Tag Archives: April 2016

50’s Sci-Fi Feature #3 – Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Film1956-InvasionOfTheBodySnatchers-OriginalPosterInvasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Directed by: Don Siegel
Written by: Daniel Mainwaring (based on The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney)
Starring: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones

As previously mentioned in my review of 1954’s Them!, science fiction and horror films of the time were chock full of political and social allegory that resonated with audiences for decades.  Much of this can be credited to the burgeoning Cold War: the imminent threat of nuclear extermination, the ongoing Red Scare, and the subsequent inability of American’s to trust their fellow man.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers is perhaps the most famous and subtle example of this paranoia, creating a hell of a legacy for itself in the process.  The film is based on writer Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, which has been the basis for nearly every remake and re-imagining to be released since 1956.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by cult movie master Don Siegel came out at the perfect time to resonate with audiences who felt they could relate with its subject matter.  It was filmed in just 23 days, and with a budget that had been cut significantly which restricted the use of big name actors that Siegel initially wanted to use.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers starred Golden Globe nominee Kevin McCarthy and television star Dana Wynter, though the Oscar winning Anne Bancroft had been considered by Siegel before the film’s budget slash.  After a re-shoot to lessen the harshness of the film’s original ending and numerous poorly received pre-screenings, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was ready for a successful countrywide release.  Despite being largely ignored by critics upon its original release, the film still managed to earn more than six times its meager budget of slightly over $400,000.  The paranoid adaptation of Jack Finney’s influential novel is now seen as an all-time classic of the science fiction genre, has spawned countless remakes, send-ups, and tributes, and currently sits in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

The film begins with a paranoid and clearly disturbed man being detained in a California hospital.  He introduces himself as a doctor, and begs for the acting doctor to hear out his story.  The doctor in custody begins to tell his story, which leads directly into a feature-length flashback sequence.  We learn the crazed doctor is Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), who we see meeting with multiple patients.  All of Bennell’s patients suffer from “Capgras delusion”, or the belief that a loved one has been replaced by an identical looking impostor.  His former girlfriend Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) has recently returned to town, and she soon finds out that her cousin Wilma fears that her Uncle Ira may also be an impostor.  A psychiatrist Dr. Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates) assures Dr. Bennell that they’re merely experiencing an epidemic of paranoid hysteria.  Later that night, Dr. Bennell’s friend Jack Belicec (King Donovan) discovers an undeveloped body identical to his, and then another is quickly found in Becky’s basement.  Before they can call for help and arrange for more witnesses, the bodies mysteriously (and conveniently) vanish.  Bennell and friends eventually come to the conclusion that the entire town is being replaced with doppelgangers when they fall asleep.  The gang splits up, half to go to the next town over in order to seek help, and Dr. Bennell and Becky seek shelter and avoid falling asleep until backup arrives.  Soon, Bennell and Becky realize that they’re alone in this fight against what they call “pod people”, as even their closest friends and family members succumb to the invaders.  Can humankind prevail against a force they have no idea is coming, or will the invading pod people wipe out humankind, starting with the town of Santa Mira, California?  Find out in Don Siegel’s 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers!

