By Andrew Wallace / October 22, 2018
The being from another planet is a perennial trope in science fiction. There are many variations: from the apocalyptic invasion scenario of War of the Worlds (1897) and Independence Day (1996) to the friendly visitations of It Came from Outer Space (1953) and E.T. (1982). But there is also a more subtle, troubling narrative: that of the alien in disguise, whose malign intent is hidden behind a familiar face. I’ll look at five films that have become part of our culture, the possible reasons for why they have endured, and the ways in which the narrative has evolved. I’ve chosen films in which the invasion is unnoticed, which rules out the TV mini-series V (1983), where disguised reptilian aliens arrive in giant spaceships a la Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953). Post-9/11 politics would have us believe (wrongly) that immigrants of any kind are the source of problems besetting Western civilization, and while the aliens in the films I’ve chosen are antagonistic, they represent complex threats emanating from humanity itself. It is for this reason that I will also skip parables in which the alien is benign, like The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Superman (1978).
The films come from very different times: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel, was released in 1956; its remake of the same name, directed by Philip Kaufmann, was released in 1979; I Married a Monster from Outer Space was directed by Gene Fowler Jr. and came out in 1958; The Thing (1982) was directed by John Carpenter, and the same director wrote and helmed 1988’s They Live. I look at Invasion of the Body Snatchers twice because of the notable differences between the versions, and because—astonishingly, considering the decade that also brought us Star Wars (1977) and Alien (1979)—it’s the only movie from the 1970s that fits my criteria.
I’ll start with I Married a Monster from Outer Space because it is an oddity among the chosen pieces. It’s the only film that wasn’t adapted from a work of literature (the original screenplay is by Louis Vittes), the only domestic drama, and the only story with a female lead. As per cultural and commercial expectations of the time, Tom Tryon gets top billing as the alien husband, but this is Gloria Talbott’s film. It is a great shame she wasn’t served by a title or poster that better represents the story, which far from the hysteria suggested (“The bride wore terror!”) is a study, through the prism of paranoid science fiction, of gender politics. It remains depressingly relevant.
Released as the second half of a double bill with headliner The Blob (another alien invasion story), the film opens with a stag party thrown for small-town insurance salesman Bill Farrell (Tryon). There is much revealing banter about how Bill’s life is over now that he is getting married, which prefigures his replacement in the next scene by a horrific humanoid alien in disguise. The following day, ersatz Bill marries the beautiful, rather vampish-looking Marge, and the couple drives off to their honeymoon. Marge is friendly, nervous, and loyal, tolerating Bill snapping at her for asking why he is driving with the lights off. Later, Marge goes inside to wait for Bill in bed. Bill seems confused, reluctant to sleep with his new wife; lightning reveals his gnarled alien face under the brooding, chiselled features. Horribly, he joins Marge, and the screen fades. This sequence is more disturbing than the physical appearance of the aliens, or even their silent takeover of increasing numbers of men in the town. Marge is sleeping with an imposter, and does not know her choice has been removed. Just because there is no overt violence doesn’t mean the act isn’t rape. All five films deal with visceral as well as psychological horror, but I Married a Monster from Outer Space is the most queasily intimate.
For example, in the next scene at her doctor’s, Marge is looking at an x-ray of her body, asking why she can’t get pregnant after a year of trying. The doctor, unique among authority figures in this genre, is a decent realist who explains that it took him and his wife five years to conceive. As well as the nauseating thought of twelve months’ sex with a distant, unemotional, literally inhuman male, this scene foregrounds the expectations of a post-World War II human society that expects women to conceive upon demand. It is an expectation reflected in the ambition of the aliens: exclusively male following the destruction of the females by radiation from a supernova, they need to breed with women on other worlds to prevent their species from dying out. They haven’t had much success. “Life,” intones alien Bill when Marge finally confronts him, “is rarer than you might think.”
Thus we come to another element of the film that lifts it above the norm, and a reason why it should be more highly regarded than it is. The aliens are tragic characters; their desire is simply to survive rather than plunder the earth’s raw materials because they are evil. Alien Bill undergoes another transformation: taking on human form, it turns out, causes him to develop emotions. Unlike the Body Snatchers, the aliens in I Married a Monster evolve. At the film’s climax, rescuers find the spaceship with the original human men inside, hooked up to a device that enables the aliens to maintain human form. As they disconnect them, the aliens in human form die. Bill is the last to go; he faces Marge and tries to explain how he feels; love, perhaps, and certainly regret. For all the somber horror that has gone before, it is an emotional wrench to see alien Bill dissolve just as he becomes properly human. This moment of tortured realization makes alien Bill more empathetic than the original, who drunkenly indulged his friends telling him his life would be over when he married Marge.
