Two Eras of Terror: Comparing “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Thing”

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The term “genre” (when used to describe a certain type of film) is usually intended to encompass many different filmic aspects into a singular descriptor. Immediate recollections of spaceships and alien life forms come to mind when referencing a film of the science fiction genre, whereas supernatural happenings and grotesque images of monsters have evolved into stereotypical signifiers of horror films. But these two genres encompass far more than such superficial (and sometimes altogether unsubstantiated) elements most audiences have come to associate with them would suggest. Throughout the different periods of Hollywood film production, both of these genres have produced films that extend into thematic and/or aesthetic territory commonly associated with the other. The science fiction/horror hybrid films The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Thing (1982)reflect various aesthetic and thematic elements which set them apart from their contemporaneous genre brethren; however, both films ultimately rely on classical components to craft linear narratives for their respective audience.

The narrative of 1956’s The Invasion of the Body Snatchers initially functions as an ominous mystery. The residents of the fictional town of Santa Mira begin to notice minute, intangible disruptions in their relationships with friends and family; a young boy begins to violently oppose contact with his parents while a young woman claims that the uncle she has been living with for years is simply (and unexplainably) not the same man any more. Each of the townsfolk confide within the local doctor, Miles Burnell, who initially seems to think little of the strange wave of paranoia sweeping the population. As the film unfolds it is revealed that pods from outer space have taken up residence alongside the inhabitants of Santa Mira, craft physical duplicates of the townspeople, replace their “real” bodies as they sleep, and ultimately create a new breed of humanlike beings which feel no emotion.

The film displays various elements of both the horror and science fiction genres, yet neither characteristic identifies the film as a generic whole. Cited within Steve Neale’s Genre and Hollywood, Christine Gledhill describes the horror film as (at its basic core) rooted in the filmmakers’ attempt to essentially horrify the audience, and various aesthetic elements of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers lend the film to that notion (93). Purely from a visceral standpoint, the film creates an unsettling mood through its use of lighting and non-diegetic music to characterize any given narrative action as ominous or threatening, allowing such scenes to become externally horrifying on the basis of audience perception alone. For example, many scenes within the film involving the discovery of human replicants within the pods are accompanied by subdued lighting which casts long shadows, shrouds corners in darkness, and ultimately creates a frightening tone that correlates with the narrative action (Hantke 193). The primary characteristic of the horror film remains the idea that its reception is intended to be a frightening one, and while The Invasion of the Body Snatchers does provide ample subject matter that can be viewed as frightening (death and alien invasion) the film more predominantly displays characteristics of the science fiction genre (Hantke viii).

Vivian Sobchack asserts that the science fiction film generally depicts “society and its institutions in conflict with each other or with some alien other” and that the conflict generally takes place inside a community with a large populace (30). The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is explicitly about an invasion of earth by, as one character states, an alien form of life. The film depicts the conflict that arises between the humans and the alien-made replicants, which lends the film to one of the most common characteristics of science fiction narrative. The interesting thing about The Invasion of the Body Snatchers becomes its reliance on the fact that the invaders of the planet essentially look exactly the same as the humans they are replacing, allowing the film to become much more implicit (and socio-politically critical) in terms of its depiction of the “monstrous other” classically represented in science fiction film (Neale 102).

