There was a time in my teaching career when I taught a course on Film and Twentieth Century America. I loved teaching it. As you can probably surmise just by the existence of this blog, I have a love for movies. You may have also noticed that I have a passion for history. Thus when I can combine the two and get paid for it, it is even better. One of the films that I would show to my students is the original cult classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). There have been other versions of this story, though this is the one with which I am most familiar. I know one has Donald Sutherland in it, and the more recent version has Nicole Kidman, but the first is still the best in my view.
Much of the story of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is told in flashback after Dr. Miles J. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) arrives at a hospital raving about his town being taken over. Once he calms down, and some professionals arrive to talk to him, he unfolds the tale of how he had been called back to his hometown of Santa Mira (think classic California suburbia and you get the picture) from a medical conference he had been attending. Apparently there was a rash of people frantic to see him with a whole host of concerns, usually about somebody they are close to acting strangely. Yet when he arrives in his office, things have had settled somewhat. Still, he begins to notice odd things around town. It starts when he is called to the home of Wilma Lentz (Virginia Christine). She swears that her Uncle Ira Lentz (Tom Fadden) is not her Uncle Ira. There is also young Jimmy Grimaldi (Bobby Clark) who is sure his mother is not his mother. The clincher comes when Dr. Bennell is called away from his dinner date with Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) to the home of his friends Jack (King Donovan) and Theodora “Teddy” Belicec (Carolyn Jones, and fun fact: she played Morticia Addams in the original The Addams Family series). I guess because there is nothing better to do in this town, Becky tags along and the four of them uncover a body that Jack had found in his yard. Slowly, before their eyes, the body morphs into an exact copy of Jack. When Dr. Bennell finds another cadaver undergoing a similar process in Becky’s basement, it becomes apparent that the wild rumors around town are true. When people go to sleep, they are replaced by this robotic double, and they all apparently have a kind of hive mind. Dr. Bennell sends Jack and Teddy to try and get help outside of town, while he and Becky try to track down his nurse to see if they cannot find out more about what is going on. Sneaking up to his nurse’s house, Dr. Bennell finds out she is one of them and that they basically have the entire town almost entirely under their control. Managing to get away, Dr. Bennell and Becky hide out in his office, but they end up finding the two. After knocking out Jack (who is now also one of them) and the psychologist, Dr. Dan “Danny” Kauffman (Larry Gates), Dr. Bennell and Becky escape on foot into the hills outside of town and hide in an abandoned mine shaft. Keep in mind that they have not slept in days, and the effects are particularly taking their toll on Becky. Yet, for reasons that remain completely unclear to me after having watched it a dozen times, Dr. Bennel leaves Becky behind for a moment to look for help. When he returns, she is completely done and falls asleep in his arms . . . only to wake up a few moments later as one of them (I have never understood how that makes sense). Horrified, he sprints out of the cave and makes his way to the highway. It is there where he is picked up and brought to the hospital we see at the beginning, yelling like a lunatic about how “They’re here already!” At first the doctors dismiss his tale as crazy, but then a report comes in of a crash having taken place involving a truck loaded with these peculiar seed pods. They seem to match Dr. Bennell’s description, and the film closes with the hope that finally something will be done to stop the spread of this menace.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of those old “B” science-fiction/horror flicks that brought people to the movie theater on a weekly basis. Because television was in its infancy in the 1950s, and there was no such thing yet as Netflix, the only place for people to consume films was at their local cinema. Thus Hollywood cranked out products seemingly around the clock, and not all of them are memorable. This is where the “B” reference comes from (sort of, but for short hand’s sake, this is the definition I am presenting). So why do I use it in an academic setting? Because the whole thing is a metaphor for communism and the Red Scare. Remember that 1956 is the peak of the Cold War between the supposedly communist Soviet Union and the supposedly capitalist United States. People were concerned that their next door neighbor could be a red plotting to overthrow the country (and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg seemingly proved them right in 1953). The Russians, or in this case the “pod people” (this term is not actually used in the film, but it has been applied to it in other settings), were depicted as unfeeling monsters bent on erasing individuality in favor of the collective. So if you ever want a sense of what the public perception of the Cold War was like, watch the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
I would like to note that, despite what some might think, communism and Catholicism are antithetical to one another. There is a tendency by some, usually critics of the Faith, to cherrypick Jesus’ teachings and say that he was basically this proto-communist, and that His call to share things in common means that we should give up all notions of property. There is a subtle difference here that needs to be understood (and I promise I will tie this in to Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and that is Faith. Communism is a human institution, and it forces people to all be equal on a strictly economic basis. Faith says that everyone is equal in God’s eyes on the basis of love, and He never forces us to do anything. I was reading 1 Corinthians 12 recently where it talks about how we are all one body in Christ. In order for that body to function, its various parts, while all being vitally important to God, nonetheless have different roles to fulfill. And yet He created us to be more than just a foot or an elbow. He gifted us with hearts and minds and souls, and our yearning to love and laugh and create with each other makes us not only human but helps us to strive for the divine. Thus when Becky pleads with Dr. Bennell in his office just after they are caught about how she wants to experience all these things, it is quite poignant and (politics aside) I identify with her. The “pod people” (or communism, take your pick) seek to subvert those hopes and dreams.
When you watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers, please also keep in mind that this was the 1950s. It is almost comical (or sad) how seemingly whenever there is a spare moment they are reaching for the bottle or lighting up a cigarette. I have been blessed to be without these addictions, so maybe I am missing the point. At any rate, one could look at these behaviors as bringing on a whole host of problems we are still dealing with as a society, but that is another discussion. In the meantime, appreciate this oldie-but-goldie for what it is: a fast-paced, suspenseful thriller that hearkens back to a (thankfully) bygone era.