Cult Movies: Invasion of The Body Snatchers was a genuine science fiction game-changer

Dana Winter and Kevin McCarthy in Invasion of The Body Snatchers
Ralph McLean

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers

THE 1950s were awash with high concept, low budget science fiction B-movies. Some reflected the atomic angst of the age with radiation enhanced creatures, outer space invaders and even 50 ft women marauding all over our cinema screens threatening the American way of life and crushing the cardboard sets under their feet in the process.

Others, however, were concerned with a more insidious invasion from an evil lurking deep within society itself.

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is one such film. Released to US cinemas in 1956, and only now granted a full Blu-ray release on this side of the Atlantic thanks to the BFI, it's a dark and moody little tale of a very different type of alien invasion that still packs a considerable punch to this day.

Shot in stark black and white, there are no flying saucers or bug-eyed monsters on show here, but in their place director Don Siegel delivers something altogether stranger and more compelling.

Kevin McCarthy is Miles Bennell, a doctor who returns to the small Californian town of Santa Mira to find that something decidedly odd is happening to certain members of the community, who appear to have lost their personality and become dead eyed replicas of their former selves.

Sceptical at first, when talk turns to extra-terrestrial involvement Bennell initially believes the town is in the grip of a new medical epidemic – but as cases start to rise he soon comes to realise that alien-spawned seeds from space have taken hold in the fields and grown into pods that are capable of taking over human beings while they sleep and turning them into emotionless replicants.

Growing increasingly desperate as the scale of this gradual invasion of Earth becomes apparent, Bennell teams up with another resident, Becky Driscoll (Dana Winter), to try to foil this plot to destroy mankind, but they swiftly find themselves under the watchful gaze of the ever increasing number of 'Pod People'.

To say it's paranoid would barely begin to cover its fevered fantasies about the 'enemy within' and the echoes of an America obsessed with the whole 'Reds under the bed" moral panic of the era are impossible to ignore.

Whether it's an obvious anti-communist tirade or a satirical swing at the McCarthyist mindset of American politics in the mid-50s remains open to debate. Director Siegel, who would give us the decidedly reactionary Dirty Harry 15 years later, claimed it was simply about insomnia, something he himself had suffered from for years.

What is clear is that Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is a superior alien takeover movie. Shot with an almost documentary feel by Siegel and boasting an impressively tense lead performance from McCarthy, a respected stage actor taking his first cinema lead role here, it's nervy, energetic and packed with more than enough intrigue to hold your attention for its one hour twenty minute running time.

Creepy, concise and influential enough to spawn two remakes to date, this new BFI Blu-ray sees a genuine science fiction game-changer given the respect it truly deserves.

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