Director: Don Siegel
Olive Films/Paramount

During the 1950s, a number of science fiction films dealt with the subgenre of alien beings taking over the bodily forms of humans in American communities. Such films included IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953), INVADERS FROM MARS (1953) and a bit later, I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE (1958). But probably the most acclaimed of these was 1956’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, superbly directed by the great Don Siegel. Its plot was most likely instigated by the-then Cold War paranoia and “Red Scare” period in American history, as well as adding a dose of anti-McCarthyism, but the fact of the matter is that INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is great entertainment, and is high up on the list of the best science fiction films of all time. Olive Films now presents the film newly remastered on Blu-Ray disc, with the same transfer also being presented on standard DVD.

After a man is found on the highway, urgently yelling warnings to bewildered drivers, he’s brought to a Los Angeles hospital where a considerate psychiatrist (Whit Bissell, I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN) consents to listening to his story, in spite of his hysterics. The man, Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), a physician, tells of when he came back to his practice in Santa Mira after a vacation, greeted by an apparent mental disorder among the community. A young boy tries to run away from home, and when taken to Miles' office, is terrified to go back, claiming that his mother isn’t his mother anymore. Miles’ nurse Sally (Jean Willes, THE MAN WHO TURNED TO STONE) reports to him that similar responses are rampant in the town, further evidenced by a woman (Virginia Christine, THE MUMMY’S CURSE) who is absolutely convinced her Uncle Ira isn’t the same man, after his “twinkling eyes” have all but gone stone cold.

As Miles is refueling an old romance with the beautiful Becky (Dana Wynter), more indications of an upset apple cart result in a usual hopping restaurant stripped of most of its regular patrons, as well as a nearly deserted town. Miles gets a hysterical call from a married couple, Jack (King Donovan, THE MAGNETIC MONSTER) and Theodora (Carolyn Jones, EATEN ALIVE), and along with Becky, pays a visit to their home — on the basement pool table lies what appears to be an unborn, unfinished life-size model of Jack, as Miles soon makes a connection to the unexplainable double and the day’s peculiar events. When another human duplicate is discovered in another basement, Miles and Jack alert a doctor friend (Larry Gates), but the evidence has suddenly disappeared, causing him to right it off as delusion or possibly hypnotism. But the following night, Miles, Becky, Jack and Theodora discover the ultimate horror — duplicates of themselves developing from giants pods resting in a greenhouse. Realizing that there is widespread catastrophe of citizens being replaced by some kind of extraterrestrial host, they can’t even trust the local police, and making a long distance emergency call only fuels the suspicions of an operator. As the two couples separate and take off with a plan in mind, we follow Miles and Becky as they run and hide from their former friends in the town while doing everything possible to stay awake (the period when one’s body will be involuntarily switched with the unwanted alien outsider).

Written by Daniel Mainwaring, adapted from Jack Finney's 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS certainly lives up to its inclusion in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Not only is one of the best films of 1956, but it’s an iconic piece of work that has influenced countless horror and science films, as well as several official remakes and a number of parodies. Truly a movie buff’s kind of film director, Don Siegel starts things off lightly, than increasingly creates tension up until the very last shot. The use of shadows, Dutch angles and stark black and white photography give it, at times, a noir appearance, and the concept of having friends and loved ones devoid of humanity and turned into “monsters” while keeping their normal appearance, is executed perfectly and still comes off quite disturbing and the film never stumbles upon camp territory.

For a 1950s science fiction film, BODY SNATCHERS is comparably light on special effects, and rightly so, since showcasing outwardly normal-looking everyday people as alien menaces is effective enough here and doesn’t call for excessive visuals. But when effects do come into play, they’re unforgettable, as the would-be pod-born duplicates of the four central heroes manifest themselves initially as sudsy, pasty masses of shapeless flesh before developing into a recognizable embodiment of their intended human subjects. Anyone who saw the film on television as a kid will recall such chilling imagery as Carolyn Jones watching in utter shock as her husband’s stationary doppelganger suddenly open its eyes, McCarthy and Wynter concealing themselves in a cavernous hole under floor planks as a mob of invaders scurries over them, and McCarthy having to destroy the budding pod-created duplicates of himself and his friends with a pitchfork.

Siegel had a diverse career as a director, and never became typecast as a sci-fi filmmaker, mostly embracing thrillers, dramas and action movies, many with non-conformist lead characters such as McCarthy’s Miles in BODY SNATCHERS. Although he was not the first choice for the role, it’s hard to imagine anyone but McCarthy as Miles, as he terrifically holds the film together as a man who refuses to give up his individuality and soul, and anyone with even the smallest amount of compassion can easily identify with the character and what he stands for. The fact is that the studio behind the film, Allied Artists (known for numerous horror, sci-fi and exploitation releases during the 1950s) demanded that the opening and ending sequences (as well as McCarthy’s in-character narration) be added to the film, giving the proceedings a more positive outlook. Director Siegel and producer Walter Wanger opposed this, but it’s hard to imagine the film without that glimmer of hope, when McCarthy expresses a sigh of final relief (as he learns his wild plight will be accepted as fact) after sweating out the worst 24 hours of life.

Among the excellent cast is an un-billed Richard Deacon (“The Dick Van Dyke Show”, “Leave it to Beaver”) as a hospital orderly, TV actor Dabbs Greer (HOUSE OF WAX, THE VAMPIRE) as a gas station attendant and even director Sam Peckinpah has a small part as a meter reader.

Originally released on an unimpressive DVD in 1998 by Republic, and then a few years later by Artisan in an identical edition, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS was formerly presented in a flat letterboxed version along with a full frame version (panned and scanned) on the same disc. Since it's still part of the Republic film library, and since Paramount owns that library, they have newly licensed it to Olive Films (who has been doing some terrific work excavating the Paramount vaults) for this Blu-Ray disc (which is also being made available on standard DVD, culled from the same transfer).

Originally, Olive Films’ press release claimed that INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS would be mastered from the original negative, but they quickly retracted that information, stating that it was to be remastered from a fine-grain 35mm print, as the original negative is thought to be lost. Still, the source print they used for this Blu-Ray was in impeccable condition, as evidenced in this very clean 1080p resolution transfer, which is pretty much free of excessive grain. The film is presented in its original Superscope 2.00:1 theatrical aspect ratio (with anamorphic enhancement), which basically means it was shot at 1.85:1 and the flat image was later processed in an anamorphic process for theatrical showings (a bit less wide than a full 2.35:1 ratio). So the presentation is in its proper aspect ratio, with widescreen TVs showing a sliver more of black bars on the top and bottom than you would see for a 1.85-framed disc. The compositions and framing look correct throughout, with only the final “The End” card title being too close to the bottom frame (though blame the studio's insistence on the process, not the filmmakers who intended it to be 1.85:1). Quality wise, there’s nothing to complain about, as the black and white image boasts deep black levels and a nicely balanced grayscale, while image sharpness and detail remains excellent throughout. The disc carries an English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono track, which supplies solid sound, despite dialog coming off a bit low in spots.

No extras have been included on the disc, but there are eight chapter stops accessible through the main menu. (George R. Reis)