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Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter on the run in Don Siegel’s 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Having seen and loved Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I was incredibly excited coming into Siegel’s original take on the source novel.  While I have to report that I prefer Kaufman’s darker and schlockier take on the story, I’m also happy to say that say that this film is so far the best I’ve seen during my feature on 1950’s sci-fi.  The film has an incredibly tight run-time at just barely over 80 minutes long, and hits every important note needed of an effective thriller without creating unnecessary filler.  The characters and their interactions with each other all have a purpose, and the story clips along at a brilliantly fast pace.  One of the things I appreciated most about Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the setting in the small California town of Santa Mira.  Don Siegel and cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks do an incredible job of mapping out the town, especially its most notable and relevant locations like Becky’s apartment, Dr. Bennell’s office, and the highway leading out of town.  All this mapping and world-building is done in less than 90 minutes, a feat that most science fiction or horror films couldn’t do even with more than two hours at their disposal.  Don Siegel progressively ratchets up the tension as the film chugs along, creating a palpable sense of dread and paranoia.  Not only do our lead characters not know who to trust or where they can seek refuge, but the audience is constantly kept guessing as well.  When you’re not even sure whether or not your two main characters are still human, you can rest assured that the film is doing an incredible job at keeping you on your paranoid, irrational toes.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a genuinely scary film in a lot of ways, because more often than not what you aren’t seeing is infinitely scarier than what you are.  The images of the townspeople slowly being consumed by the pod people swimming through your head as Dr. Bennell and Becky struggle to stay awake and alive are undeniable, and help the film to feel highly effective.  Along with incredible atmosphere and world-building, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a very well acted film considering its lack of major star power and budget.  Kevin McCarthy shows us that he can flip the proverbial switch and play both crazed and paranoid in one moment, and a strong, confident leader in others.  Dana Wynter’s Becky is very competently played as well, but she doesn’t get nearly as much important screen-time as McCarthy does.  Supporting our lead players is a tremendous script, never wasting a moment of precious screen-time as previously mentioned.  The paranoia of McCarthyism and the fears of imminent Red invasion are weaved into subtle allegory that never overpowers, but is also very clearly there to anybody looking for it.  I can’t imagine growing up in an era where North American’s could not trust anybody they don’t directly know, but this film gives a great (if exaggerated) sense of what it must have been like for some.

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Dr. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) taking it to a potential pod person in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

In short, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a masterpiece of classic horror and science fiction.  Tight direction, a terrific script with little exposition, good lead performances, and an undeniable sense of dread, paranoia, and fear help to make an experience that goes mostly unmatched all these years later.  Don Siegel’s film may have been topped by later efforts, but the film stands as a fantastic example of anti-McCarthyist art that will and should be analyzed for years to come.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers gets my highest recommendation for all sci-fi or horror fans.

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #1 – The War of the Worlds (1953)

Film1953-TheWarOfTheWorlds-OriginalPosterThe War of the Worlds (1953)
Directed by: Byron Haskin
Written by: Barre Lyndon (based on The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells)
Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Bob Cornthwaite, Lewis Martin, Sir Cedric Hardwicke

H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is one of the most famous science fiction stories of all-time, largely in part to how many times the story has been adapted and improved upon.  The classic novel led to Orson Welles’ infamous panic-inducing radio drama, which would originally lead to a big screen adaptation of the novel, and that film led to countless remakes.  The original film version differs greatly from the novel, mainly by setting it in modern America, rather than the Victorian England setting of the Wells story.  The film instead takes place after the first two World Wars, which saw humans banding together to defeat a common enemy, a theme that becomes important in the film version.  The War of the Worlds was directed by former special effects artist Byron Haskin, and it would go on to be the biggest success of his long career.  Haskin teamed up with his friend and producer George Pal, making it one of the many successful projects the two underwent together.  The special effects experience and knowledge held by the film’s director would lead to an Academy Award win for Best Visual Effects, and would cement the film’s legacy as a special effects marvel.  The film stars Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, both of whom had successful careers as television actors, and would both later appear in cameo roles in Steven Spielberg’s modern take on the story.  The War of the Worlds was a massive financial success, becoming the highest grossing sci-fi film of 1953, and spawning a great deal of imitators in the years to follow.  The tremendous success and influence of the original film has been mostly overshadowed by Steven Spielberg’s highly successful (and arguably much better) 2005 reimagining of the story.  Today, Byron Haksin’s The War of the Worlds sits in the National Film Registry, and is looked back upon fondly by historians for pushing the boundaries of the genre.

