Friday, October 24, 2014

31 Days of Horror: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

The occupation has begun, but the enemy may already be standing right beside you in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion. 

Day 24: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) 

If you are not with us, you are against us. It is the rallying cry of many regimes in times of great turmoil or uprising. It is a powerful accusation, depriving discussions of their nuance and situations of the gray area between the well-defined black and white. Nobody wants to be “against us.” Most people just want to fit in or glide along, and there is no better way to get pulled into a fight than by challenging the perceived mainstream.

Conscientious objection is rarely applauded, and more often than not, bystanders are pushed or pulled onto one front line or another anyway. Think of post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. You are either with us, or you are against us. Thanks for nothing, France. Think of the Salem Witch Trials. You are either with God or against Him. Burn the witches and the liars. Think of the Crusades. You are either Christian, or you are going to hell. We will help you along one way or the other.

In America in the 1950s, communists stood at the head of the line to be burned at the stake, alongside anyone who refused to take a side. If you are not with us, you are against us. We now know Sen. Joseph McCarthy was a disreputable crackpot inspiring fear in the masses to make a name for himself. But it is easy to take a smug view of history: Iraq is a quagmire we would have been better off avoiding, religious persecution is wrong in all its forms, and the number of real witches burned throughout history numbers exactly zero.

That last one is simple. Witches are not real and never have been, but communism is real, and during the Cold War, the fear that your neighbors, friends, and even family members may be other than they appear was very real, too. Enter director Don Siegel’s subversively allegorical Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The belief that the enemy is everywhere is a trait of paranoids such as Sen. McCarthy and the main character of this film, Dr. Miles  Bennell, played by Kevin McCarthy, no relation to the infamous politician.

The last few days, we have talked about body horror and deformity and just about everything that can be done to harm the human vessel. While the aliens in this film literally take over the bodies of humans, the distress they inspire is not so much physical as mental and emotional. When we can no longer trust anyone, it violates a fundamental belief in the communities we have built, the neighborhoods we inhabit, and the families we love.

Except, in this case, the paranoid are correct. The aliens are among us, but here is the flip: What the occupying force in Invasion of the Body Snatchers wants is to take over our planet and turn us all into pod people, conformist clones who will do what they are bred to do. For once, the still-human majority is on the side of dissent. The message is to fight conformity and embrace individuality, the implication being that these are the things that make us human. If that sounds like a radical idea today, imagine expressing such a point of view in Cold War America.

The writer of the film, Daniel Mainwaring, and its star both denied Invasion of the Body Snatchers was meant as anything but an entertaining thriller. Siegel recognized the parallels that would be drawn and attempted to dial back any political undertones. But sometimes the context of the times adds meaning to art where the artist would prefer it left unexplored. Such are the perils of releasing a complex film into complex times.

Tomorrow, we plow ahead into the final week of our project with another movie that explores complex themes from a more modern perspective.

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