‘Uncle Ira isn’t Uncle Ira…’ Somewhere along the line, this critic has learned to stop worrying about remakes and just love the cyclical nature of film; Don Siegel’s 1956 classic spawned two great remakes, in 1978 and 1993, and one dud one (in 2007). Ignoring the fourth one, each film has something meaningful to say and about the social and political world of the time, and manages to be far more than a horror/sci-fi movie. So I’d be happy to see this film remade every year; whatever your political, religious or sexual persuasion, there’s always opportunities here to dress up your commentary in the trappings of low-budget sci-fi.
So send in the aliens, or rather, don’t bother, they’re already here. Dr Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns to his community in Santa Mira, California, to find lots of patients who seem to be losing their minds; they suspect friends, relatives, even immediate family like Uncle Ira to have somehow changed, and seek the doctor’s advice. “An epidemic of mass hysteria,’ one character diagnoses, ’caused by worry about all the troubles of the world.’ Even more strangely, these same patients soon change their minds, laughing off their previous state of paranoia and assuring the good doctor that all is well. But all is not well, and the discovery of giant alien pods, used to gestate human duplicates, sends Bennell and his girlfriend Becky (Dana Wynter) on a breakneck escape from the faceless hoards of Santa Mira, for whom all resistance is futile…
Each film offers a slightly different variation on the lore featured in Jack Finney’s original story; in this version, it’s notable that the aliens take human form perfectly, not just looking identical, but also capturing every memory in their minds, making them indistinguishable from humans. The only way that Miles can tell them apart is when the aliens demonstrate their objective otherness; not responding to a tragedy or joke because they lack the ability to understand or create inferences. Some have considered Siegel’s film to be about McCarthyism, but that comparison only goes so far. The aliens are good citizens, mow their lawns, smile and wave; if anything, Santa Mira is better off for their presence, and a lifestyle with ‘no more tears’ sounds attractive enough. But the invaders lack personality and character, and that’s what gives them away. The creatures aren’t communists, capitalists or political in any way; they are bland automatons, consumer slaves, and adhere to a hive mentality; replacing a live musical band with a jukebox is their brand of progress.
A wrap-around opening and closing sequence were forced on Siegel to create an upbeat ending, one which is completely at-odds with the films general pessimism and paranoia. More chilling scenes see Miles and Becky watch from a window as their community as “people I’ve known all my life’ line up in the village square fulfillment centre; if anything seems to be satirised here, it’s the war effort from the previous decade, and the idea of the individual working together on goals set by the government. Individuality, whether Republican, Democrat or otherwise, is the commodity that is in increasingly short supply here, and those who stand up for themselves are those most likely to be crushed. Looking sharp in this new restored print, Invasion of the Body Snatchers belies a 50’s B movie title to be the horror movie for the thinking person. While the story is solid enough to bear all manner of re-interpretation, it’s also cleverly constructed to mean almost anything to everyone, and that’s why the 1956 Invasion is a classic of imaginative cinema.
This timely BFI reissue comes complete with a variety of extras, including a feature length audio of Siegel in conversation with Barry Norman, a visual guide to Santa Mira, past and present, and several informative films about the film’s making and influence. It’s a great blu-ray package which should remind us all that cinema has a key role to play in exploring our social anxieties; the rising terror of the nightmare depicted here is very much in tune with 2021’s on-going state of fear and manufactured loathing between previously trusting neighbours. Uncle Ira might be a conspiracy theorist today, but who are the aliens amongst us?
Released on Blu-ray in the UK just in time for Halloween, from 25 October 2021.
Thanks to the BFI for blu-ray access to this title.