Double Feature Showdown – Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) vs. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Alien invaders replace earthlings with pod people? Hell yes, sign me up to watch that movie; in fact, sign me up to watch two of them. I present to you this episode’s Double Feature Showdown challengers: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) versus Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Which one is better? Read on and find out. If you dare.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): Doctor Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) comes home from vacation to find that he’s had a lot of patients come by while he was absent—each of them insisting that no other doctor can help. After a little investigation, he finds they each have the same issue: someone close to them has been replaced by an imposter. Assuming the town is suffering from mass hysteria, Miles decides to focus his efforts on wooing old flame Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter). However, he gets a call from writer friend Jack (King Donovan), demanding he come out to his place and look at something. Miles and Becky drive out and check out Jack’s to find: a body that seems only partially formed, with no fingerprints and no facial definition. As the night goes on, it begins to take its final shape—Jack. They freak out, leave the house, and then try to convince others of what they have seen, but to no avail. Turns out, alien seeds have been blown to earth on solar winds, and once germinated on Earth, create pods that hatch inhuman replacements. Miles tries to contact the outside world, but the pod people are on to them, and things start taking a turn for the worse.
This is a really good movie, not just “good for a fifties science fiction film.” The script is tight (it’s based on a really enjoyable book) and the special effects are effective, with only enough cheesiness to make it fun. Kevin McCarthy stands out in his role, and while he had a long and successful career, I’ve always wondered why he didn’t get more starring parts. The film also features Carolyn Jones, who was Morticia in The Addams Family. (I didn’t recognize her with blonde hair until I looked online.) There have been a lot of different interpretations of what this film really means—Is it anticommunist? Is it against McCarthyism?—but it stands alone as a good story, and like many good stories, the viewer can enjoy it on different levels.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978): San Francisco health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) is going about his business checking restaurants for rat droppings, when he starts hearing from various folks that their loved ones have been replaced. It doesn’t really register with him until the same thing happens to Health Department lab technician Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams). It’s obvious he has deep feelings for her; so when she comes to him, panicked about the changes in her boyfriend, he offers to help. He takes her to see psychiatrist David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), who tries to get her to see that the whole thing is just about her fears of intimacy. Things take a turn for the weirder when Matthew’s friend Jack (Jeff Goldblum) finds a body at the steam/bath house he and his wife operate. He has Matthew come take a look at it, but it disappears before Kibner can show up and confirm its existence to the authorities. The group notices more and more people acting strangely, and soon discover the solar-wind-delivered pods. They go on the run, but it looks doubtful that they will be able to escape the pod people.
This version, directed by Philip Kaufman, is a lot different that the previous one (and the source material), but still keeps the same basic structure, and in fact directly references the 1956 film. There is a great scene with Kevin McCarthy wandering through traffic trying to warn people about the invasion, which is how director Don Siegel wanted to end the first movie, but couldn’t. It’s pretty good; more of a straightforward horror film than the previous one, and it has some nasty (and great) special effects. The performances are really enjoyable, and it also stars Veronica Cartwright—whom I really like—as Jack’s wife Nancy. I’d have to say the only thing I don’t like about the film is its pacing. It drags in parts, and I wish they had cut about twenty minutes of atmosphere from it.
The Winner: In spite of a fine showing by the 1978 film, the 1956 version is just better. It’s not as scary, but I don’t think it’s really supposed to be. The pacing is set up like a thriller: as time goes on, we discover the mystery along with the protagonists, and get anxious as they are put in increasing danger. The later film starts with the alien spores, so there is never really any question about what is going on or the origins of the danger. Plus, I just love Kevin McCarthy. I think he has a great “everyman” quality about him that Donald Sutherland just can’t match. (Although I love him, too.) But, both films are very enjoyable and are enough different that they make a good double feature. They are both in print and available at your finer movie purveyors.