Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) at the Palm Springs Classic Science Fiction Film Festival

I arrived in town bright and early Saturday morning for the Palm Springs Classic Science Fiction Film Festival.

First up for me at 10:00 a.m. was INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956), which I've frankly been too chicken to watch in the past! My husband, who accompanied me to the festival, is a sci-fi fan but he doesn't care for that one; instead he took a side trip to Desert Memorial Park and paid his respects at the burial sites of Frank Sinatra and William Powell.

I bravely forged ahead to see BODY SNATCHERS on my own, and you know what? I liked it! It was definitely creepy, but not to the extent I couldn't enjoy it. It won't have the "rewatch value" for me of the festival films I liked the most -- thus it's the title I referred to as "liking" rather than "loving" -- but I would recommend it as an excellent sci-fi thriller.

As the film begins, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is in a hospital being checked out by two doctors (Whit Bissell and Richard Deacon) trying to determine if he's having a mental crackup. Miles, desperate to have someone believe him, begins to recount the terrible things which have been happening in his town of Santa Mira, California.

Miles returned from a medical convention to odd reports from his nurse (Jean Willes) that a number of his patients seem to think their relatives...aren't really their relatives. A short time later, the stories start to go away. For instance, Wilma (Virginia Christine), who had been adamant that her Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) was an imposter, suddenly drops her story and says everything's fine.

Then Miles's friend Jack (King Donovan) discovers a body in his house...but it's not fully formed. And as time goes on...the body suddenly starts to look like Jack!

Miles, Jack, Jack's wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones), and Miles's ex-girlfriend Becky (Dana Wynter), who's recently returned to town, discover strange pods in a greenhouse which are growing familiar-looking people inside, and it gets more disturbing from there.

I'm glad that the scenes in the hospital were added to the beginning and ending of the movie, to give the film a little hope, as otherwise it would have been too much of a downer. There are still a lot of bad things which happen which apparently can't be undone, but the mildly optimistic note sounded in the last seconds of the movie was important to me as a viewer; you need that oh-so-slight easing of tension before leaving the theater. If the film had ended with Miles running around the overpass screaming "You're next! You're next!" as originally planned, it would have been memorable, but I don't think I would have liked the film as much.

I also thought the 80-minute running time was just right. Any longer and it would have worn me out! That said, I was impressed with how efficiently the film puts over a fairly complicated story, briskly pulling the viewer into its world.

Although there are some special effects for the pods and the people growing inside them, for the most part the movie's scares are strictly due to a good script, the film's effective tone, and most of all good acting.

The film does a great job setting a a certain mood and look, with its seemingly benign small-town citizens masking something unexpectedly awful. The townspeople congregating in the town square to do Very Bad Things called to mind the same feelings I had reading Shirley Jackson's famous "The Lottery" as a kid. Creepy, creepy!

Similarly, the scene where Miles dashes to Becky's house in his bathrobe in the middle of the night in order to save her, leaving the car running as he runs into her house, effectively evokes the feeling of childhood nightmares. The moment where he can't get her to wake up and finally resorts to carrying her out of the house reminded me of those moments in dreams where you want to run from a threat but are stuck in place...

Like many lower-budget sci-fi films of the era, the lead actors were lesser known at the time of release, but they do an excellent job. Indeed, the single most disturbing moment in the movie is the look on McCarthy's face in reaction to a kiss. No special effects needed.

Dana Wynter reminded me in this just a little bit of Barbara Rush in IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953). Like McCarthy, she had a moment to shine which has stayed with me, when she cries that she doesn't want to turn into a pod person and live in a "perfect," emotionless world, and desperately sobs to Miles "I want to have your children!"

Before the film Alan Rode shared the anecdote that director Don Siegel at one point broke into Wynter's home and hid a pod under her bed. When she found it she was hysterical, and not in a funny way!

Sunday the 25th, as it happens, was the birthday of character actor Whit Bissell, who was born in 1909. In the course of the weekend I saw him as the doctor in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (at the left in this photo, with Richard Deacon) and as the scientist who (barely) survives an attack by the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954). Bissell has a great moment at the end of BODY SNATCHERS reacting to a key piece of information from an ambulance driver; his expression alone gives the audience a small sense of relief.

Bissell's career began with a bit part in THE SEA HAWK (1940) and ended 44 years and over 300 credits later with an episode of FALCON CREST. For me, his most memorable role seen to date was in SHACK OUT ON 101 (1955), an amusing part as he staggers around the film's roadside diner in swim fins!

The fine supporting cast in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS includes Larry Gates, Dabbs Greer, Pat O'Malley, and Bobby Clark.

Like film noir, '50s classic sci-fi tends to make good use of the Greater Los Angeles area. The bridge at the end of the movie is near Barham Boulevard, per Alan Rode. The movie also filmed at the Bronson Caves in Griffith Park. The movie was shot in black and white by Ellsworth Fredericks.

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is out on DVD and Blu-ray. It can also be streamed via Amazon Video, where it's free for Amazon Prime members.


Blogger dfordoom said...

It's a great little movie. The 1970s remake is OK but the 1956 original is better.

6:55 PM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

I'm a great fan of this film. Only yesterday I put the lobby card (a gift from my daughter) on the rec room wall. I have a lobby card rotation system. It's the solution to too many purchases and too little wall.

7:52 PM  
Blogger mel said...

I'm an avid fan of those classic science fiction movies of the 1950s, and this original version of Snatchers is one of my favorites - possibly because of the presence of the indescribably beautiful Dana Wynter. She was a one-off, and doesn't remind me of anyone...

11:28 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

One of the very best of that enjoyable cycle of 50's Sci-Fi films. A breathless ride, to be sure!

12:15 AM  
Blogger Kristina said...

I love this one, and especially enjoy the anti-Groupthink message which applies to all eras, not just the 50s Communist menace fears. I'm a fan of the remake too, like The Thing, both movies had really powerful new versions, but nothing beats the originals. Really looking forward to reading your thoughts on the rest!

5:23 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

This movie definitely has its fans, and deservedly so. Thanks to you all for your comments!

Caftan Woman, I'm right there with you on rotating lobby cards and stills! LOL.

Kristina, the Groupthink message was powerful. I found myself thinking of not only "The Lottery" but Orwell while watching this. For a short sci-fi film it had a lot of substance.

Best wishes,

10:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love this movie. It leaps along,never wasting a second,had me completely gripped from beginning to end.
Let's start a Whit Bissell fan club!

1:43 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'm in, Vienna! :)

I think the action-packed pace is one of the movie's best attributes.

Best wishes,

8:07 PM  

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