While the aliens’ actions are not defensible—an advanced race could surely have tried integrating with the wider human society—they reflect the attitudes and actions of the human male characters with uncomfortable accuracy. On Earth, women exist only to get married; none of them have jobs and, other than Marge, the only interesting female character is the desperately lonely, drunken woman who frequents the same bar as the men. In another grim reflection of a time when to be a flirtatious female was deemed socially unacceptable, even the aliens don’t want her, and she is disintegrated with bleak efficiency when she sees one of them without his disguise. The bar itself is a pretty horrible place, owned by a “comedy drunk” whose destroyed appearance is almost as strange as the aliens. Marge rushes there when she first sees Bill without his human disguise and is, predictably, not believed. Instead, a sleazy man follows her out—not because he believes her story, but because he thinks her marriage is in trouble and he might have a chance of sleeping with her. He hangs around outside her house until two alien cops get him with a disintegrator because he is of “no use to them.”
Marge is a great female lead: brave, quietly stoic, and unquestionably decent. There is a telling missed opportunity in the narrative, when the doctor uses a neat bit of science fiction to determine which of the local men have been duplicated. Despite genetic tampering, the aliens have not yet figured out how to impregnate earth women, so the doc rounds up all the most recent fathers to form a posse to go after the alien space ship. It would have been so much simpler and bolder narratively if he had simply armed the women. The emotional heart of a dark film, Marge is well-served by Gloria Talbott’s unique performance. When Bill reveals the alien’s plan to have children with earth women, we get the second creepiest moment of the film: “What… kind of children?” Marge says, horrified—yet, incredibly, not without empathy. “Our kind,” drones Bill.
Although I Married a Monster from Outer Space was made two years later, the first Invasion of the Body Snatchers has a more striking technical design; scenes are lit with a single match, with light shining in through a cupboard window or through slats in a mine and, most memorably, by the headlights of vehicles driving past the man screaming a truth no one wants to hear. The tone of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is more hysterical than I Married a Monster from Outer Space, despite the unrepresentative marketing of the latter, although its title too is misleading. Based on Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, the aliens in the film do not “snatch” bodies; they copy them and absorb everything about the original host except individuality and emotion. There is a violence implied in the title—imposed by the studio—that does not exist in the film. Indeed, another common theme in the five movies chosen is the lack of violence employed by the aliens; they are subtle, insidious, and seductive. When challenged, matters tend to change, although it’s usually the humans who use violence first. The worst occurs when protagonist Doctor Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) uses a pitchfork to destroy a pod-double of himself. Revealingly, he is unable to destroy the pod-double of his love, Becky (Dana Wynter), which is growing next to his own.
The 1956 version of the story crackles with terrified energy, while the 1978 film is suffused with a late-1970s hopelessness, which is best expressed as a slow-working dread. The later version, with its washed-out colors and a scene in which the protagonist’s car windscreen is damaged by restaurant workers he has unfavorably inspected, suggests a society that is already broken. However, a closer examination of the earlier film shows similar cracks in the facade. Both Miles and Becky are divorced, and both have returned from “elsewhere”—Miles at a conference, Becky from England (where director Siegel studied for a time). Becky’s father lives alone, and her cousin was bought up by her aunt and uncle. The nuclear family, so long relied upon as the building block of society despite its many flaws and limitations, is already falling apart, and the only way to keep it together is to acquiesce to the pod-people, who make all that difficult stuff just go away.
