My parents moved from Whippany to Mendham NJ in the summer of 1959 when I was 6. For my mom this was a move back to Mendham where she had grown up. While the coincidence of the move with the turning of the decade was not perfect it was close. So, when I recall the 1950s I think of very young childhood and Whippany while the 1960s mean boyhood, tween, teen, and Mendham. I was already a scifi fan at the time of the move. I credit Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Now that I think about it, it is somewhat surprising my parents let me watch something with that title at that age.
I recall watching only a few scifi movies during the 50s. That’s not to say I didn’t see more, but I don’t remember them. They were 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Invaders from Mars, Godzilla, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Mysterians. The first and last of those were at drive-ins (20,000 Leagues under the Sea must have been a re-release) and the middle three were on television. While I liked them all – and still do for that matter, though nowadays just for laughs in the case of The Mysterians – the least assuming of the bunch with the lowest budget had the biggest impact on me. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was filmed in only 23 days. The only special effects that weren’t off-the-shelf were the big alien plant pods. I watched this for the first time at night with my sister. It scared the hell out of me and I loved every minute of it. I’ve enjoyed it on each subsequent view as well, including last night when it unexpectedly turned up on cable.
The movie has been remade several times – on at least one occasion with flair and merit – but I still like the original the best. Naturally at age 5 or 6 (whichever it was) I didn’t have a very sophisticated take on the movie. The whole “Run! They’re going to get you!” element was enough. As I got older, recognizing the theme of the value of individuality amid conformist groupthink only made the viewing more enjoyable. It is sometimes said that this movie is Cold War propaganda. It is not. The movie does not target followers of any particular ideology: it targets mindless conformism of any kind. Groupthink occurs across the political spectrum and in all sorts of ways far beyond politics. There is emotional comfort in swallowing one prepackaged wisdom or another: to emphasize one set of facts and dismiss another set according to an accepted pattern while sycophantically exalting the appropriate heroes and vilifying the appropriate enemies. It is calming – at least for oneself. Said director Don Siegel, “I think that the world is populated by pods and I wanted to show them…There's regimentation, a lack of having to make up your mind, face decisions.... People are becoming vegetables. I don't know what the answer is except an awareness of it.” The message is every bit as contemporary as it was 60 years ago.
In the unlikely event the reader hasn’t seen this movie or one of the remakes, the plot is that big seed pods, presumably from space, have fallen on Santa Mira, a fictional California town though a dozen later scifi/horror films also were set there. Inside the pods grow copies of the town’s residents. When the real person falls asleep his or her consciousness transfers to the pod person who wakes up and disposes of the original. The pod people lack individuality and heart. They spread around more pods to expand their numbers and they actively try to destroy anyone who gets in the way.
*Spoiler alert.* The original script ended when Miles (Kevin McCarthy) discovers a truck full of pods on the highway, realizes it is already too late, and shouts to passing drivers, “You’re next!” This was a little too bleak for the studio which insisted on a prologue and epilogue that offered some hope. For once, studio interference probably helped. A happy ending would have been unsatisfying, but one in which there is at least a fighting chance works better, I think, than simple despair.
Perhaps I would have become an avid reader, viewer, and sometimes writer of scifi without this movie. But it surely influenced my sense of what constituted good scifi. Seeing it again last night was not just a nostalgia trip. Showing once again the primacy of script over fx, the movie is still scary.
I was pleased to get a chance to shake Kevin McCarthy’s hand at a Chiller Theater convention the year before he died. I didn’t tell him then how much his 1956 film had influenced me, but I suspect he knew. I doubt anyone at that convention sought him out because of his appearance on Murder, She Wrote. On the other hand his off-Broadway role in Happy Birthday Wanda June was also memorable, but that is perhaps a subject for another blog.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers – greenhouse scene