In terms outside of genre-specific classification, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers fits in with various tropes of post-classical Hollywood cinema while at the same time retaining its hold on classic form in narrative and through its representation of 1950s society. Thomas Schatz outlines the classical Hollywood film as being comprised of the “exposition, complication, and resolution [which] provide the basis for classical ‘three-act’ construction” (47). The Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ narrative unfolds in such fashion that reflects the classical style; a peaceful town exists in harmony, is plagued by mysterious happenings which prompt the protagonists’ curiosity, and ultimately succumbs to the invading alien force. The characters in the film can also be viewed as byproducts of classical script construction in the sense that they are what Schatz would describe as “static narrative agents who activate and finally are subordinate to the workings of the plot” seeing as their development as characters (aside from a subplot involving romance between the two) never takes precedence over the invasion (62). The conclusion of the picture also adheres to classical narrative form, yet can also be viewed as inconsistent with classical style due to its violation of the “happy ending” rule. The classical “happy ending” provides a sense of closure for the film’s narrative, tying up loose ends in a manner that leaves nothing unclear for the audience (Schatz 64). The Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ ending provides a diegetic result as opposed to concrete closure for the audience. The ending involves mass amounts of pods being driven in truckloads to other cities, a direct address to the audience (McCarthy points into the lens and screams “You’re next!”), and overall implications that the invaders will succeed in world domination, giving the words “The End” that appear over the last shot dual meaning for the audience (the film is over) and the characters (their world is now over). The ending provides closure in the sense that it depicts a clear enough distinction between which characters have trumped the other. In this case the “bad guys” are implied as superior in opposition to the “happy ending” result which would most likely have involved the real humans defeating the invaders.

The film presents the diegetic world as one in which only two types of characters exist; those who are human (and therefore inherently “good”) and those who are inhuman (therefore inherently “evil”). Similarly, the sense of morality displayed by the characters is not situational; it is universal seeing as certain people can “feel” the difference in the replicants since they are implicitly of sound mind and heart.

The world of the classical Hollywood narrative must also (in some sense) correspond to the audience within which the world inhabits, and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers adheres to various social norms throughout its course while subverting certain attitudes as well (Schatz 62). The film’s representation of women is, in the most general sense possible, an unfavorable one; various female characters are seen as panicky, paranoid, over-emotional (particularly Teddy), weak, and literally bogged down by feminine materials (particularly Becky, who decides to run through the hills of Los Angeles wearing high heels and a sun dress, exhaustedly collapsing every ten steps or so). The societal role of women is apparent simply through examination of various other scenes, including one in which Dr. Bennell’s secretary (Sally) picks him up from the train station. Both characters retreat back to a car that Sally undoubtedly drove to the station in order to pick Dr. Bennell up, yet before he can even reach the car Sally opens the passenger door and climbs in; her place as a passive female is therefore assumed by her as well as the audience.

Although such representations of women are superficially unflattering, Errol Vieth describes women in science fiction pictures as vessels to convey certain traditional opinions that “clearly [indicate] the values of the status quo regarding marriage and the position of women” (143). Becky also represents a variation of the traditional woman as represented by Hollywood in the sense that she is not traditionally married nor is she single; she is twice divorced. Seeing as portions of the Production Code barred filmmakers from including any immoral acts (as defined by conservatives, some of the Catholic Church), the inclusion of a divorced woman as the heroine in a film violates certain traditional standards (Pramaggiore and Willis 316).

In similar opposition to classical Hollywood, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers works as a postclassical social metaphor, in this case interpreted alongside the contemporaneous communist scare that swept the United States through the 1950s (Sherman 103). The film is essentially about a threat to the public that is unseen or in the very least sense unintelligible from stranger to stranger on the street, which reflects its Cold War undertones concerning communists as seemingly “normal” people infiltrating American traditions and values just like the invaders in the film (Schatz 88).

26 Years after the release of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, John Carpenter released The Thing, his filmic adaptation of Who Goes There?, a literary workby John W. Campbell. Carpenter’s film similarly combines various aspects of the horror and science fiction genres within a narrative that depicts a team of researchers in the Antarctic battling an alien creature that has invaded their camp. Similar to the invaders in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the creature in The Thing replicates life forms on earth. Instead of replacing living things with replications, the creature in Carpenter’s film violently ingests its prey and genetically alters itself to resemble what it has consumed.

Like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Carpenter’s film utilizes certain aspects of the horror genre (including the aforementioned tropes of viscerally frightening imagery, dramatic lighting, etc.) and fuses them with aforementioned elements of science fiction (such as the invasion of an alien “other”, amongst other things). The end result is a film which draws on traditional elements of classic science fiction and horror films like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers yet also displays postmodern flair in the fact that it is a “splatter film”.

