I recently saw the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the first time. It’s much better than I thought it would be. My husband loves cheesy 1950’s sci-fi B-movies, and that was what I expected Body Snatchers to be. But it’s really not that cheesy at all. It’s fairly suspenseful, and its moody cinematography makes the film feel more noir than sci-fi. The inevitable romantic relationship between the male and female leads felt refreshingly adult, and quite relevant to the story. Drop the “happy ending” frame story (which both the producer and director objected to), and make the alien pods look a bit less like giant Belgian endive, and the film would be even closer to perfect.

Pod vs Endive
Left: A pod. Right: A Belgian Endive. I rest my case. Screenshot: moviescreenshots.blogspot.com. Endive: Wikimedia

Given that this is a movie from the 1950s about alien pods that turn humans beings into emotionless automatons, it’s not surprising that people link its themes to the then-current concerns. One could interpret the film as an allegory for the supposed loss of individuality that comes from communism. Or one could interpret it as a metaphor about the fear of expressing one’s convictions openly, because of McCarthyism. But the film’s director, Don Siegel, denies that he was referring to either of these:

…I felt that this was a very important story. I think that the world is populated by pods and I wanted to show them. I think so many people have no feeling about cultural things, no feeling of pain, of sorrow. […] The political reference to Senator McCarthy and totalitarianism was inescapable but I tried not to emphasize it because I feel that motion pictures are primarily to entertain and I did not want to preach.

— Interview with Don Siegel, as quoted at Wikipedia

cogs
Mohamed Hassan, Pixabay

I read Siegel’s comment to mean that to him, the movie was about people and society becoming increasingly mechanical, overly pragmatic; about society as a whole becoming less interested in beauty, culture, or joy, and more about efficiency and productivity. And as I discovered, this seems to be a feeling that other people of that era had.

Soon after seeing Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I started reading J.B. Priestley’s 1953 short story collection The Other Place. In the introduction to the recent Valancourt Books reissue of the collection, John Baxendale writes that a common theme in the stories (all but one written in 1952 for the collection) is Priestley’s unease with the way he saw post-WWII society moving. Baxendale writes:

In 1954, during a visit to the United States, [Priestley] would coin the term Admass to describe the combination of materialism, advertising, mass communication and mass culture which he feared was creating “the mass mind, the mass man”, and preventing people from realising their true potential. This anxiety finds its way into these stories.

Mall of America interior
Mall of America. Source: Wikimedia

For me, the story that illustrates this theme most strongly is “The Grey Ones.” A certain Mr. Patson discovers that his brother-in-law, as well as several other influential people in his borough, are really strange toad-like beings that have come to take over humankind. Their goal is to make humanity “go the way of social insects… automatic creatures, mass beings without individuality. […] To wipe from the face of this earth all wonder, joy, deep feeling, the desire to create, to praise life.” Reading that felt quite familiar, after having seen Body Snatchers.

The difference between Priestley’s short story and Siegel’s film is that “The Grey Ones” is ambiguous: what Mr. Patson experiences could all be in his head. This is true of several other stories in the collection. It’s also appropriate, if you think of Priestley’s theme being the perception that everyone is becoming the same, conforming to the group mind. If you believe this, and no one around you notices (or cares) — well, it does make you look a bit crazy, doesn’t it? Body Snatchers hints at this too: the film was originally supposed to end with the scene of the protagonist running down the middle of a busy highway, pounding on the windows of passing cars, futilely warning of the alien invasion as the cars zoom past him, and trucks full of pods make their way to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 01 18 00
“They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next!” Source: Media Life Crisis

While I was working my way through The Other Place, I was also reading Dorothy Macardle’s haunted house novel The Uninvited (originally published as Uneasy Freehold in 1941). The Uninvited preceeds the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers and its source novel by more than a decade, yet even here we get hints of a feeling that a certain way of looking at life is vanishing. Some time before World War II (I don’t see explicit dates in the novel, but the 1944 film version is set in 1937), two characters, a writer and an artist, discuss the fascist movements then on the rise in Europe:

They subordinate the whole to the part….It is no longer life they are celebrating, nor nature, but some crude, fanatical party creed. I am afraid that doing things for their own sake will soon be a luxury for children and, perhaps … for freaks like you and me.

