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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) -- Blu-ray Review by Porfle

I remember watching INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (Olive Signature, 1956) on TV as a kid and being severely creeped out by it.  It's definitely a sci-fi/horror movie that kids can appreciate--creepy, atmospheric, and featuring some horrific special effects and themes.

Watching it again as an adult (as I have several times), I find the film loses none of its effectiveness and is indeed a wholly adult, mature story that develops its characters well and places them in situations that are relatable while still brimming with elements of horror and even film noir.

Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy, INNERSPACE, SLIPSTREAM) returns to his hometown of Santa Mira, California to find old high school sweetheart Becky (Dana Wynter, THE CRIMSON PIRATE, AIRPORT) back in town after many years.  Now both divorced, their reunion is sweetly romantic with a clear likelihood of growing deeper.

The trouble is, Santa Mira seems to have been hit by an epidemic of people convinced that their loved ones have been replaced by physically exact but emotionally empty duplicates. Miles and Becky are skeptical at first, until friends Jack (King Donovan) and his wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones, "The Addams Family") find a body in their house which appears to be a dormant, half-formed copy of Jack himself.

As the mystery deepens, Miles discovers a duplicate of Becky in her own cellar, placed there by what appears to be her own father.  It quickly becomes clear that the duplicates come to life and take over when the actual person goes to sleep. Trying to convince others of what is happening, they realize that many townspeople including former trusted friends and family have already been replaced.

The film's slow and subtle build-up soon gives way to growing fear as Miles and Becky don't know who to trust or confide in.  It kicks into high gear when they and friends Jack and Teddy discover giant seed pods in Jack's greenhouse which are in the process of manufacturing duplicate bodies for them all, ready to be inhabited when they go to sleep.

Special effects in this scene are flawless, the grotesque pod replicas being the result of full-body and facial casts of the actors, and Siegel stages it with impressive imagination and skill.  It's an iconic sequence that still retains every bit of its original emotional power.

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS then becomes a true cinematic nightmare of hysteria and deep paranoia.  The still-human characters, struggling to stay awake, are forced to flee while almost everyone else in town conspires to stop them.

It's an alien invasion of the most insidious kind, so different from the usual spaceships and death ray stuff of the 50s that it strikes home in ways that make it uniquely unsettling, disturbing, and personal.
Director Don Siegel (DIRTY HARRY, THE SHOOTIST) does some of his absolute best work here, his seemingly simple style yielding consistently effective shots that are deftly staged yet lean and economical.

The camerawork and black-and-white photography and lighting are exquisite, giving the middle third of the film, which takes place at night, the look and feel of the most visually arresting film noir.  Carmen Dragon (father of Daryl Dragon of "Captain and Tennille" fame) offers a highly effective musical score which some think is overpowering at times but I consider a major asset in the film's emotional power.

Siegel's cast is stocked with great actors, with both the leads and supporting players handling their roles with utter conviction.  Familiar character actors include Virginia Christine (THE MUMMY'S CURSE, "Mrs. Olsen" in the old Folger's coffee commercials), Jean Willes, Dabbs Greer, Larry Gates, and even future iconic director Sam Peckinpah.

Miles and Becky's flight from the "pod people" grows more frantic and desperate with each passing minute, culminating in an exhausting chase through the mountains in which the two protagonists are pursued by hundreds of human-looking alien "monsters."  Trying to make it to the main highway, they will endure a final, heartrending nightmare that is still burned into the memories of many viewers over the years.

The original ending by Siegel was abrupt, open-ended, and disheartening.  Test screenings showed it to be either confusing or just too downbeat for the audience, so the studio demanded new scenes to bookend the story. In them, Miles is desperately trying to convince skeptical psychiatrists and police of his wild story before they lock him away for good as a raving lunatic.

Many viewers still bristle at these added scenes, preferring the film to end at its most pessimstic point, and also object to a new voiceover by Miles (imposed by the studio to help clear up various plot points) which they liken to the one in BLADE RUNNER.

Personally, I feel Miles' narration gives his experiences a heightened immediacy and better draw us in to his story.  Likewise, the bookend scenes work very well for me, increasing the urgency of Miles' account and ending with a priceless moment when the truth dawns on the faces of Dr. Bassett (the great Whit Bissell at his powerful best) and "Dick Van Dyke Show" icon Richard Deacon.

Rather than offering a "happy ending" as its detractors insist, this merely sets the stage for what we can imagine will be a long, protracted, and horrific war between the humans and the invaders.

The Blu-ray from Olive Films' "Olive Signature" label (limited to 5,000 units) is a high-def digital restoration that looks better than I've ever seen it before, with a 2.00:1 aspect ratio and mono sound. Optional English subtitles are available.

Extras consist of two audio commentaries, one by film writer/historian Richard Harlan Smith and another with stars Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter and director Joe Dante.  "The Stranger in Your Lover's Eyes" is a two-part visual essay by Siegel, read by his son Kristoffer Tabori.

Featurettes include "The Fear is Real" with filmmakers Larry Cohen and Joe Dante, "I No Longer Belong: The Rise and Fall of Walter Wanger", "Sleep No More: Invasion of the Body Snatchers Revisited" featuring the film's stars and celebrity admirers, a 1985 interview with Kevin McCarthy, a look at the film's locations in the present day, and "What's In a Name?" which explores the origin of the film's title.

There's also a gallery of production documents, an essay by author and film programmer Kier-La Janisse, and the film's original theatrical trailer.

Whatever your age (this film works great for both young and old) or political persuasion (people have been interpreting its metaphorical intent however they choose since it was first released), INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS remains one of the most perfectly realized and enduringly effective horror films of the 50s or any era. 

YEAR: 1956
LANGUAGE: ENGLISH (with optional English subtitles)
VIDEO: 2.00:1 Aspect Ratio; B&W

STREET: 10/16/18
CAT: OS018
UPC: 887090601801
SRP: $39.95 

New High-Definition digital restoration
Audio Commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith
Audio Commentary by actors Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, and filmmaker Joe Dante
“The Stranger in Your Lover’s Eyes” – A two-part visual essay with actor and son of director Don Siegel, Kristoffer Tabori, reading from his father’s book A Siegel Film
“The Fear is Real” – Filmmakers Larry Cohen and Joe Dante on the film’s cultural significance
“I No Longer Belong: The Rise and Fall of Walter Wanger” – Film scholar and author Matthew Bernstein discusses the life and career of the film’s producer
“Sleep No More: Invasion of the Body Snatchers Revisited” – An appreciation of the film featuring actors Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, along with comments from film directors and fans, John Landis, Mick Garris, and Stuart Gordon
“The Fear and the Fiction: The Body Snatchers Phenomenon” – Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, along with film directors John Landis, Mick Garris and Stuart Gordon, discuss the making of the film, its place in history, and its meaning
1985 archival interview with Kevin McCarthy hosted by Tom Hatten
“Return to Santa Mira” – An exploration of the film’s locations
“What’s In a Name?” – On the film’s title
Gallery of rare documents detailing aspects of the film’s production including the never-produced opening narration to have been read by Orson Welles
Essay by author and film programmer Kier-La Janisse
Original theatrical trailer

Buy it from Olive Films


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