Saturday, 22 December 2012

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

1956, US, Directed by Don Siegel
B&W, Running Time: 80 minutes
Review Source: Blu-ray, Region A, Olive Films; Video: 2.00:1 1080p 24fps, Audio: DTS HD MA

Based on a serialised story entitled The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney that appeared in the American-bred Collier's Magazine in 1954 (which was also subsequently published as a novel), Invasion of the Body Snatchers has become an undisputed classic of science fiction over the half century or so since. It wasn't especially perceived as anything over and above the crowd at the time, but the maturity of the production along with its immortal aura of fear has allowed it to stand the test of decades of progression whilst many other sci-fi movies of the fifties are generally considered by critics as disposable. Dr Miles Bennell returns to his home town amidst a general hysteria of residents feeling that people they know intimately have changed somehow, despite no visible difference in appearance. Bennell is initially ambivalent, unable to decide whether there's any validity in the claims, until he's called round to a friend's house where they've found a 'body' that appears to be an underdeveloped replica of his friend. The body disappears but later on the group discover a number of giant seeds that produce dormant versions of themselves before their eyes. Bennell destroys them and sets off to get out of town with his old flame, Becky Driscoll, realising that the escalating situation is seeing the population being taken over by emotionless imitators that have grown from the mysterious pods. Unable to get a phone line out to other locations, and now the target of a hostile populace, Bennell and Driscoll embark on an increasingly frantic race to avoid becoming one of the others as they fight to escape.
Probably more highly regarded than the Finney novel itself, Invasion... is a frightening tale of paranoia and loss of humanity/autonomy. Made during an era of uncertainty as very real invasion from malevolent international forces, a factor that most likely made the story flavour of the time with the American public, it has been considered to be a parable against communism but Siegel and Finney have both opposed this theory, preferring to uphold its non-political status as simply a science fiction thriller. Of course it's easy to see why viewers will see the proposed political allegory, as everyone effectively becomes the same as they find themselves a victim of the pods, in a world that would eventually be devoid of emotion. It was never really clear in the film how the legitimate bodies were extinguished as they're replaced by the pod-grown replicas, however, Finney's text is more explicit in revealing that they actually turn to dust - I can understand why this may have posed a problem cinematically, either because audiences were more easily shocked at the time or because the budget simply wouldn't allow it (I suspect it was more so the former, as the special effects that are on screen are actually quite impressive). After the part of Bennell was thought to be suitable for a number of other actors, Kevin McCarthy eventually got the job, giving an amiable performance that progresses to mounting panic as hope is gradually torn away. His partner's shoes - that of Becky Driscoll - were filled by the shapely, highly feminine Dana Wynter. Elsewhere it's surprising to see Sam Peckinpah (later to direct such violent tales as Straw Dogs and The Wild Bunch) in a bit role - apparently he worked as a dialogue coach on the film itself (as well as several other of Don Siegel's movies around the time), claiming to have had a large part in re-writing the screenplay, a matter hotly disputed by credited screen-writer Daniel Mainwaring. The dialogue is a product of its time, but the scenarios and overall concept are just as frightening as they ever were. Yet the promised world of the aliens is a superior one in their view - one that is devoid of emotion and therefore problems. It poses an interesting idea and question - is it the presence of emotion that makes humans distinct, and would the world be a better place without it? This very idea would form the basis of another science fiction film made in more recent times - Equilibrium, where emotion is essentially banned in society and children are brought up to acknowledge its lack of use. Of course the argument in Invasion..., presented by the two surviving characters who love each other, is that the removal of emotion via the transition of conventional human to pod-born human is not something that is desirable, despite those that have been converted boasting its advantages. Without wasting a minute Invasion... remains a powerfully gripping experience to this day, with an influence on the genre that has spawned admiration, and remakes of course - these seem to diminish in quality with each subsequent attempt strangely (one is particularly good, one reasonable, and the last is, well...). As usual, the original is the best.

Considering its highly rated standing, a commendable disc release has been a painfully long time coming. I did own this on video cassette in the nineties but as my understanding of composition progressed I became frustrated with the ugly cropped fullframe transfer, and stopped watching it in the hope/expectation that a special edition of some sort would eventually materialise. None of the DVDs really lived up to that - they were either cropped, colourised, or widescreen but with substandard picture quality (Universal treated their UK fans with usual contempt as they put out a couple of can't-be-bothered DVDs that were inadequate), while stateside Republic put out the best DVD which contained both fullframe (useful only really for comparison and for argument against cropping) and fairly accurately framed widescreen versions in one pack, alongside an interview with McCarthy and liner notes - image was not up to much though. Thankfully Olive Films have arrived to correct one of home cinema's great wrongs - their US Blu-ray basically demolishes all releases as far as the transfer is concerned. Reportedly shot in a fairly standard 1.85:1 spherical frame it was projected (supposedly against the director's wishes) in the experimental 'Superscope' ratio of 2.00:1 - that's how it's framed here, and it feels very comfortable (particularly if you've seen the film cropped to 1.33:1, which routinely loses characters on either edge of the screen - ridiculous). The black and white photography can finally be appreciated for the proficient art that it was, detail is sharp throughout, and the gray tones look wonderful. Audio is presented via the respected DTS HD Master Audio format - mono naturally, but very clear. Alas there are no extras, which is a shame (there's room for a historian based commentary here, or a retrospective documentary perhaps). Having said that, if the production of extras compromised the efforts that went into the transfer, then I'd take the improved AV presentation over bonus material every time. The Blu-ray is packaged in an attractive cover, all housed inside a slipcase. An amazing film finally looks and sounds stellar in HD, and there shouldn't be much thought going into whether to buy this if you already like the movie.

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