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This eerie classic sci-fi drama is based on a Jack Finney story that first appeared in Colliers Magazine in 1954. The short story met with such success that it was rendered into a novel the following year under the title The Body Snatchers, which is on TCM tonight at 9:30 PM (3/31). In 1956, the novel was turned into a film that has gained a cult following. Some see Invasion of the Body Snatchers as an indictment of the McCarthy hearings. Others view it as a parable about the insidious growth of nameless and faceless communism and the rejection of individualism. You just never know who might be a pinko Communist! Your next-door neighbor? The police chief? The school teacher? Even your mother and father! They look like you and me, but there's just something different about them inside. Finney saw the story as nothing more than a scary yarn. So he says.
The movie begins with Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) trying to convince officials in a neighboring town that something insidious is happening in Santa Mira, California. (The prologue and epilogue were not in the original shooting of the film and were not approved by Finney. The book's ending is ambiguous.) One by one people are being replaced by pods that grow exact duplicates of their host, but with one exception. The soul is missing. While the replicate looks like the original in every physical detail, there is a hollowness in the personality. This might be the real meaning behind Finney's story. Famous sci-fi writer Dean Koontz makes a striking observation about a more enduring theme:
When modern men and women lost religious faith, they lost the associated belief that human beings are special, that we were created with purpose to undertake a life with meaning. Science, technology, and politics have not yet filled that void and probably never will be able to do so, especially not if they continue to be powered by ideologies that have thus far informed them. If we believe that we are just animals, without immortal souls, we are already but one step removed from pod people.
If the pods, never identified as to their origin, continue their insidious replication, the people of earth will be no more. The story is told in flashback. Dr. Bennell is the only one to escape from the original invasion site. His story is too fantastic to be believed. At first, he is thought to be psychotic. He must get them to listen before it's too late. After calming down, Bennell tells his story: "It started‑for me, it started‑last Thursday, in response to an urgent message from my nurse, I hurried home from a medical convention I'd been attending. At first glance, everything looked the same. It wasn't. Something evil had taken possession of the town."
Dr. Bennell is met at the train station by his nurse. She tells him that his office is filled with patients. But when he arrives at his office, only a few of his patients have appeared for their appointments. As quickly as the epidemic appears, it just as quickly disappears. Miles does hear reports of friends and family members being "distant." They're just not themselves. He gets a firsthand account of events when he is visited by a friend, now recently divorced, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter). Becky tells him that her cousin is suffering from strange delusions that her Uncle Ira is an imposter. "You know her uncle, Uncle Ira?. . . Well Miles, she's got herself thinking he isn't her uncle. She thinks he's an imposter or something." He continues to hear similar tales from the townfolk. The next day, these same people dismiss their earlier panic. Seemingly, all is well. A psychiatrist friend whom Miles and Becky meet at a restaurant proposes that the whole thing can be explained as a strange kind of neurosis. An epidemic of mass hysteria. From this point in the movie, you're not sure who's who.
Their dinner is interrupted by a call from friend Jack Belicec (King Donovan) who asks Miles to come over. Miles and Becky are greeted by what appears to be corpse with smooth and unfinished features, like a slime‑drenched mannequin. The figure seems to be about Jack's size and weight. Miles asks Jack and his wife Theodora (Carolyn Jones) that they keep an eye on the form and call him if anything happens.
I don't want to give away the rest of the story. While the 1978 sequel relies on some violence and gore, the original depends on good writing, a gripping story, and just enough suspense to make you feel uneasy. Who's the next pod person? Little children should not watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They won't be able to sleep at night thinking that you've put a replacement pod under their bed.
Dean Koontz, Introduction, "These Immigrants Don't Need No Stinkin' Green Cards!," in Kevin McCarthy and Ed Gorman, eds., "They're Here. . .": Invasion of the Body Snatchers-A Tribute (New York: Berkley Books, 1999), ix.