Miles and Becky were lovers before, then went their separate ways for reasons that are never made clear. It’s an interesting mystery, because there is a fond, flirty chemistry between McCarthy and Wynter that is a fundamental part of why the film is so scary. We want these two people to be together, to utilize their experience of the uncanny to overcome whatever convention kept them apart the first time around. They were college friends, despite McCarthy clearly being older (by 17 years). He has a career as a doctor, while she doesn’t seem to have a job, and the only role mentioned for her is as a wife. Becky is a more passive character than Marge in I Married a Monster from Outer Space. Marge makes her own decisions throughout the film, including the quietly awful one to simply go home despite knowing what awaits her, to prevent the aliens finding out that the humans now know the truth. Becky weakens quickly; Miles must carry her towards the end as they flee the pod people; then she falls asleep and provides the film with its most tragic moment: in a mine shaft, dripping with water like two elemental beings, Miles and Becky kiss. There is a discordant note in the soundtrack, similar in tone to the eerie siren the pod people are sounding in the background. Miles draws back, his eyes wide with horror… I first saw the film when I was very young, and the image that has stayed with me in the years since is Becky’s expression in this sequence. Her glacial stare is truly unknowable. We know the pod people have no emotion, but is that disgust in her eyes? Contempt? Or is assimilated Becky merely expressing an animated deadness, a void as empty as that between galaxies, for us to project our latent fears upon.
Much has been made elsewhere of the possible hidden meanings in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Is it a parable about fears of communist infiltration, or a reaction to the persecution perpetrated by Senator Joseph McCarthy (no relation to Kevin) that took place shortly before the film was made? Is it a more general study of conformity, of the dread that lies beneath the willing compliance of a sizeable but not exclusive proportion of society with an American Dream that has whitewashed the country’s racist, genocidal origins? The pod people make guilt disappear, after all, and to take part in a dream you must be asleep.
That the McCarthy anti-communist “witch hunt” trials were aimed at Hollywood acknowledges the industry’s power as an influencer of national narrative. By the late ’70s, that power had changed dramatically, for two reasons. One was the rise of television, which They Live explores in such accurate detail—even predicting populist meta-narratives and the aspirations influenced by reality TV. The other is that the two versions of Body Snatchers bracket the assassination of JFK, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. The later film isn’t just about paranoia, which by then had evolved a language of its own, but about social alienation. There is a bleak, nihilistic rage behind it, which is even expressed in the physicality of the actors. Both McCarthy and Wynter have large eyes, while those of Donald Sutherland, Veronica Cartright, and Jeff Goldblum are huge, as if these people have evolved extra capacity to perceive truth in the moral muck around them. There is the bonus of their natural expressions being both terrified and furious. This rage is reflected in the awful expression of the pod people—particularly that final horrific image. If Dana Wynter achieved a look of the otherworldly sublime, or contempt, the pod people in the 1978 movie look as dementedly angry as their victims. There is a kind of hunger to it, as if the burned-out consumer culture that would receive such an acidic shot in the arm by Reaganomics a few years later was ferociously determined to devour itself in the absence of any other raw material.
Nature is little help in this crisis, despite the best efforts of its finest representative: the dog. Dogs are pivotal characters in all the films selected except They Live, although that movie makes the point that working class humans are the underdogs, or, more specifically, cattle. In I Married a Monster from Outer Space, Marge gives Bill a dog as an anniversary present. The dog isn’t having it, though; he growls and snaps at Bill, who breaks the poor beast’s neck in the basement and blames it on a lead malfunction. The canines have their revenge, however; bullets don’t affect the aliens, who have a woody, bark-like skin that appears to absorb ordinance. Instead, two German Shepherds attack the aliens and rip out their breathing tubes, exposing them to the oxygen that is deadly to them. Dogs are of less use in Invasion of the Body Snatchers; Miles and Becky are pretending to be pod-people when a dog runs in front of a truck, causing Becky to scream: an emotional response a pod-person wouldn’t have. The 1978 film goes further; one of the pods has gone wrong, creating a dog with a human face. It’s horror that gives the heroine away in the later movie, rather than compassion, although the outcome is the same.
Then there is John Carpenter’s The Thing, where dogs feature most of all. The first we see of the shape-shifting alien is when a dog from a wrecked Norwegian base spooks the other hounds in the kennel of US Antarctic research base. It is a fittingly eerie sequence, and takes its time. The dog goes into the kennel, and the dog-handler Clark (Richard Masur) departs. The other dogs take note of the newcomer, which sits in the center of the room with a very un-dog-like stillness. Like Bill’s ill-fated pet in I Married a Monster from Outer Space, the other sled dogs know what the humans do not: that this creature is not what it appears to be. The alien dog doesn’t so much change as erupt in an ever-evolving sequence of mutation that overwhelms everything around it.