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Postmodern American “splatter films” generally utilize graphic depictions of violence and gore (as The Thing undoubtedly does) in order to elicit a visceral response to the imagery; therefore, through various depictions of grotesque images (primarily involving a monstrously contorted alien creature) The Thing harkens back to 1950s monster movies that exploited similarly repulsive subjects (Arnzen, vol. 21). Within Postmodern Hollywood, M. Keith Booker discusses a primary characteristic of postmodernism which involves the use of nostalgic aesthetic elements (such as music, imagery, and setting) to connect the film with time periods of years past, particularly the 1950s (47-49). An example of this within The Thing comes in the form of a scene in which the alien invader attempts to ingest one of the researchers’ dismembered heads, fuses it with its own genetics, and morphs into a spider-like monstrosity that still bears resemblance to its human prey. The scene elicits a visceral reaction to the transformation at once because of its explicitly violent content as well as its depiction of a subject that is meant to be feared despite its clear retention of physical human qualities. This notion lends itself to Thomas Schatz’s observations concerning a string of classical 1950s science fiction films (including The Invasion of the Body Snatchers) within which a trend of the genre emerged; the fear of the “other” ultimately translates into fear of humanity itself through antagonistic invaders taking on physical human form (154). The film therefore nostalgically adheres to certain postclassical representations of “the growing indistinguishability [sic] of the monstrous from the human” within science fiction and horror films of the 1950s (Cumbow 113).

The overall sense of morality created within the diegetic world of Carpenter’s The Thing reflects a rejection of the classical moral homogeneity of something like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a film within which the “good” (humans) are clearly represented as the only alternative to the “bad” (the alien invaders). The Thing undoubtedly presents the audience with a monstrous alien “other” meant to be viewed as an intrusive (and grotesque) opposition to human beings, yet by the end of the film the humanity (or lack thereof) displayed by the protagonists calls the audience to question the characters’ moral stature. The film establishes the group of researchers as members of a group that coexist yet share little interpersonal connection aside from their shared geographical location. The alien invader functions as a catalyst for their feelings of isolation and disconnect to manifest (complimented by the mise en scene involving an isolated Antarctic location). Robert Cumbow observes that “the creature is a metaphor for the already deteriorated condition of human interaction: deception, dishonesty, [and] distrust…Carpenter’s The Thing is about the ineluctable isolation of the individual” (114). The men must come to terms with their own instincts of self-preservation amidst a group of others who could possibly be the alternative to what they physically represent; since the alien invader can take the form of the human body, paranoia becomes a byproduct of the men’s desire to survive. Each of the scenes proceeding the revelation of the alien’s shape-shifting capabilities is tinged with paranoid undertones, particularly one which involves the “testing” of each man’s blood. The test involves placing a hot wire into a Petri dish of extracted blood. Since the alien’s blood will supposedly disperse in an attempt to protect itself from harm (it is apparently comprised of self-preserving organisms) the test will reveal who amongst the group is literally the alien “other”. The sense of anti-classical morality is therefore situationally-based on the diegetic occurrences. If one member of the group fails the blood test, he is killed. If a member of the group acts suspiciously, he is treated as an “other” despite no proof that he has done anything wrong. The sense of paranoia within the group provides a basis for their situational judgments, essentially eliminating classical clear-cut depictions of diegetic homogeneity, morality, and black-and-white binary oppositions.