The fascists lost, but apparently the concern over the way society was heading continued after the war.

Living here in the early twenty-first century, I’ve never experienced the pre-WWII way of life that Priestley and Macardle (and possibly Siegel, who was about twenty years younger) remember, so it’s hard for me to intuit precisely what vanished quality life back then had. What was it that they missed? Have we become the Admass society that Priestley feared? I wonder what he would have said about modern social media and “fake news” and all the rest of it.

And if we are living in an Admass world, then by extension it follows that most of us are the Grey Ones, the Pod People, the ones (to paraphrase Priestley again) who think they are alive and awake, but are really asleep. Or dead. How sad.

Or maybe it’s another eternal complaint, like how kids these days don’t know how good they have it, or how they just don’t make X like they used to. In another famous fifties movie, Vertigo (1958), a character complains, “The things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast.” My cab driver said pretty much the same thing to me, just yesterday (“Back then, San Francisco had so many dance clubs, so much music! No one dances here anymore. Those techies are changing everything!”).

Either way, there’s hope.

Yes, I know it’s all more difficult… but if we only tried to stop shuffling round and slopping about, jeering at and cheapening life–if we brought to it energy and good humor and some sense of style—-

— “Night Sequence,” J. B. Priestley

So here’s to you, dear reader. May you live life with energy, good humor, and a certain sense of style.

dancing
Peter Griffin, PublicDomainPictures.net

Featured image: Screenshot from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Source: Media Life Crisis

8 thoughts on “Invasion of the Grey Ones

  1. Hello my friend – I actually wrote this as a comment, but when I tried to post it, the screen showed a message, “Sorry This Comment Could Not Be Posted” !!! How bizarre! But below is the text, if you wish to read it. Blessings to you and yours/

    Huzzah – a new post! And as always, an excellent one. I admire your ability to read so much! Reading has been a favorite pastime since my earliest years. And as I read this, I also wondered if you were familiar with the John Carpenter film from the 80s, ‘They Live”. OR the story it was based on, “Eight O Clock in the Morning”. The movie, again, was considered a bit on the cheesy side but it has had a devoted following for at least the last ten years or so. If you are not familiar with these things, you might find them interesting/ nd your husband might enjoy – if he has not already seen it – a cheesy sci fi from 1953! There are others with the same title, but the original was the best!!!!! Instead of pod people, the adults in a small town are being implanted with a small crystal in the back of the neck which links them to, and subjugates them to, a sort of alien head in a glass globe, carried about by drone-like servants. My precious wife – in the years before her passing – would lay beside me in bed on her better nights and we would watch an all night marathon of those old schlocky sci-fi movies. Anyway – thanks for the great post. Wishing all good things to you and yours.

    1. Ah, it looks like your post got through! I have seen They Live” — not my favorite Carpenter movie, but not bad. And I did read “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” soon after. I confess I don’t remember the details of it anymore, but I do remember thinking it was also not bad.

      And yes, those schlocky sci-fi movies are fun! Glad you enjoyed the post, and thank you for commenting.

  2. I’ve seen the film several times. It’s one of my favorites and a brilliant example of how scifi can be used to comment on currently prevailing cultural and social norms (the 50s Red Scare in this instance). What it doesn’t have is a “happy ending” frame story, which you refer to in your first paragraph (have we even watched the same film?). Instead, the happy ending one expects from the core love story is turned on its head to increase our discomfort and dread.

    The love story also works on a another level, by prompting the question, how well do we really know our loved ones? Might they change into a person we’ve never before allowed ourselves to see right before our very eyes? As someone with a mother who had a psychotic break when she was still a young child, the moment in the film when the women becomes the other is still the most terrifying for me. But I can understand it might not be so for those who’ve never experienced or even contemplated the possibility of a disruptive change in a loved one or a relationship.