The first three films we’ve talked about deal in the possibilities of madness; characters consider themselves to have gone insane during the story, but the affliction is often hidden, its possibility hinted at by the skill of an actor like Kevin McCarthy, whose handsome face registers both existential terror and its counterpoint, grief. The Thing brings madness right out into the open with visceral transformation sequences so horrific it is difficult to make sense of them upon first viewing. Only humor helps, and that of the bleakest, most dazed kind: “You’ve… gotta be fucking kidding me” intones David Clennon’s Palmer, his face slack, in response to the conversion of yet another colleague to—literally—the stuff of nightmares.
The film’s protagonist, chopper pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell), shares with the unnamed hero of They Live a rugged, blue-collar practicality. It is he who comes up with the brilliantly science-fictional solution of identifying the alien: all its cells are autonomous creatures, so they should react individually to heat. He takes blood from everyone and sticks a heated wire into the dishes. The scientists think he’s being stupid, until (during a spat of believably character-based bickering) the blood jumps out of its petri dish with a nasty screech. As with the dog characters, which sense the truth beneath the surface, this sequence considers a visceral honesty: a truth that cannot ultimately be hidden, despite the cunning of the aliens.
Each of the films deals with isolation, and The Thing takes this theme still further with its Antarctic setting. Extreme cold, storms, and darkness close in, and then the helicopters and radios are sabotaged, cutting off the characters as thoroughly as the crew of the starship Nostromo in Alien. Geographical separation in all five films funnels into a more specific character isolation as a protagonist finds him or herself the only voice of truth in a seemingly unchanged world that seethes with hidden threat. There is that idea of madness again, of doubting yourself in the face of the unimaginable. And yet, how many of us feel out of step with contemporary life, even without pod-people?
It is significant that the dogs are not the first ones assimilated by the alien. The protean dog has been loose around the base for some time before it is put in the kennel, where it can no longer hide its identity. It seeds copies of itself while the main creature, which has possessed scientist Blair (Wilford Brimley), gets himself locked away alone by pretending to be insane so he can build a spaceship, escape to civilization, and replicate, as the Body Snatchers do. This arc also expresses another chilling aspect of these stories: just how clever the aliens are, and the Blair-Thing leads in this regard. It predicts exactly what the other characters will do, and adjusts its grim plans accordingly. It even knows to choose an older, smaller character instead of one of the alphas like Russell, Mansur, or Keith David’s Childs.
While the Blair-Thing might be the most insidiously, enigmatically intelligent extra-terrestrial foe considered, this ability to manipulate both physical form and the emotional responses of human victims is nowhere more pronounced than in the last film under consideration, They Live, also directed by Carpenter. Given the extraordinary “monster from the id” that is the alien in The Thing, I was surprised that a later film by the same director featured antagonists that were so, well, rubbish. This, of course, is the point. There is nothing special about the aliens of They Live. Their taste in clothes is bad, their wigs are terrible, and their revealed faces are skull-like, yet tacky. Their appetites are the same as ours, and they die just as easily. They are a parasitic upper class whose one creation is a financial system that relies not just on masquerade, but on the willing acquiescence of a critical mass of the subservient population. Even their technology—based on “bending light”—is probably ripped off from other, better aliens. Unique among the antagonists considered, they don’t “take you over,” because they don’t need to, and, in all likelihood, lack the imagination to come up with a means of doing so.
They Live is becoming an increasingly hard watch. The unnamed protagonist, who in the credits is called John Nada, is an unemployed builder who arrives in Cleveland seeking work. He finds it at a a building site, where another worker called Frank (The Thing’s Keith David) takes pity on him and shows him he can stay at what is essentially a working-class refugee camp on the outskirts of the city. In the film, these camps are a common phenomenon now that the aliens have dismantled civic society and replaced it with the sort of idiot capitalism where wealth dribbles down—like molasses. Images of garbage and waste permeate the film; Nada hides the sunglasses that reveal the aliens in a bin, fights beside Frank among trash cans in an alley, and is even trapped in a dump truck at one point. The society humans have so painstakingly constructed is viewed by the aliens and their collaborators as inconvenient waste, so that is what it has become.
