-for-TV retrospective features interviews with McCarthy, Wynter, and a cavalcade of famous fans, such as Mick Garris (Critters 2: The Main Course, 1988), Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, 1985), John Landis (An American Werewolf in London, 1981), sci-fi historian Bob Burns, and others.
The Fear and the Fiction: The Body Snatchers Phenomenon (8:19, SD) – This is the weakest extra in the set, because it is essentially a re-edited version of the Sleep No More featurette. It’s strange that Olive included both of them.
1985 Archival Interview with actor Kevin McCarthy hosted by Tom Hatten (7:25, HD) – This particular interview is one of the few extras to appear on older DVD releases of the movie.
Return to Santa Mira (SD) – An eight-part exploration of the film’s locations then & now. Unfortunately, there is no ‘play all’ option.
What’s In a Name? (2:16, HD) – A short look at the changes made to the film’s title during development.
Gallery of production documents
Text-based essay by author of House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (2012) and film programmer Kier-La Janisse.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.