#WrightWatch: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 & 1978)

Man, talk about different eras.

In the 50s the film’s great shot is the transformation of Dana Wynter’s face when it is revealed her character has transformed into a pod person — an extended close-up, detailing the slow loss of simulated emotion from her face. Fantastic acting and character work characterise this film, and indeed elevate it from being a plain sci fi/horror with some fairly dopey plot contrivances (Becky Driscoll being immediately overcome with concern for a dog, thereby revealing herself as human to the surrounding pods, the very next moment (it feels) after being told to act emotionless). Dr. Bennell’s collapse into horror is portrayed convincingly and the chemistry between Kevin McCarthy and Wynter is totally convincing. They are utterly genuine as childhood sweethearts, though it must be said that 50s behaviour of men around women is a little discomfiting for yours truly (so much touching! McCarthy has a hand on Wynter almost their entire time onscreen together!)

In the 70s by contrast the film’s great shot is Donald Sutherland’s face, suspended in shadow, light bouncing off of his bones, as he hides in a closet from a pod person. The performances are much more muted (though I just discovered that McCarthy redoes his performance of terror, and was just as excellent the second time around). The film is now interested in mood, in the stormcloud grey landscapes of New York, in the vast shapes of buildings in the darkness. It is interested in the play of shadow over the faces of its characters. It is also more openly horrifying. In this film Elizabeth Driscoll’s (Brooke Adams) revealing of her humanity is much more explicable, when she reacts in horror to the botched copying of a tramp and his dog, resulting in a horrific man/dog pod creature hybrid. The effects are better and more horrible (the mewling pod-fetuses), and the pod people themselves more terrifying, more obviously inhuman even when they aren’t pointing and screaming.

In the 50s the drama is set in small town USA. The horror rests in the local community being transformed into something other. In the 70s the drama is set in New York. The horror rests in the co-option of all authority structures in the city. In the 50s the invasion is containable and, it is supposed, fought against. Our hero survives and manages to get the warning out. In the 70s the invasion cannot be stopped. It has conquered the institutions of human society, and our hero eventually is transformed into a pod person.

Both are very different types of story, engaging for different reasons. The warmth of the character interactions in the 50s version are the source of that film’s quality, as is the strength of the actor’s abilities to communicate fear into me. The source of the 70s film quality is more intangible. The relationship between Bennell and Driscoll is softer, its feeling less intense. I would have sworn it was just friendship if it wasn’t for him telling her he loved her later on — though even then, the declaration was soft and desperate and accompanied with trembling, light-brushing kisses. It is still enough to bear the weight of audience empathy, but it is not where the soul of the movie lies. That lies in the sense of foreboding, the majestic opening that charts the movement of the pod spores across the universe, the horror of the pod-dog and the fetuses, the huge darknesses and jagged light of New York. The 50s foregrounded the person. The 70s brought forward their surroundings.

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