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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Body Stealers

Tigon Pictures sought to produce a more general-audience film than its usual exploitation and horror fare. The Body Snatchers (TBS) was certainly a milder project, though perhaps too mild. Patterned, in part, along the traditional sci-fi trope of alien abductions and substitutions, that plot line itself is abducted by low-budget James-Bond-esque elements. An uneasy alliance of government, military and scientists try to uncover the mystery of 14 men who disappeared in "Thin Air" (an alternate title). The film features a couple familiar (if not that big) names, such as George Sanders and Maurice Evans, but is mostly filled out with lesser or obscure actors.

  Quick Plot Synopsis
Three men skydive to test out a Jim's new parachute design. While they're floating down, they disappear. Only their chutes come to earth. At an air show, exhibition skydivers also disappear without a trace. Jim (Niel Connery, yes, Sean's brother) and General Armstrong (Sanders) want all parachute jumps cancelled while they investigate. Mr. Hindsmith, a Minister's aide, blusters pompously. Jim and Armstrong are told to investigate quietly to avoid publicity. Jim calls on Bob Megan (Patrick Allen), who has an overactive libido. Cynical Bob doesn't really care, but takes the job for $25,000. Bob finds a parachute pack buckle on the airfield. Later that night, Bob comes across a tall leggy blond on the beach. He quickly puts the moves on Lorna, who kisses back, but runs away and disappears. Later, Jim tells Bob to "lay off the dames." They meet Dr. Julie Slade who is not charmed by Bob. Word comes in that they found one of the missing men, but he dies. Later still, Bob is killing time on the beach. Lorna reappears, apologizes for running off. They kiss some more. It's implied that they go far beyond that. Next morning, Jim comes upon them, taking photos. Lorna runs away again. At the hotel, Julie calls with news. Before she can tell Bob, she's knocked out. Bob rushes to the lab. She's sore, but okay. Dr. Matthews thinks it might all be something extraterrestrial, but Bob scoffs. Julie explains that the fiber of the parachutes and even dead Harry's tissues were changed. Radiation? Maybe something more. The parachutes are gone. Bob fetches his buckle. It tests radioactive too. Jim's photos showed only Bob. Lorna did not photograph. Bob plans to do a skydive himself, in a radiation-proof suit, to investigate. Lorna tries to talk him out of it. He goes on up. Jim chases Lorna into the woods. Sees something. Screams, and is later found dead. Bob parachutes, feels the same pain, sound and disappears for a short while. He reappears, but remembers nothing. Bob goes to talk to Armstrong. Julie goes to find the now-missing Matthews. At Matthew's dark and spooky house, Julie looks down in the creepy basement. She finds Matthews (dead) and under glass. She turns and delivers two really serious screams, then faints. Bob finds Lorna at the beach again. Hug, kiss. Meanwhile, Armstrong finds out that Matthews signed the test papers saying the chute's were fine. Bob follows Lorna to Matthews house, where he finds the fainted Julie. One of the aliens. named Martis, appears, looking like Matthews. Exposits about how their planet, Mygon, is dying of a plague and they needed these kidnapped men to help them. Martis plans to kills Bob and Julie for knowing too much, but lurking Lorna stuns Martis with her ray gun. Bob persuades Lorna to leave the kidnapped men. He'll drum up a squad of volunteers when she comes back in a year. The men start to wake up. Jim walks Lorna to her ship. They hug and kiss some more, then she disappears, as does the ship. No one will believe the whole incident, so Hindsmith says to lose the files and just pretend it never happened. The military men smile and agree. Julie flies off with Bob in his private plane. The End.

  Why is this movie fun?
Another iteration of the venerable body-snatcher trope has a level of fun, even if done poorly. The aerial footage adds some visual fun. Aviation fans get a few more visual treats too.

  Cold War Angle
With the mixture of traditional themes and tropes, it is doubtful that the writers or producer were crafting anything related to the Cold War.

Snatchers -- The premise plays on the old body-snatchers trope of Golden Era sci-fi. The aliens in TBS are both simple kidnappers, but also the traditional form-takers. They do all this, not to invade, but because they need humans to help them with their plague problem. Though one wonders what earthling parachutists would have had to offer this Mygonian civilization that builds interplanetary space cruisers and has ray weapons.