Despite these non-classical elements, the film is ultimately structured in a classical format. The aforementioned classical three-act structure ties the film together through causal organization of events; the film establishes the research base, establishes the problem through the intrusion of the alien, and resolves it through the death of the intruder. Invisible editing also dominates the film’s narrative, providing a concise and unobtrusive viewing experience for the audience. The film’s ending, similar to the ending of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, provides a result of action in favor of narrative closure; the alien invader has been killed (although it is not confirmed, rather it is implied) but the act of killing it requires a complete destruction of the research base, leaving the two surviving protagonists without shelter from the harsh Antarctic weather. The ending, also similar to that of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, plays on the aforementioned classical “happy ending” in the sense that it provides an action which should constitute as “happy” (the implied death of the alien) but is marred by the impending doom which surely awaits the protagonists.

While The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing share similarities in terms of aesthetic and thematic characteristics of postclassical and postmodern styles respectively, both films differ from each other in various ways as well. For example, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a film which strays from the depiction of overt violence whereas The Thing largely fits in with the aforementioned “splatter film” through its repeated use of explicitly violent subject matter.

The most glaring difference between the two, however, is each film’s contrasting mise en scene (particularly setting) and its complimentary narrative function. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers diegetic world consists of a densely-populated suburban California landscape. The Thing presents its narrative within the confines of an isolated, remote Antarctic research station completely disconnected from the rest of humanity. Each film uses its setting highlight its respective representation of the shared subject of alien invasion. Both films seek to alienate their protagonists from the world around them. Dr. Bennell and Becky in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers are isolated from the population around them due to their willing rejection of the invaders’ dominance whereas the researchers within The Thing have already been separated from a human populace. The researchers are, however, confined within close proximity to each other and (eventually) the alien. They are not subject to the expansive threat that the outside world of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers presents in terms of other people; rather their anxieties result from the confined, paranoia-inducing settings of their claustrophobic, monotonous interior space. The Thing contains cinematography which emphasizes the vast emptiness of the world around the researchers and juxtaposes such shots with those reflecting the confined living space for which they inhabit. Close ups and medium shots are favored during the interior spaces whereas long shots and extreme long shots dominate the exterior scenes. This characterizes the external setting as one of hopeless isolation and internally as stifling to interpersonal connections. The Thing works largely on this basis alone, and if placed within the setting of something like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers would not work in a thematic sense. The Thing draws on its tones of isolation to create a fear of helplessness whereas The Invasion of the Body Snatchers uses the mentality of a mass population pursuing the protagonists to create a sense of forced conformity at the hands of the overwhelming majority.

Both The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing are examples of horror/science fiction hybrid films which display various elements of stylistic ideals in their respective right. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers combines contemporaneous political undertones with alternative representations of 1950s societal traditions to create a narrative tinged with postclassical highlights. The Thing utilizes the shocking exploitation tactics of the “splatter” film to nostalgically connect itself with classic monster movies of the 1950s in a postmodern fashion. Both films, however, are ultimately tied to classical aesthetic principles concerning clarity of narrative including invisible editing, causality, and the three act structure.

Cited:

Arnzen, Michael A. “Who’s Laughing Now? The Postmodern Splatter Film.” Journal of Popular Film & Television 21.4 (1994): 176-79. Print.

Booker, M. Keith. Postmodern Hollywood. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007. Print.

Cumbow, Robert C. Order in the Universe: the Films of John Carpenter. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1990. Print.

Hantke, Steffen. Horror Film: Creating and Marketing Fear. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2004. Print.

Jancovich, Mark, Joanne Hollows, and Peter Hutchings. The Film Studies Reader. London: Arnold, 2000. Print.

Neale, Stephen. Genre and Hollywood. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Pramaggiore, Maria, and Tom Wallis. Film: a Critical Introduction. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2008. Print.

Schatz, Thomas. Old Hollywood/New Hollywood: Ritual, Art, and Industry. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research, 1983. Print.

Sherman, Fraser A. Screen Enemies of the American Way: Political Paranoia About Nazis, Communists, Saboteurs, Terrorists and Body Snatching Aliens in Film and Television. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. Print.

Sobchack, Vivian. Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2004. Print.

Vieth, Errol. Screening Science. Lanham: Scarecrow, 2001. Print.

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