Don Siegel's timeless classic of paranoid sci-fi

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Invasion Of The Body Snatchers

[b]Don Siegel[/b] has acquired neither a fanatical cult following nor the iconic status of his most famous protégés, [b]Sam Peckinpah[/b] and [b]Clint Eastwood[/b]. And yet, he still continues to exert influence today. [b]Jodie Foster[/b]’s vigilante drama The Brave One plays like a Dirty Harry revenge movie, while The Invasion, starring [b]Nicole Kidman[/b], makes the third official remake of his 1955 sci-fi classic – and that’s not counting the slew of films it unofficially “inspired,” from Quatermass 2 (1957) to The Faculty (1998).

Adapted from Jack Finney’s novella The Body Snatchers, this is set in a sunny American small-town, where local doctor Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is bemused by the string of patients coming to see him claiming their relatives are not, in fact, their relatives. A hysterical little boy swears his mother is not his mother; a young woman feels sudden distance from her uncle. Each complaint is the same: they look the same, but “…there’s something *missing*.”

Bennell prescribes sedatives, mutters “mass hysteria,” but he’s nagged by the feeling something else is going on. Then his friends Jack and Theodora call him to their house to share an eerie discovery: lying there on their billiard table, a blank, half-formed figure, slowly growing to resemble Jack. In the garden, they find huge alien seedpods, splitting open to reveal incomplete replicas of them all.

Crafting a Blue Velvet-ish sense of the weird behind neat picket fences, Siegel has built slowly, but now the brakes are off. Bennell, losing his friends one by one, works out the invaders can only take over when their human models are asleep. Soon everyone in town (including a young Peckinpah) has been replaced. They look, sound, even remember the same way – but lack emotion, passion, soul. Finally only Bennell and his girlfriend are left, gobbling amphetamines to stay awake, and watching in horror as colonised townsfolk begin loading trucks with pods destined to spread their invisible invasion nationwide.

Released as the Cold War was beginning to freeze, Siegel’s movie has been decried as a typical Red Menace flick. But its nightmarish picture of square, bland suburbanites happily surrendering individuality is equally plausible as a comment on the witch-hunt climate and consumerist ideals that brainwashed the American ’50s. Siegel was adept at such straight-faced ambiguity; years later, critics couldn’t decide whether Dirty Harry was a fascist fantasy, or a warning.

It’s a measure of his accomplishment that this film, shot in an astonishing 19 days, manages to survive severe studio interference. Panicked by his stark non-ending – a rabid, deranged McCarthy, running through highway traffic screaming, “They’re HERE!!!” – the producers insisted on inserting a placatory prologue and epilogue, showing the authorities springing into action.

In ’60s America, underground cinemas made a ritual of showing the movie with the studio bookends chopped out and in 1978, Philip Kaufman, directing the first remake, ignored them all together, beginning where Siegel ended: McCarthy, in a cameo, still screaming in the traffic. Kaufman’s chill movie took Siegel’s lead, using the story to comment on his times, describing an America turning from social awareness and activism toward passive self-absorption. In 1993, for his underrated update, Bodysnatchers, Abel Ferrara continued the tradition, transferring the action to a US military base for a film that questioned the blind nationalism whipped up around Gulf War I.

For all their merits, however, no remake has matched Siegel’s original. A concise but ambiguous masterpiece of paranoia, its sharp, haunting brilliance grows clearer with the appearance of each subsequent replicant. What the big-budget Kidman version has to tell us about today remains to be seen. Perhaps that the pod-people are now making movies?

EXTRAS: A missed opportunity. Instead of seeking to restore Siegel’s cut, this features a pointlessly “colorized” version alongside the black and white original; a pretty washed-out print, too.