  Ol' Fashioned Abduction? -- The original story had perhaps come from late 50s, or early 60s when alien-takeover was still cool). Even the title is obviously close to the 1956 classic. By 1967, when They Came From Beyond Space was produced, the trope was already tired. There are some small hints that the original script may have been intended for an American production that wasn't especially forthcoming. Note that Jim refers to women as "dames" (not a british-ism) and also promises to pay Bob 20,000 dollars (not pounds).

  Too Much Plot? -- The traditional plot of aliens abducting humans and taking on human form, was itself abducted and took on the form of a "free love" spy "thriller." The newer writers were much more interested in Bob's rapid sexual conquests than aliens abducting people. What was the point of Jim discovering that aliens can be photographed? If poor Harry's body was transformed into something "else", what about all those men in the basement waking up? Aren't they something "else" too? What about the plague on planet Mygon? If the Minister wants it all to have "never happened", will there be any volunteers like Bob said? Ministerial denial is tidy, but Lorna is coming back in a year. What then? The writers had far too many ideas to ever get resolved in one low-budget movie.

  Cheap Dames -- A curious feature to TBS is how women are portrayed. Except for Dr. Julie, they're little more than objects for sexual conquest -- even if they're aliens. In that vein, the alien-of-interest is a tall blond with long legs and fond of short short short skirts, though she never appears in the two-piece shown in the poster. Hindsmith's secretaries smilingly accept that their job is to "please" the boss. The poor hotel keeper, Mrs. Thatcher (a past-prime woman fond of deep-cut necklines) blatantly wishes she could "please" like the young girls, but gets no offers. Yes, movies are short, but Bob's character is written such that serious necking, (and more, if time allows) routinely follows "Hi, what's your name?"

Good Alien / Bad Alien -- We only get two aliens: Lorna and Martis. She is "good", while he is "bad." She is enjoying the sensuality of the human form (skinny dipping, sex, etc.). She develops compassion for us lowly humans. Martis is heartless and goes about his kidnapping mission with no remorse. Good triumphs over evil. This duality is also an old trope. The Brain From Planet Arous ('57) being a flagrant example. Teenagers From Outer Space ('59) also featured the alien who gets a soft spot for earthlings because of "love."

  Talk is Cheap -- The producers and director followed the B film solution to having too much story for their budget. Quite often, the characters sit in plain rooms talking about events off camera rather than those events being filmed. Talk is much cheaper than special effects or stunts. Some missing elements suggest that the aerial footage might have eaten most of the meager budget, forcing the cheap talk. Jim sees something behind the tree, screams and dies. Julie sees what we must assume is the alien Martis in his horrible native form. She screams and faints. This would have been the logical spot for the director to show the hideous alien (model, mask, makeup, post-production optical effects…something) even if only briefly. But we see nothing, making her scream pretty pointless. Perhaps there was no budget left for it. The omission leaves an odd hole.

  Prop Watch -- You have to wait until the final few minutes of the movie, but you get to find out that Lorna and Martis are (or must be) Dalek's. Her ship is clearly the saucer-cruiser featured in Dalek's Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. ('66). Tigon must have paid some licensing fee for the use of the model from Amicus Productions. Perhaps they paid by the minute, as the appearance is very brief.

  Plane Crazy -- A visual treat for aviation buffs is the multiple appearances of the De Havilland DH89 "Dragon Rapide" twin-engine biplane. First built in 1934, the DH89s were a mainstay of pre-war local passenger service. It's an unusual plane for American audiences. Also of minor interest is Bob's personal plane, a Beagle Pup. The Beagle company was on hard times and hoped the Pup would be a popular private aviation machine. It wasn't popular enough. Beagle made it for only two years, 68-70) then went into receivership.

 Bottom line? Viewers with a low tolerance for very cheaply done films might want to give TBS a miss. Fans of cheap Bond knock-offs will get to see Bob try to jump anything with two X chromosomes. TBS is definitely a weak member of the alien-takeover genre, but fans of that flavor will find a little bit to like. The airfield settings and occasional skydiving are different, but perhaps not enough for most folks.

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