#303. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

I was just watching Heidi Julavits interview Jonathan Lethem in some old clip from FilmStruck, the previous incarnation of Criterion Channel, and she mentions, at the start of the video, that she’s interested lately in memory’s “provenance,” and goes on to ask Lethem if he, like she herself, associates certain movies with the time that he saw them, the people with whom he went to the theater, etcetera—and it eases my conscience about the fact that, in thinking or talking about Invasion of the Body Snatchers, what invariably comes to mind, and what I suspect will always continue to come to mind, is how my ex girlfriend later confessed to me that, on the night when I was home watching this, she was out at a bar in Las Rosas hooking up with some guy she’d met that night at a bachelor party she and her friends stumbled into.

            And now that I’ve mentioned that, to the satisfaction of whatever vengeful or cathartic needs prompted me to do so, I can move on to mention that, apart from reminding me of infidelity, Invasion of the Body Snatchers has a plasticky made-for-TV vibe that reminds me of Salt of the Earth and Phenix City Story and a few other titles of the time.

            Invasion can be held up as one of the models of paranoia that infused so much of 1950s American cinema—and since the paranoia, in this case, is about aliens who come to Earth, kill people (sorta), and then clone and inhabit them, the paranoia has a sci-fi edge that reflects global fears of nuclear war, total annihilation, while also manifesting the “infiltration” panic that was generated, or at least exacerbated, by Senator Joseph McCarthy, fuckface supreme, and the attacks he leveled at the film industry, accusing people of being communists and getting them blacklisted. It’s up there as one of the most explicitly political and socially-minded genre films of its time, like Johnny Guitar and  The Day the Earth Stood Still and High Noon.

            And the movie’s good! I like it. But I knew, beforehand, that it’s championed as like this great iconic piece of social commentary, and that there are some iconic story elements…but I realized that the movie’s prestige, or its cultural significance, is born of those two things coming together: it’s a good metaphor for what was going on at that time in history, and it’s a good story.

            But it’s great in neither respects.

            There are cheap movies of the ‘40s, like Detour and Seventh Victim and Cat People, that somehow, despite the production’s poverty, just feel inherently cinematic. Can’t exactly put my finger on why. I guess that, with the absence of television, people who told stories on the screen were only accustomed to the pacing of a feature-length narrative.

            But here in the mid-‘50s is where I’m starting to get a vibe, with some of these movies, like, Anybody could have done this; some of these low-budget movies feel tinted like the straight-to-video microbudget movies I used to rent from Blockbuster when their poster art on the VHS case conned me into thinking it was a thing of higher quality.

            Same here, with Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The actors are of a certain age, they dress and behave like adults, so it’s not quite the straight-to-video youthful production you’d see today—but it feels like a cousin.

            What does lend it a measure of austerity, I guess, is the way that, with a protagonist who’s a doctor, Invasion manifests some of the decade’s obsession with psychoanalysis that we see, for instance, in The Snake Pit and The Secret Beyond the Door. There’s a mention of Capgras delusion, a disorder whereby people believe their loved ones have been replaced by imposters—which suggests a little more depth of thought on behalf of the writers than you’d get with other low-budget horror movies.

            Anyway, quick summary: the whole movie is a flashback, sandwiched with scenes of our doctor protagonist being a hot dischevelled mess and telling people about, “Oh fuck!”, there’re these pods, aliens, that came to town and fucked shit up—then we go to the story, flashing a couple days back, where he and his wife and their married friends are slowly, cleverly, effectively made aware of the invasion when they start to see, for instance, weird half-formed clones of themselves. We see a couple of their interactions with emotionless people who are creepy for the way that something about them is only slightly off, nothing that would ever hold up in court, but something very truly different nonetheless.

            It’s a good spooky premise.

            Another layer of commentary you can rope out of it (and maybe I’m going at it too hard) is that this alien race wants to eradicate feelings. They champion assimilation.

            And in that respect, we might be seeing the seeds (pods?) of the subversive fuck-the-system sensibility of certain late-1960s and early-1970s American films—and also the early-‘60s French New Wave stuff. Like maybe even in 1956, in the suburbs, people were feeling stifled and pissed and miserable with all this appliance-laden postwar humdrum affluence.

            So I think there’s some beauty to be found in the way that his almost feels like a scream from the bowels of suburban conformity. When a movie is really aggressive with its horror or gross-out stuff, it strikes me as a somebody lashing out, shredding decorum, hurling their desk chair through a window. I was just riffing about something similar in my piece about Bigger Than Life, and how its director, Nicholas Ray, captured that very soft collective American howl in his earlier movies too: Rebel Without a Cause and In a Lonely Place.

            Anway. Invasion is a good movie. Not sure how it holds up if you want to watch it outside of its historical context, but go ahead and give it a shot if you’re looking for something quick and fun on like a Tuesday night.


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