Sunday, August 26, 2007

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) & Fiend Without a Face (1958)

Another double feature, this time at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theater. It's been several years since I last watched Invasion of the Body Snatchers, so this time I was interested to notice how straightforward and unaffected the movie really is - aside from the bookending scenes the narrative is clean and direct. Don Siegel was never a strongly expressive director with the camera, and only rarely resorts to odd camera angles or cinematographic tricks to create 'scary' moods, so that the movie's power truly derives from the careful rise of narrative tension and strong, direct performances. For example, this is just about the movie's creepiest shot: That's the town of Santa Mira, entirely made of pod people, coming together for a meeting, but it's only creepy because of the uncanniness inherent in the story at that moment. Another reason for this movie's success has to do with how realistic it all feels, with the vast bulk of the film apparently shot on location, or at least on sets that are better designed than most sci-fi movies from this period. It really feels like we're watching small-town people in a real small town.

Interpretations of this movie's subtext usually revert to fears of either Communism or 1950s American conformity, depending on the ideology of the critic. But the film wouldn't have the longevity it's had if it was just a simple contemporary allegory along those lines. Instead to me, it feels more like the fears this movie raises are about 20th century modernity in general, the loss of 'small-town' values to crushing, anonymous, emotionless ways of life that included both Communism and American conformism alike, which turn neighbor against neighbor, lover against lover in the blink of an eye.

People have also complained about the bookend scenes, added to blunt the impact of the original ending of the movie with Kevin McCarthy screaming into the camera 'You're next!' While it's true that the new ending prevents the movie from ending on a note of shrieking, hysterical horror, it's not a completely happy ending. The film closes on a shot of McCarthy's exhausted, devastated face, aware that everyone that he ever knew or loved is gone forever. It's a consolation for him to know that he's no longer considered to be a madman, but a small consolation nonetheless.

After that, Fiend Without a Face. There were a whole bunch of sci-fi movies in the 1950s and '60s made in Britain with an American in the lead so as to appeal to both markets, and this is one of them, set in rural Canada next to an American Air Force Base where a bunch of locals are being mysteriously killed. After a while we find out that the titular fiends are actually monsters created by a well-meaning scientist as part of his experiments in telekinesis, to 'materialize thoughts'. As so often happens in these movies, instead of helping humanity the experiments create crawling beasties who suck peoples' brains out of their skulls.
It's kind of a generic movie without the layers of emotion or artistry of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it's fun enough to watch stop-motion rubber brains crawl around and try to attack people, if you're into that kind of thing. What subtext the movie does have has to do with the fears of atomic power (risky in the hands of ambitious, if well-meaning scientists) and the resentment felt by locals over American military bases (also well-meaning but misunderstood by stubborn and superstitious locals).

One moment that I especially liked in this movie involves a local who goes out hunting for the mysterious killer (he thinks it's an American soldier gone nuts) who wanders back after being attacked but not killed. A city council meeting is happening to discuss these events when suddenly a curious moaning is heard - it rises until the victim walks in, gibbering and clearly lobotomized by the monsters. The audience at the Egyptian had to laugh at this, which is too bad, because to me it felt downright terrifying and emotionally violent. There's also a long expository scene where the kindly scientist is explaining his experiments in his secret lab, which even his secretary didn't know existed. He responds ominously, "If you knew what I was working on in there, you would never have returned to this house." Then, without missing a beat, in his most grandfatherly tone, "I'll show it to you later." Now that is funny.

No comments: