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Invasion of the Body Snatchers

(SPOILERS) The premise of Don Siegel’s anti-McCarthy – or is it anti-Commie? – SF paranoia movie is an evergreen. Hence it having been remade three times (so far). One of those came during a period when – whisper it – those refashioning ’50s B-movies were coming up with takes that were more resonant and richer than the originals. So much so, they have invariably supplanted them in first-port-of-call stakes. Over the course of less than a decade, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing and The Fly all succeeded in justifying and validating a cash-in process that has, generally, been rightly derided. As such, the Siegel movie, while packing a punch, looks almost plain in comparison to Phillip Kaufman’s urban nightmare.

The original’s influence on a generation is undeniable though, from Kaufman’s movie (star Kevin McCarthy cameos, continuing where he left off in the original’s original cut) to a career’s worth of Joe Dante referencing it (Gremlins; Looney Tunes: Back in Action; just generally using McCarthy regularly – Dante also moderated the DVD commentary and presented the Trailers from Hell). And as a Siegel movie, it remains a sure-footed, gripping piece of work.

McCarthy – who admitted to his character’s bookend ravings being slightly OTT on the commentary track – has stated he was unaware of any political intent when making the picture; he rather saw the encoded warning as one of non-specific conformity. Both Time Out’s Tom Charity and Dante noted “in his book A Siegel Film the director has nothing to say on the matter”, but the Wiki page has the director quoted thus: “The political reference to Senator McCarthy and totalitarianism was inescapable, but I tried not to emphasise it because I feel that motion pictures are primarily to entertain and I did not want to preach”.

John Patterson vouched for that view – “a look at the infectious hysteria attendant upon McCarthyism” – but it’s a metaphor that only really works without the framing device to confound it (whereby, it could not be construed as all in delusional mind of McCarthy’s Dr Bennell). It should be noted Siegel wasn’t saying outright this was the intent: only that it was there. It has been suggested he was steering closer to McCarthy’s take, that the movie spoke psychologically, rather than politically, about basic interactions with others who reveal themselves soullessly (Bennell says as much in a rather lumpy expository speech, regarding how there are those who “allow their humanity to drain away”). Such a metaphor is entirely ripe for application to any end, based on one’s affiliations. As Pauline Kael put it, “it has an idea that confirms everyone’s suspicions. People are being turned into vegetables – and who can tell the difference?

Indeed, in Seeing is Believing, Peter Biskind characterised the communism reading as more a convenient marker than the picture’s express intent. This was, he argued, fully emblematic of right-wing SF’s characteristics, which “focused on the struggle of the outsider, the kook, the end-of-the-worlder, to force the community to acknowledge the validity of the self’s private vision, even if it violated the norms of credibility that govern the expectations of experts and professionals”. By Biskind’s definition then, the conspiracy theorist is inherently right wing. Such a definition is also, inherently, necessitating one to characterise such positions in Hegelian terms: them and us, left and right, all roads leading to State (or centre).

In which regard, Biskind conspicuously avoids mention of the “H” word. Left wing SF of the period – the most iconic would be The Day the Earth Stood Still – is notable for being “more tolerant of otherness”, but it shares with right-wing SF an aversion to the centre. Authority is not to be trusted, nor are its tools, such that “In Invasion, therapy is brainwashing, and centrism – the docs and the cops – is subversive”. The shrink here will find his adjunct in Nimoy’s self-help guru in Kaufman’s remake; never trust someone when they are telling you what’s best for your personal wellbeing and health. No one knows better than you (this is why Abel Ferrara’s picture rather shoots itself in the foot, good as it is; the situation on an army base is a foregone conclusion).

As Biskind notes “The pod society is the familiar mechanistic utopia usually (and rightly) taken as a metaphor for Communism”. However, while “Communism was something of a diversion” (or, per Clue, a red herring), it was different in Invasion of the Body Snatchers to other right-wing pictures like The Thing from Another World or Them! which “attack extremism in the guise of attacking the Red menace, to suggest that like Communism, extremism was subversive”. Here, the “integrity of the self” is all, and the world of the pods, “this rationalist world… is the dream of the ‘creeping socialist’ centre… as well as the left”.

As such, if you excuse Biskind his stringent definitions in terms of political polarities, he sums up the paradigm’s tools rather well. The sacrifice of individual thought to the centre or the establishment is primary; we’re invited to ask “who’s right, the individual or the group, and who commands authority, amateurs or experts, the people or the state” such that we conclude “Individuals must not only act for themselves, they must think for themselves as well”.

Consequently, while Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ studio mandated bookend might identify it as “one of those radical films that scampers back to the centre at the last minute” – help is forthcoming from Washington and the FBI – it also “works as a right-wing ending, after a fashion”. By which, their uniting in common purpose is based on Bennell’s vision, rather than State’s: “an expression of the radical right’s populist optimism, but also a rehabilitation of common sense, discredited by the centre” (incidentally, Biskind errs when he says “For it turns out that the entire film is a flashback”; no, it’s obvious from the start).

None of this has gone away; left/right paradigm remains a defining principle, subject to prevalent pod speak on both sides. “Conspiracy theorist” is now a catch-all, and wherever possible, it is caveated by insinuations of right-wing extremism. Conform to the mandates, wear the masks, get your shots, maintain the line even as the narrative crumbles. And when it does, do as you’re told and switch attention to the new narrative (war!). For seed pods, swap out nanotech, spike proteins, graphene and, by some accounts, black goo (and then shake and stir again). There are those who claim to have noticed change in the behaviour of the jabbed, beyond simply the righteous fervour with which they lambast those who have abstained (as Bennell says, “It’s a malignant disease...”).

Kaufman’s picture is superior, not least because it’s so damn reasonable, with its amiable big-city yoghurt weavers. Biskind suggests, of Siegel’s original, “The film is suffused with a nostalgia for the past, for the old-fashioned pretechnological GP, rather than the new-fangled psychiatrist with his glib talk of ‘mass hysteria’”. But the GP himself is a conformist, a proponent of Rockefeller allopathic medicine, so such positions are purely relative. I like Biskind’s take on Miles and Becky (Dana Wyner) as divorcees, though: “their aspirations cannot be realised within society. Their dreams did not and cannot come true, because society is inimical to dreams and dreamers”. Such a reading pushes the metaphor: come Kaufman’s movie, the hippies of a few years prior have become the bedrock of society. The only way to perceive the truth is to reject the establishment. One doesn’t even need to be paranoid. One simply has to know it’s out to get you.

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