Strangely, I think I need to dedicate this review to my physical therapist, since we have been discussing this film for our past three appointments. She begins each session with some hands-on massage and treatment, coaxing my weak and wounded knee into bending just a tiny bit further than last time while I lie on my back and wince. This doesn’t give me much else to do, so ever since I told her about this blog, she asks about “what’s the last film you saw” to distract me.
Surprisingly, she hadn’t ever heard of this film – one which I’d heard about for years. So for her sake, in case there are others similarly unfamiliar: Kevin McCarthy is Dr. Miles Bennell, a doctor in the small California town of Santa Mira. He returns from a business trip to messages from his head nurse that a number of patients had been urgently asking to see him, each with the same complaint – they feared that something was wrong with one of their other family members. Even more curious, now that Dr. Bennell is back and following up with them, many wave away their complaints and insist that it was nothing. One patient, Wilma (Virginia Christine), still has concerns, so he visits her for a consult, and she says that something just seems off about her father. He looks fine, he seems mentally all there, but…there’s something emotionless and hollow about him. In fact, Wilma insists, it’s almost like her real father were stolen and replaced with an identical-looking imposter.
It’s an outrageous claim, and Dr. Bennell makes a mental note to get Wilma a psych consult. But he’s a bit distracted when he learns that Wilma’s cousin Becky (Dana Wynter), his old girlfriend, is back in town and conveniently single. And, Becky is all too eager for a date that night (as soon as Bennell sets something up for Wilma, of course). But no sooner have they settled down to their pre-dinner drinks when Bennell gets a call from a panicked-sounding friend of his, Jack (King Donovan) – Jack has just discovered a body in his basement. But not until Bennell and Becky show up do they discover that this body is actually a copy of Jack. Bennell later discovers a similar lifeless copy of Becky in Becky’s basement, and summons police. But both bodies have disappeared by the time police turn up, with the psychiatrist in tow, and all try to convince Bennell and Jack that they were just seeing things. But…there’s something a little uncanny about them all. Something emotionless and hollow….
I had to explain to my physical therapist that this was the origin of the term “pod people”, because of the cocoon-like pods in which these duplicate bodies grow before taking over their hosts. And that gradually, Dr. Bennell and Becky find themselves on the run from everyone in town, all of whom seem to be attempting to turn them into “pod people” themselves before mass-producing them and spreading them around the country. “This kind of paranoia was classic 1950s sci-fi,” I told my therapist, “everyone out to get you.”
The thing is, though – I had assumed that the real “danger” the film was warning about was Communism. A handful of conversations Dr. Bennell have with some “pod people” urging him to give in seem to support that – they speak of the benefits of living in “an untroubled world” where “everyone is the same”, and how life is much simpler without complex emotions and individuality. However, some contemporary critics have argued just as strong a case for McCarthyism being the boogeyman – the near-forced conversions, the relentless hunt to root out dissent. Still others pointed to the stories of brainwashing techniques being tested on Korean War P.O.W.’s.
Ironically, the filmmakers intended none of these. Director Don Siegel had something of an allegory in mind, but he was thinking more of conformity in general, without ascribing it to any political mindset. Kevin McCarthy also stated in later interviews that they were making a simple thriller film, and producer Walter Mirisch backed McCarthy up in his autobiography: “I remember reading a magazine article arguing that the picture was intended as an allegory about the communist infiltration of America. From personal knowledge, neither Walter Wanger nor Don Siegel, who directed it, nor Dan Mainwaring, who wrote the script nor original author Jack Finney, nor myself saw it as anything other than a thriller, pure and simple.”
And it works quite well as a thriller – a slowly-unfolding mystery, a couple of good jump scares, several moments of will-they-escape-in-time. Siegel also wisely avoids falling into the “special effects” trap, relying on moody lighting and the actors’ performances to carry the storytelling. There are those seed pods, but they’re mostly just static props, more intimidating in numbers when you see a great pile of them ready to be shipped off throughout the country. Becky has somewhat more agency than the typical hero’s-girlfriend as well, and the film does not end with a happy “and-now-we-are-safe” moment where they collapse with relief into each other’s arms.
Speaking of the ending, too – I’m not going to spoil things, but I’d heard that there was a last-minute change to the end that dramatically alters the story of the film. The original ending was a good deal more pessimistic, and studios insisted on an epilogue of sorts. I’ve been thinking about the film both ways – and while the new ending is a bit more “Hollywood” happy, I have to say I didn’t mind it. …Although my physical therapist agreed that this kind of Hollywood ending can be a bit far-fetched.