Okay, for this week's installment of movies that have sincerely freaked me out, we're back on the horror shelf with a classic that many of you may recognize as one of the stronger influences on The Prospero Chronicles.
(The first two books of which are, incidentally, presently on sale on Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and all other ebook platforms, for the seasonally celebratory sum of $1.99 each, for the whole month of October. We now return you to your regularly scheduled list article.)
If you haven't seen the ‘70s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, here's how it goes:
After a strange botanical specimen falls from the sky in San Francisco, some of the residents begin behaving oddly, so oddly that a few of their loved ones, including one of our heroes, Elizabeth, go so far as to conclude that the victims, who include Elizabeth’s boyfriend, are no longer themselves at all.
Why it's terrifying:
This one's all about paranoia, in different phases and from different angles. It's a pretty long one for a horror movie, nearly two hours, and that's because everything frightening about this whole scenario gets its own act.
We start out with Elizabeth fearing for her sanity for thinking that something like this could happen, and fearing not being believed if it is. When she goes to one of her friends, Matthew, for advice, he tries to talk her into discussing it casually with a psychiatrist he knows, guessing, based on what’s going on in her life at the time, that she might subconsciously want to believe her boyfriend has been replaced by something inhuman.
Even better, once the evidence does build up, the characters deal with it about as rationally as can be expected and start guarding each other in shifts to avoid being replaced.
The question changes from "Who's going to believe me?" to "Who's going to help us?" And that's just as scary, because not only is pod person evidence tricky to hold onto, the pod people are a step ahead of this ad hoc investigation, focusing their replacements on police and anyone in a position to corroborate our heroes' stories.
Finally, the power shifts to such a degree that this is no longer a story about aliens hiding among humans. It's about the few remaining humans trying to hide among the aliens, who are determined to weed them out. The aliens' imitation of human behavior is imperfect, but the only way to avoid being overpowered and replaced is to imitate the aliens' imitation of human behavior, making it nearly impossible for the humans to signal their humanity to each other.
The remaining humans soon realize that the greatest threat to their survival will be their need for company, if every time they're split up the safest thing to do is stay split, begging the question of whether the chance to stay human is worth sacrificing a fundamental element of their humanity.
I did mention that this was a major inspiration for The Prospero Chronicles, right?
Okay, now for the scarring part.
All this is scary enough, at least it is in this movie where the characters are likeable and distinguishable enough for us to mourn their separation and the erasure of their humanity, unlike other similar stories that seem to think the concept alone is enough.
Once the pod people have a secure stranglehold on the world, enough that it's not them but the humans who have to hide, they begin pointing out any humans they notice to each other by pointing and making quite possibly the most horrifying sound ever concocted.
It's animal-like and unearthly. It's nails-on-a-chalkboard teeth grinding, but worse than what how it sounds is what it means.
It's the cop siren behind you on the freeway. It's the teacher saying your name when you weren't paying attention. It's the alarm you forgot you set for the appointment you didn't want to remember, only the appointment is for being erased, absorbed and impersonated forever after by an alien being.
And it means the person pointing and screeching at you has already had that happen to them, in case you were hoping otherwise.
It's the “you're busted, you screwed up, and you can't fix it now” sound, and it will stand my hair on end every time.
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