‘BFI: Invasion of the Body Snatchers’: Pod People, Redux

The science fiction noir of Invasion of the Body Snatchers explored the boundaries of horror and science fiction. It’s a tight little adventure tale, complex enough that critics have read it both as a metaphor for postwar American conformist culture and as an allegory for anxieties over communist subversion. Whether as “the pod in the gray flannel suit” or the literal “enemy within”, it’s a ’50s treat that soaks up its historical context.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers gets a detailed examination that comes in at just around 100 pages in the new volume of the British Film Institutes Film Classics. This series, which to date has included brief studies of everything from Singing in the Rain to The Exorcist, combines a short analysis of the film and an examination of contested critical questions. It also often offers reflections by the authors on their personal response and interpretation of the film’s meaning.

Film scholar Barry Keith Grant is an excellent choice for this study. Grant edited an important collection in the ’90s entitled The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, one of the formative texts for the academic study of horror narratives. His role in shaping that scholarship is on full display in this book. That should please film studies folk and give horror/sci-fi fans some new angles of appreciation for this artifact of postwar America.

Fans of the film already familiar with its context and critical reception will still relish Grant’s chapter that ruminates on the role played by gender and sexuality in the film. Grant’s insistence that we pay attention to the role played by these variables in a film mostly treated as a cultural or political parable opens up a number of new readings.

Analyzing the role of gender in the film allows Grant to thoughtfully explore an otherwise inexplicable narrative lapse in the film. As Invasion of the Body Snatchers draws to a close, the female principal, Becky (Dana Wynter), falls asleep beside male lead Miles (Kevin McCarthy) in a tunnel where they are hiding from their former neighbors-cum-pod people. When they wake up, Miles kisses Becky and “discovers” that she has become a pod. Grant notes that after the kiss, Becky looks through or beyond Miles, “languidly indifferent” to his erotic urgency. This becomes one of the more frightening scenes of the film, followed as it is by a close up shot of Miles face twisted in terror.

Up to this point, the narrative seems to insist on the idea that the pods must be physically close to their intended victims in order to infect them. This often happens during sleep but, in the “invasion” of Becky it seems to happen simply when she falls asleep. Grant notes the strangeness of this in a film “otherwise so tightly scripted”. Becky simply awaking from sleep as a pod person seems to solely serve the purpose of the kiss, what Grant interprets as a “test of authenticity” that she fails.

Grant, rightly I think, reads this moment as an expression of “masculine hysteria”, recognition on the part of the character and the audience that Becky has become “a monstrous embodiment of the more independent woman in postwar America”. Grant borrows from the work of other film critics to show that director Don Siegel tended to show men “betrayed and destroyed” in their relationships with women, a narrative turn that seems to have grown out of some of the filmmaker’s own attitudes (“I’m sorry to say, I’ve kissed many pods” Grant quotes him as saying).

Grant also gives sufficient attention to some of the less interesting iterations of Invasion. Most of his attention is focused on the 1978 Phillip Kaufman version starring Donald Sutherland. This was a somewhat revisionist version that actually heightens the paranoia of the original. He also examines the little known Abel Ferrara’s version from the early ’90s, a complete reimagination that located most of the action on an army base. Finally, the most recent version starring Nicole Kidman comes in for a brief discussion as a film that used images of infection paired with a very modern reflection on gender roles and concluding with a crowd-pleasing, unambiguous and rather boring denouement.

The brevity and sharpness of Grant’s work will make it appealing to fans of the genre though, they should beware that this study has a textbook-like feeling to it. Much of the material, with the exception of the wonderful discussion of gender and sexuality, will not be new to Invasion of the Body Snatchers enthusiasts. As with all the BFI series, this book’s size and clarity make it nearly perfect for a film or cultural studies course.

RATING 7 / 10