The War of the Worlds begins with a montage of Earth’s first two World Wars, with a narrator remarking how much technology has rapidly advanced throughout these decades.  The narrator then gives us a quick explanation of the harsh conditions on Mars, and explains the motivations for its inhabitants wanting to scout the planet Earth for eventual relocation of the remaining Martians.  We meet a scientist named Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), just as a large meteor-like object is touching down on Earth.  Dr. Forrester and his troupe go to investigate the crash site, where he meets Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson) and others.  Later that evening, after most of the crowd has called it a day, the “meteor” opens up and the inhabitants found within kill all those in the area of impact.  All technology in the town is disabled by the invading Martians after an EMP is set off, causing the United States military to investigate the invaders.  Reports from all around the world are soon received with similar stories, meaning that the invaders are here to conquer.  After an attempted peace offering, the Martians destroy the military’s best with little effort and move on to the next town.  Dr. Forrester and Sylvia take shelter in an old farmhouse, where the two fall in love.  After a close encounter with the invaders, the two manage to steal a sample of alien DNA and escape to the relative safety of Dr. Forrester’s Pacific Tech.  When they are, the doctor, Sylvia, and their fellow survivors and military officials begin to develop weapons of mass destruction in order to take down the seemingly indestructible Martian ships.  Can humankind overcome the impossible odds stacked against them, or will the Martian invaders squash human beings from existence?  Find out in the iconic 1953 film The War of the Worlds!

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Ann Robinson and Gene Barry, stars of The War of the Worlds.

I was thirteen when I saw Steven Spielberg’s epic reimagining of The War of the Worlds, and it instantly became one of my favorite films as an adolescent. While I don’t look back on it with the same fondness I once did, the film inspired me to read H.G. Wells’ terrific novel, and launched my love for all things science fiction.  It took me a decade to finally get around to seeing the original film, and I can definitely see why 1953’s The War of the Worlds was so influential on the genre.  While I can’t say that I’m in love with the film by any means, I also can’t deny the fact that this is a very fun, very fast moving action sci-fi flick.  Its groundbreaking use of special effects haven’t aged well, but they’re still incredibly charming today in all of their faults.  The heat ray weapon used by the Martians is still really effective, even if the actual effect looks completely silly with actors just kind of disappearing.  The effect used in Spielberg’s film where those affected by the weapon “disintegrate” into dust doesn’t look great today either, so it’s clearly a case of the effect being hard to realize visually.  Despite the charming goofiness of the heat rays and the actual snake-like alien ships, the design of the aliens themselves is quite creepy and definitely adds to their presence.  Of course, it helps that we very rarely see the creatures through the film’s last half, adding to the uneasiness felt by their presence.  Aside from some obviously dated effects, The War of the Worlds features consistently flat and unremarkable direction from Byron Haskin.  While the Martians feel like a threat throughout, it has almost nothing to do with Haskin’s steady and lazy direction.  Haskin’s direction doesn’t do much to detract from the overall film, but it does absolutely nothing to add to it.  The direction brings the film down from what could have been incredible heights, making it instead feel like what it is: a pretty good science fiction film that was ahead of its time in terms of visual effects.  On top of unremarkable direction, the lead performances in The War of the Worlds are nothing to write home about.  Both Gene Barry and Ann Robinson do an admirable job of being likeable protagonists, but they never quite go into the territory that Spielberg brought Tom Cruise’s multi-layered loser father character to.  While this isn’t exactly a quiet character study, the lack of any sort of depth or development certainly doesn’t help the film’s case.  Luckily for science fiction fans, The War of the Worlds still feels significant because of its ridiculously fast pacing.  It never pauses for too long, never focuses on insignificant side stories or characters, but instead gives it to us straight.  At the end of the day, isn’t that what everybody wants from a cheesy, fun sci-fi flick?

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The iconic Martian spaceship design from 1953’s The War of the Worlds.

Overall, The War of the Worlds isn’t a great film.  I’m not even completely convinced that it’s a really good film, to be honest.  What we have here though is an incredibly charming and fun (albeit goofy) thrill ride.  While the special effects may seem dated to most today, they do the trick in getting the audience engaged enough to buy into the fantastic story at hand.  The direction and acting may be completely ordinary, but that doesn’t hinder The War of the Worlds the same way it would completely destroy most films.  If you want a fun piece of American history to digest after something with a little more weight like Spielberg’s 2005 film, this might be your ticket.  It may not wow you like it did for audiences in 1953, but it’s a hell of a good time.  The War of the Worlds is cautiously recommended.

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