Welcome to a weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film considered to be essential to the cinema’s golden age. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
The 1950s were a period of turmoil and paranoia throughout America. The Cold War was on as military and political tension grew between the United States and the Soviet Union. The threat of a nuclear war loomed large, and many believed it could occur at any moment. In 1955, the Warsaw Pact (also known as “The Treaty of Friendship”) was signed between eight across Central and Eastern Europe. Led by the USSR, the treaty acted as a pact between the countries, primarily giving the USSR control over military forces across the region. Americans feared the nuclear war was on their doorstep, soon to come.
At the same time, the red scare was also extending to Hollywood. Senator Joseph McCarthy led the anti-communist pursuit stateside as head of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). McCarthy accused thousands of Americans of being Communists or Communist sympathizers throughout the early 1950s. Many of those accused included actors, writers, producers, and more working in the film industry. Just one indictment could lead those in Hollywood to be blacklisted, a move that ended careers early or made it impossible to find work.
McCarthy-era Red Scare Propaganda Poster (Credit: weburbanist.com)
Often, accusers had no concrete evidence to support that the accused were in fact part of the Communist Party. McCarthyism reached a feverish pitch by the mid-50s, those involved in the entertainment industry lived in fear of being called before the HUAC for investigation. America not only feared those abroad, it lived in constant terror of the monsters it had created itself.
Based on the novel by Jack Finney, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a science-fiction classic. The movie chronicles an alien invasion that takes over a small California town called Santa Mira. Alien spores have fallen to Earth that grow and eventually become giant seed pods. These pods are capable of growing duplicates that look exactly like human beings. As the town sleeps, the duplicates assimilate and develop the characteristics, personalities, and memories of those they are to replace. Dr. Miles Hill (played by Kevin McCarthy), a doctor with a practice in town, uncovers the invasion and seeks to stop it with the help of his former girlfriend Becky Driscoll (played by Dana Wynter).
Although not intended as an allegory for the red scare paranoia in the 1950s, Invasion of the Body Snatchers perfectly as one. The “pod people” in the movie could be anyone – with no way of knowing who was good and who had turned. A very simple premise, but it was terrifyingly effective in a time where Americans wondered if their neighbors next door were not who they said they were. The film made more than $1 million in the first month of release, clearly striking a chord with moviegoers across the country.
One of the pod people taking on the look of humans. (Credit: Tumblr.)
Made on a modest budget, Invasion of the Body Snatchers succeeds at appealing to a wide audience. The movie touches upon basic human fears: the loss of identity, emotion, distrust, and forced conformity. By setting the story in a small-town, director Don Siegel gives the film a familiar look. Siegel ratchets up the tension and paranoia without spilling one drop of blood on scene. The audiences own anxieties and fears make these creatures scary, not the pods themselves. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an early example of how to create a motion-picture that is terrifyingly real, without resorting to over the top violence. The only thing we have to fear as the movie might suggest, is ourselves.
The original theatrical cut ended with Dr. Hill screaming while on the bridge. Fearing the film ended on such a pessimistic note, the studio mandated that a new beginning and epilogue be shot. These framed the main story (now told as a flashback) and gave viewers a more hopeful ending.
The film was remade in 1978, relocating the story from a small town to San Francisco. Kevin McCarthy makes a cameo appearance in the opening scenes of the movie.
During Invasion of the Body Snatchers‘ original theatrical release, papier-mâché pods were put out on display in movie theater lobbies. In addition, black-and-white cutouts of Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter running away (as seen on the film’s poster) were displayed as well.
In the original novel, the aliens give up on their plot to takeover the Earth and instead give up and go home.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is available to stream on Amazon Instant Video.
What’s your favorite classic sci-fi movie? What other classic films would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!
Michelle Buchman is the social media manager at Nerdist Industries. She’s also a huge cinephile. Feel free to follow and chat movies with her on Twitter, @michelledeidre.