With President Bush slowly populating the Supreme Court with his own ideological clones, its the perfect time to revisit director Don Siegels seminal sci-fi classic. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers may be just shy of its 50th birthday, but the ever-adaptable allegory at the heart of this on-the-cheap B-masterpiece remains as potent as ever. Whether you choose to read it as a better dead than red cautionary tale, a seething indictment of the McCarthy era or an all-purpose cry against conformity, theres enough subtext here to fuel a grad semester in film theory. Its like an episode of The Twilight Zone written by Kafka and its still creepy as hell.
What really sets this movie apart from the legions of clumsy 50s drive-in flicks that ended up on Mystery Science Theater 3000 is its blunt, almost primal simplicity, combined with a low-budget technical skill that was, at the time, unseen in the genre. Adapting Jack Finneys tale of pod people bent on human destruction or rather, replication Siegel and screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring strip the story down to the essential elements: the seething mistrust that sweeps across a small Southern California town, the breakdowns of family members distraught over their suddenly lobotomized relatives, and the breathless, sleepless foot-chase two lovebirds embark upon to avoid the encroaching throngs of replicants.
One by one, Siegel sets up an array of increasingly freaky images, without ever resorting to cheesy-looking special effects (no Ed Wood-style flaming paper plates here). Theres the wild-eyed spectacle of the previously mild-mannered doctor Miles (Kevin McCarthy) repeatedly plunging a pitchfork into his girlfriends alien look-alike. Or maybe its the chilling, birds-eye view of a once-bustling town now spilling over with automatons. Even the foam-oozing pods that hatch all over basements and backyards are crafted and shot to appear believably, sickly mysterious. And no matter what you think the drones represent, its hard to argue with the scene where Miles looks deep into the camera lens and shrieks, Youre next!
Even those just looking to satisfy their fetish for Eisenhower-era living will have a field day: There are enough unfiltered cigarettes and neat tumblers of bourbon to supply a lounge singers convention. Sure, theres a smattering of campy lines, including the classic admission I didnt know the meaning of fear until I kissed Becky. But since so much of Invasion of the Body Snatchers remains chillingly applicable, part of the fun is dreaming up associations the filmmakers never couldve predicted. Just try to hear the line Theres no emotion, none just the pretense of it! and not think of our fearless leader.
Showing at the Redford Theatre (17360 Lahser Rd., Detroit; 313-537-2560).
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.