Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: Oct 16, 2018
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) (Blu-ray Review)

Director

Don Siegel

Release Date(s)

1956 (October 14, 2018)

Studio(s)

Allied Artists Pictures (Olive Films Signature Edition)
  • Film/Program Grade: A
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: A+

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Blu-ray Disc)

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Review

The 1950s witnessed a boom in science fiction movies. Many featured giant insects, dinosaurs, outer space creatures or radiation gone wrong. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was different. It dealt with alien invasion, but an insidious form. No rocket ships, ray guns, war machines or flying saucers were involved. The invasion was quiet. Seeds from space took hold in fields and grew into pods that had the ability to take over human bodies, robbing them of emotion. Released as a modest programmer in 1956, the film has over the years achieved the status of science fiction classic.

Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns to the small town of Santa Mira to discover that several of his patients are suffering from the paranoid delusion that their relatives or friends are not themselves. Initially skeptical, Bennell is eventually persuaded that something odd has happened and determines to find out what’s causing the phenomenon.

Bennell learns that Becky Driscoll (Dana Winter), recently divorced, is also back in town. Bennell, also divorced, and Becky are attracted to each other. Meanwhile, a series of events in town escalates, revealing a sinister plot intended to subvert and take over mankind. Pods have been placed in homes to inhabit the bodies of humans when they sleep. Bennell and Becky attempt to foil the plot, but encounter one obstacle after another as they are singled out by a growing number of “pod people.”

Shot on a budget of $380,000, Invasion of the Body Snatchers has stood the test of time because it plays so realistically, with Bennell discovering what’s happening, and trying to digest it as we learn with him. He acts intelligently, never falling into clichéd thriller behaviors of doing dumb things simply to create scare moments. His desperation increases when he sees how widespread the plan is.

McCarthy is a first-rate actor who sells his role beautifully. He plays it straight, building his performance from mild interest to resigned determination to stop this new kind of plague. A stage-trained actor who usually was assigned secondary leads in films, McCarthy had his first starring role in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The movie resonates because its theme of individualism vs. conformity is timeless. Back in the Eisenhower era, blending in and becoming part of the community was regarded as something to aspire to. Suburban homes looked alike, cars looked alike, and family’s took on a homogeneous appearance. The film has often been viewed as a metaphor for communism or even as a commentary on McCarthyism. Director Don Siegel said he thought it was about insomnia, since he was an insomniac. You can look at the subtext of the movie in many ways, but it holds up as one of the best science fiction movies of all time, even though it was ignored by critics during its original run. It was remade twice, once in 1978 and again in 1993.

The Blu-ray black & white release is presented in the short-lived widescreen Superscope aspect ratio of 2.00:1. This high-definition digital restoration contains deep, rich blacks and clear gradations of greys. This is especially apparent in a basement scene when Miles searches in Becky’s basement. Miles lights a series of matches, which creates creepy shadows and builds suspense. Day scenes are bright, and night scenes maintain detail. Overall details are impressive, such as dirt on Miles’ face in chase scenes, the veins in the pods, and the print design on Becky’s dress. The film has a mono soundtrack. Optional English subtitles are available.

Bonus Features:

The Fear Is Real – Filmmakers Joe Dante and Larry Cohen provide general background on the film, noting its source as The Body Snatcher by Jack Finney, and briefly discuss producer Walter Wanger and the two lead actors. They note that the concept of pod people was completely new, and the film endures because “something speaks to us.”

I No Longer Belong – This profile of Walter Wanger by film scholar Matthew Bernstein traces the producer's career from running the Dartmouth College theatre company, assisting Jesse L. Lasky at Paramount Pictures, and rising to become an executive at the company. He believed that “movies could be a force for social good.” Bernstein spends a good deal of time relating a shooting incident that landed Wanger in jail. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was one of the films he made to rebuild his career. He went on to produce both I Want to Live (1958) and his last picture, Cleopatra (1963), starring Elizabeth Taylor.

Sleep No More: Invasion of the Body Snatchers Revisited – Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, director John Landis and others discuss the genesis of the movie, from its three-part series in Colliers magazine in 1954. Don Siegel is credited with making a reality-based film. Leading men who were considered included Charlton Heston, Robert Ryan, and Joseph Cotten, but Siegel wanted McCarthy. Dialogue director Sam Peckinpah, who would years later director The Wild Bunch, appears in a small role as the gas man. The construction of the pods and the partially formed bodies is discussed. Because preview screening audiences regarded the original ending as too bleak, Wanger ordered an epilogue written and filmed, requiring McCarthy to return to Los Angeles six months later.

The Fear and the Fiction – This featurette addresses the phenomenon of the movie and how the time period in which it was made led to different interpretations. McCarthy, Wynter, John Landis and others give their opinions.

Kevin McCarthy Interview – This 1985 interview covers the actor’s career in live TV and theatre in New York, the “gooey business” of creating the partially formed humans bursting from the pods, and the movie’s theme of depersonalization.

What’s in a Name? – The studio didn’t want to use the original title because they thought it would be confused by the public with the 1945 Boris Karloff thriller The Body Snatcher. Many titles were suggested, including Sleep No More, They Came From Another World, Evil in the Night, Better Off Dead, and A World in Danger.

The Stranger in Your Lover’s Eyes – Kristoffer Tabori, son of Don Siegel, reads from A Siegel Film: An Autobiography, and adds his own thoughts about his parents and the enduring power of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Return to Santa Mira – This is a look at the locations used in the film: the town square, homes, alley, cave, overpass, etc. in and near the town of Sierra Madre.

Other bonus features include audio commentary by historian Richard Harland Smith; audio commentary by actors Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter and filmmaker Joe Dante; gallery of documents detailing aspects of the film’s production; original theatrical trailer; and an 8-page booklet containing a synopsis and essay with black & white stills.

- Dennis Seuling

[Editor’s Note: It must be noted that half of these extras were created for a 2006 50th anniversary edition that was never released, by producer Scott Devine (with J.M. Kenny and Jason Hillhouse). These include an audio commentary with actors Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter moderated by Joe Dante, retrospective featurettes (in SD but 16x9), an essay, and more. Among those interviewed were John Landis, Mick Garris, McCarthy, Wynter, Bob Burns, and Stuart Gordon. After languishing in limbo for more than a decade, they’ve all been resurrected from the vault and cleared for use by Olive Films and new producer Elijah Drenner, and combined with newly-produced content made by Drenner (with Gillian Horvat). The new material includes another audio commentary with film historian Richard Harland Smith, several new featurettes (in full HD), another essay, the film’s trailer, and a gallery full of rare archival documents on the film’s production found in the vaults of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. Among those interviewed in the new material are Kristoffer Tabori (the son of the film’s director), Larry Cohen, Dante, and Matthew Bernstein. The result is one of the most comprehensive and satisfying special edition experiences in a good long while, particularly for a film of this vintage. The release is absolutely superb. If you’re prioritizing your Halloween Blu-ray shopping list, Olive’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers ranks right alongside the new Universal Classic Monsters: 30-Film Collection box set as absolute must-have for cinephiles and special edition fans. Miss it at your peril. - Bill Hunt]

 

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