The famous sunglasses block a signal transmitted by the aliens to cover their true features, rendering everything black and white. As well as being an effective contrast to the garish colors of the rest of the film, this device harks back to the black and white films of the fifties, like I Married a Monster from Outer Space and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Black and white imagery has always had a cache of authenticity, reflected in the suggestion in the movie that film itself is more authentic—certainly more so than television, which, in They Live, is stuffed with aliens. One of them is even a conservative critic suggesting that directors like George A. Romero and John Carpenter “reign it in.” Picking on artists instead of the gangster capitalists who are the real problem is a staple of repressive conservatism, which, until Fox News and its ilk, found its most effective expression in the McCarthy witch-hunts. The film skewers this establishment authoritarianism by revealing the true message of adverts on billboards and TV: OBEY, they state with Orwellian directness; MARRY AND REPRODUCE; DO NOT QUESTION.
Chillingly, the most intelligent course of action seems to be to join the alien conspiracy rather than fight it. There are two expressions of this kind of choice in the film. One is Meg Foster’s character Holly, who is, perhaps inevitably, a middle-class TV executive. She calculates that the right decision is to join the aliens, because what else can you do? There is a sense that to resist would be stupid and dangerous, not just in terms of what the aliens will do if they find out, but in the assumption that society itself has no other choice: that this system is the only one that works, even when it demonstrably doesn’t.
The other expression of almost mythical reluctance to see the light is the notoriously long fight between Nada and Frank. It could be that Carpenter was relying on lead actor Roddy Piper’s background as a WWF star to gain traction with fans, but my interpretation is that Frank’s dementedly obstinate refusal to look through the sunglasses is down to our tendency to just put up with things regardless of how bad they are; a conservatism of a different kind, no less problematic for being submissive.
Until now, this piece has been a guilty joy to write, examining the workings of some beautifully crafted films, relishing their shivery sense of visceral horror, and considering the brilliant, subversive ideas behind them. However, the alien-in-disguise movie has had its day. One reason for this decline is that aliens aren’t that sexy any more. Our science fictional fears of “otherness” are now projected onto artificial intelligence, even though we don’t understand how our own minds work yet. Another is that, with the exception of The Thing, whose secrets presumably die with its protagonists, the positive climax involves revelation of the masquerade, followed by an assurance that democratically elected powers and their noble operatives will do the right thing and restore humane order.
We now know that such revelations categorically do not work in real life. There were no terrorists or weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and George W. Bush still won re-election. Given the subsequent death count, that act was much more egregious than the one that drove Nixon from office. Then there is the current administration, such as it is. Everything that has happened since the election of Donald Trump, from wanton environmental destruction to the establishment of concentration camps on US soil, has happened in the full media glare and with giddy, malicious approval from a sizeable proportion of the American public.
In They Live, the aliens look absurd with their wigs and frumpy clothes, but so too does the current US “president,” with his weird, glued-on hair, fake orange face, and taped-on necktie. Unlike They Live, a significant, well-crafted film that predicts the horror Trump and his creatures have perpetrated on America and the world, the man is a loathsome relic of the ’80s: peddling lies, racism, and contempt to an audience that is fully aware of what he is, and supports him anyway. In the era of “grab ‘em by the pussy,” even I Married a Monster from Outer Space doesn’t seem old-fashioned.
In the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Miles talks about how, as a doctor, he has seen people become like the aliens, despite not being taken over by them. He tells Becky about how humanity drains away slowly, how people don’t seem to mind. We seem to have gone past that point. In one of the great science-fiction movie exchanges, the body-snatching aliens, who now have the form of Miles and Becky’s friends, attempt to reason with the couple in a scene that is no less terrifying for being seductive. The accompanying soundtrack music is romantic, tragic even, as the soft-voiced psychiatrist Kauffman promises that “There’s no pain… you’re reborn into an untroubled world.” Significantly, the aliens have an answer for everything, some of it bitingly accurate. Miles says that he loves Becky, and Kauffman replies: “You’ve been in love before. It didn’t last. It never does. Love, desire, ambition, faith—without them, life’s so simple, believe me.” Miles shakes his head and calmly tells the aliens that he “doesn’t want any part of it.” The music turns menacing, and Kauffman’s eyes harden. “You have no choice,” he says.
Andrew Wallace is a novelist based in England. He writes for the British Science Fiction Association and magazines including Vector and The Shadow Booth; he also blogs about SFF and the creative process at Life in Sci-Fi. The first two novels of his far-future Diamond Roads series (Sons of the Crystal Mind and The Outer Spheres) are out now, and his novella Celebrity Werewolf will be published by NewCon Press next Easter.