“Of course it’s a nightmare! Plants from another world taking over human beings! He’s mad as a March hare!” Well, that blunt diagnosis by an emergency-hospital doctor is what any of us would think if we heard disheveled, grimy and frantic Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) tell his bizarre tale – under police guard and to two psychiatrists, yet – about space aliens invading his sleepy little town nearby.
But…what if…it was all true? Psychiatrist Dr. Hill (Whit Bissell, uncredited but a familiar screen face) calms Miles down by agreeing to listen to him. The movie now unfolds in flashback, with Miles’s voice narrating. “Something evil had taken possession of the town,” he begins.
That town, by the way, is (fictional) Santa Mira, California, and the film’s settings are a treasure-trove glimpse at now-vintage postwar and mid-Fifties cars, middle-class homes and mid-century interior décor – plus a look at mores and manners practically unheard of today, such as a physician lighting up a cigarette and practically prescribing hard liquor every time a crisis arises.
Returning to town from a medical convention, Miles encounters old flame Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter). Both recently divorced, they’re ready to kindle a romance. But trouble is afoot; friends start telling him that in the last two weeks, relatives of theirs have become no longer their real kin but some sort of “imposters.” Naturally Miles assumes these accounts are delusions. His psychiatrist friend Dr. Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates) agrees, calling them “a strange neurosis” and an “epidemic mass hysteria.”
These hypotheses get a big test, however, when Miles’s friends Jack (King Donovan) and Teddy (Carolyn Jones) Belicec urgently summon him to their home. They’ve found a man’s body inside a closet, and they’ve deposited it on their pool table for his inspection. (Isn’t that what anybody would do? Why bother calling the police?) Trouble is, the body is “unfinished,” with some features such as fingerprints not yet formed. So what do Miles, Jack and Teddy do now? They head to the bar next to the pool table for some stiff (pardon the pun) drinks.
Miles leaves and the Belicecs fall asleep at the bar. Teddy awakens, and she sees the “body” moving – and looking just like Jack. She shrieks, and then screams,“It’s alive! It’s alive!” She and Jack flee to Miles’s house. (Still no calling the police!) Hearing their story, Miles has a premonition that Becky’s in danger, so he rushes over to her house. There he discovers a mostly formed doppelganger of her in a bin in the basement. He finds the real Becky asleep upstairs and brings her to his house.
Things get even scarier now. Turns out the replicants grow inside big seed pods. They copy people’s bodies down to the atomic level and assume their minds and memories, at which point the original person’s body “disintegrates.” When Miles, Becky, and the Belicecs find pods lying in Miles’s greenhouse and starting to “hatch” (in stomach-turning close-ups), Miles sends the Belicecs off to seek help and pitchforks one of the critters. He and Becky go to his medical office to hide out for the night.
There they take pills to stay awake; they’ve realized people get replaced only when asleep. Miles tells Becky, “In my practice I’ve seen how we allow our humanity to slowly drain away…All of us, a little bit…we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is, how dear…like you are to me.” He and Becky embrace and kiss.
Peeking out the window the next morning, they see the police chief (Ralph Dumke) supervising a mass dispersal of pods for transport to other towns. Sadly, Jack Belicec has become a “pod person,” and so has Dan Kauffman. They arrive and plan to supervise Miles and Becky’s pod-demise. Told there will be no need for love or other emotions from now on, Miles objects to a world like that, “where everyone’s the same.”
Sounding a little like John Lennon and Yoko Ono composing “Imagine,” Dan intones, “Love, desire, ambition, faith – without them, life’s so simple!” before leaving the couple alone for a moment. Becky tells Miles, “I want to love and be loved. I want your children.” The two trick their captors and escape after knocking them and the police chief out with fast-acting soporific injections – delivered with gusto, by the way.
A chase ensues as pod people sound the tocsin. Not to give away anything, but a crazed-looking Miles ends up in slow-and-go traffic on an early-style freeway, shouting to drivers, among other things, “You’re in danger! They’re after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone! You’re next! You’re next!”
Earlier, Miles had described the alien seeds’ takeovers of people’s bodies as “death to the soul.” And in the Jack Finney novel that inspired this film, the pod people were sterile. Are not anti-life ideas today germinating in society and replacing decency in people’s minds? We have celebration of laws that okay killing babies who survive being aborted; indifference to atrocities such as trafficking in aborted babies’ organs; falling for the sick notion that having children harms the planet; and much more.
Hardened hearts and calloused souls. As Dr. Miles Bennell diagnosed in Santa Mira, “Something evil had taken possession of the town.” Let’s all keep striving and praying – “to stay human.”
Filmed in black and white, this movie is for grownups and older teens, what with repulsive blob-creatures hatching, halfway-there humans forming, a pitchforking (seen just barely offscreen) and much tension, suspense and menace. Don Siegel directed. Daniel Mainwaring wrote the screenplay, based on Jack Finney’s 1955 novel Body Snatchers, which was serialized in Collier’s magazine in 1954. Irva Ross was script supervisor. Carmen Dragon composed the score. Ellsworth Fredericks was the cinematographer and Robert S. Eisen the film editor. Production design was by Edward Haworth and set decoration by Joseph Kish. Milt Rice did special effects and, per IMDB, Don Post (uncredited) did special makeup effects – the seed pods and other props.
— Dan Engler