    I was a child during the Red Scare so the original film resonates with what I remember of how the adults talked about Communism back then. Russian Communist infiltration in order to take over the US from within was a widely held fear. How ironic that 60-some years later, it seems to be a much more real possibility than it was when Siegal’s film was made. But now, most of us are blase about it. Why that’s so is a far more interesting question to contemplate.

    1. The “happy ending” framing story is the one where the emergency room doctors discover that the protagonist’s “crazy” story is true, and call the FBI, with the implication that the world is now saved. This frame story was added against the wishes of the director, who intended the story to end with the protagonist on the highway, screaming “They’re here, They’re here!!” and being ignored — a quite pessimistic ending.

      As to “why that is” — Priestley called it Admass.

      1. I enjoyed both your comments about happy endings (or the lack thereof). This reminded me of some things I learned in classes, during my misspent youth as a liberal arts major in college. I was not actually an English major, but I took several courses in literature, including modern British and Canadian literature. I was surprised to learn that the book “A Clockwork Orange” had been released with two different endings, a “happy” (or less unhappy) ending for the American release, and the original (even less happy) ending that was released at home in England. There was discussion of why American audiences were resistant to stories without a happy ending (the attempted “Disneyfication” of the world), and what I got out of it was, that Americans can get away with believing in happy endings because the U.S. has never (as of yet) suffered a military invasion from a foreign power (not counting the American Indians being invaded by the United States army, of course). Whereas, people in England and Europe had frequently been invaded, bombed, and conquered, and this tends to make them view happy endings with suspicion. In another class, I remember discussing the works of a professor who had written a book about the progression of attitudes from comedy, to romance, to tragedy. I’m kicking myself, but I can’t remember her name right now to give you the citation, it’s buried in a box of paper notes out on my back porch somewhere. Anyway, in the beginning, Americans viewed themselves as chosen, and they believed they were creating a new, utopian society, and they were sure everything would turn out “alright.” During this stage, they see their story as a “comedy” (in the classical sense of a story with a happy ending, not the modern sense of jokes and pratfalls and the Three Stooges, which maybe you might think is more like modern America than a Shakespeare play). During the second stage, Americans realize that maybe everything in the world isn’t going their way, and they can’t win every battle and always come out ahead, but they still believe that after they go through all these tribulations, everything will come out “okay” in the end. This stage is labeled “romance” (in the classical sense of the word “romance” where the knights battle through obstacles to achieve a happy ending, not in the modern sense of sentimental books with buxom ladies on the covers that are creased open to the torrid love scenes). Then finally, the third stage (which perhaps we have not yet reached) is to view our history as a “tragedy,” which simply means that everything is NOT going to be alright and we are NOT going to get a happy ending. So, going back to the movie about the pod people, Don Siegel is perhaps seeing America as a tragedy, while his producers and money men are still seeing it as a “romance” (in the sense of still believing in the happy ending). I read somewhere that Don Siegel got his start in movies by editing the “montage” sequences at the beginnings of 1940s movies (the bits where you see newspaper headlines flying by, interposed with little artistic pictures that show you everything that is happening in the background of the movie in five seconds instead of thirty minutes, and I wish modern directors still knew this technique). My point being that Don Siegel’s background was World War II, and whether you see World War II as a romance or a tragedy, depends a bit on whether you are identifying with the victorious American troops, or all the millions of victims who died before the victory marches. This is a fantastic post and excellent discussion, thank you!

        1. Interesting insights! I had felt that the “happy ending” of Body Snatchers somehow undercut the message of the film, and I think this genre change from tragedy to romance helps articulate why.

          I certainly hope we haven’t gotten to the tragedy stage, and what I find interesting about this is that Siegel (an American) and Priestley (who was British) both seemed to be seeing the signs of the makings of a tragedy at the same period of time. And they both expressed it in very similar ways. Maybe another difference here is that on one side of the Atlantic, people (as personified by Siegel’s producers) didn’t want to see the impending tragedy, and didn’t want it to even be expressed fictionally. Priestley and Siegel, on the other hand, wanted to put it out there so it could be dealt with.

          And by the way, I think Priestley was inherently an optimist, hence the quote that I closed with in the article. He wanted life to still be a romance.

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