Fuelled by paranoia and dripping with low-key terror, Invasion of the Body Snatchers put the fear of pod into audiences across the world.
Based on Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers (serialised in Collier’s magazine in 1954), the movie was filmed on a shoestring B-movie budget (and a 20-day shooting schedule), but the results were strictly A-grade.
A prologue sets the tone as seemingly mad Dr Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) races across a San Francisco highway, trying to warn the passing cars about some threat.
Taken to a hospital, Miles tells his terrible tale in flashback: The young doctor returns to his small-town home of Santa Mira, California, to find several patients complaining that their loved ones haven’t been acting like themselves lately.
Miles is curious, but he’s distracted by the presence of ex-girlfriend Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), who’s back in town after a divorce. As Miles tries to woo Becky, he begins investigating the source of this strange condition in town.
One night, over dinner with friends Jack (King Donovan) and Teddy (Carolyn Jones) Belicec, Miles and Becky discover that the source of their trouble is the sudden appearance of several large, plant-like pods.
As the pods grow, they take the form of their intended human victims, then replace them with soulless, emotionless replicas. Since the pod people look just like their victims, there’s no way of knowing who’s on the side of humanity, but it soon becomes clear that in Santa Mira at least, the pods are firmly in control.
Since the mystery of the pods was never fully explained in the film, scholars and film buffs have read a variety of meanings into the film, treating it as an allegory on everything from Communism to McCarthyism.
Regardless of deeper meanings, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was armrest-gripping entertainment.
Released with little fanfare, the movie became a sizeable hit, and its legend only grew over the ensuing years. “Pod people” entered the national language, as critics and audiences alike kept returning to the film in re-releases and on television.
A 1979 re-release removed both the prologue and an epilogue that had been added at the studio’s urging, but both the original version and the director’s cut remained in circulation.
In 1978, a new Invasion Of The Body Snatchers was released, starring Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright and Leonard Nimoy. Neither sequel nor remake, the new film took place in San Francisco, where the pod invasion began around the same time as Santa Mira’s infestation.
A third version, Body Snatchers, arrived in 1993, again transposing the location. Now set on a military base, the film followed a similar, pod-based story.
The two later versions caused their share of nightmares, but the social climate had changed since 1956.
The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers remains a classic example of Cold War-era paranoia, a favourite both of film scholars and those who just like a good scare before bedtime.
Dr Miles J. Bennell
Dr Dan Kauffman
Theodora ‘Teddy’ Belicec
Officer Nick Miller
Uncle Ira Lentz
Officer Sam Janzek
Dr Ed Pursey
Dr Harvey Bassett