|Submitted by Iain McLachlan |
(Nov 09, 2004)
THE BODY STEALERS
Alternate Titles: INVASION OF THE BODY STEALERS; THIN AIR; OUT OF THIN AIR, ALIEN INVASION.
RT: 92 mins
Pro Co: Tigon British Productions
Dir: Gerry Levy;
Pro: Tony Tenser;
Wrs: Mike St. Clair; Peter Marcus (rev scr).
Phot: Johnny Coquillon;
Film Ed: Howard Lanning;
Mus: Reg Tilsley;
Art Dir: Wilfred Arnold.
Make-Up: Bunty Phillips, Roy Ashton.
Cast: Patrick Allen, Neil Connery, Hilary Dwyer, Lorna Dwyer, George Sanders, Robert Flemying, Maurice Evans, Alan Cuthbertson, Michael Culver, Shelagh Fraser, Sally Faulkner, Carl Rigg, Carolanne Hawkings.
Along with Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky’s Amicus Productions (Torture Garden 1967), Tigon Pictures, headed by maverick producer Tony Tenser, were Hammer’s biggest homegrown competitors in the field of horror. Indeed at one point, Tenser’s company were poised to buy the ailing Hammer, before it was taken over by Michael Carreras.
Tigon evolved from a distribution and production company called Compton Films, that distributed European exploitation and horror product, as well as backing domestic product like Robert Hartford-Davis’s The Black Torment (1964) and Roman Polanski’s modern classic Repulsion (1965). Its successor company also acted as a distributor of other independent producers’ material, but is best known for backing young filmmakers like Michael Reeves (Witchfinder General 1968), Michael Armstrong (The Haunted House of Horror 1969) and Piers Haggard (Blood on Satan’s Claw 1970), as well as the work of more established directors like Vernon Sewell (Curse of the Crimson Altar 1968) and Freddie Francis (The Creeping Flesh 1972).
A NATO military base in the South of England. During an exercise testing a revolutionary new parachute, a strange sound overcomes a group of skydivers and they are seen to disappear, apparently into thin air. The event is witnessed by the inventor of the parachute, Jim Radford, and some army personnel led by General Armstrong, who rush to where the empty parachutes have landed. The General has the area sealed off and orders an investigation into the bizarre incident. Later at a public air show, a group of display parachutists are overcome with the same sound and enveloped in a red light before disappearing into the ether. Armstrong and Radford are called to a meeting with a senior civil servant Hindsmith, in Whitehall. After discussing strong links between the two events, Hindsmith informs them that there have been five other similar events recently, resulting in the disappearance of a total of eleven highly trained and specialised military personnel. Because of the sensitivity surrounding the investigation, he suggests that a cover story be concocted advising that the men have gone overseas on an exercise, and that an outsider be brought in so as not to draw attention to the involvement of the government. Radford suggests a former colleague Joe Megan. He finds him at a remote airfield with his girlfriend and takes him back to the NATO base. After hearing details of the situation, Megan is very reluctant to become involved, even though two of his friends are among the missing. The inventor calls upon his long-standing friendship, and the lure of a $25,000 fee to cajole him into agreeing to take on the assignment. Megan then makes arrangements to obtain details about everyone involved with the research project, including all those who had passes in and out of the base when the trials were being carried out. Accommodation a local seaside hotel is arranged. Joe heads over to the base where the parachutes landed, where he begins a thorough search of his own. There, he manages to locate a buckle from one of the parachutes, which he pockets. In his hotel room, he examines the item at some length but cannot determine what significance, if any, it has. At midnight he decides to go out for a walk along the beach. There he meets a young woman sitting on the sand. He strikes up a friendship with her, despite her mysteriously fending off even the most innocuous questions. Eventually, he discovers her name is Lorna. He attempts to make a direct pass at her but she breaks away and runs off along the shore. Megan attempts to follow her but she apparently disappears from the face of the earth. Back at the hotel, his enquiries about her draw a blank…
The Body Stealers was adapted by Tigon in-house script doctor Peter Marcus from an existing screenplay from Australian supporting actor (Our Man Flint 1966), and sometime screenwriter (Mission Mars 1968) Mike St Clair. St Clair had been working almost exclusively in Hollywood since the start of the 1960s and there are indications that this project began life as an earlier American-based venture. Among these are a number of Americanism retained in the dialogue such as the use of the word “dames” for women, and the fact that the hero is offered dollars rather than sterling for his fee for the investigation.
Another feature retained from the original American screenplay is the collaboration between the military, the government and the scientific establishment. In Hollywood science fiction cinema, this situation is seen as commonplace and, in fact, as something to be encouraged for the common good, as typified by works like Fred F. Sears’ Earth Vs the Flying Saucers (1956) and Bert I. Gordon’s The Beginning of the End (1957). In British genre productions, there is an often uneasy relationship between authority figures and lead characters, often bordering on open hostility, as illustrated by Anton M. Leader’s Children of the Damned (1963) and the Hammer/Nigel Keanle Quatermass trilogy.
Marcus has introduced to some concession to the UK setting that the movie now occurs in. Among these is the presence of a pompous, obverbearing civil servant of the type that only the British establishment can produce, in the form of Allan Cuthbertson (Assault 1971), the sexually frustrated hotel landlady (Shelagh Fraser, Doomwatch 1972) who quietly lusts after all her male guests, and assorted belligerent squaddies. The ending, where rather than deal with the fallout from the investigation, the military simply lose the file on it and ignore everything connected with it, seems a uniquely British reaction.
Although there are some later examples, such as Maury Dexter’s The Day Mars Invaded Earth (1963) and the Freddie Francis/Amicus production They Came From Beyond Space, The Body Stealers’ premise of aliens kidnapping humans or adopting their likeness is most associated with the political paranoia of the 1950s that resulted in pictures like Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space (1953), Don Siegal’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Gen Fowler Jr’s I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958). Given the fact that even the revised version of the screenplay follows this formula so closely, there has to be the suggestion that Mike St. Clair’s original screenplay dates as far back as the early 1960s, or even earlier.
There has been some attempt by Marcus to update the St. Clair’s material. Among these is the presentation of the hero, played by Patrick Allen (Night of the Big Heat 1967). He is seen as more cynical than his predecessors in the genre, only willing to take on the assignment for a hefty fee. He is also much more sexually active, in a post-James Bond manner, with him acting very much as the assertive, sexual predator, carrying on a physical affair with the alien-in-disguise femme fatale Lorna Wilde (Count Downe 1974), while making advances on virginal scientist Hilary Dwyer (The Oblong Box 1969). This perceived new permissiveness is further underlined by Cuthbertson’s civil servant who is seen seducing a number of his secretaries. Outside of these elements, along some of the female performer’s costumes and makeup, there are very few concessions to a contemporary setting by way of characterisations or topical references, meaning that it has little or no value as a cultural artefact from its era.
There is a widely held philosophy amongst filmmakers working in the low-budget end of genre cinema that “talk is cheap”, meaning that to cut costs, running time is padded out with exposition, technical jargon and descriptions of events occurring off-screen. The makers of The Body Stealers follow this religiously. Apart from interminable footage of sky diving and crowd shots at an air show being milked for all they are worth, an assault on a minor character and hysterical reactions to the presence of aliens, this is a film in which very little actually happens.
Despite the best efforts of composer Reg Tilsley to generate some interest in the proceedings by signalling every plot development, no matter how inconsequential, with ominous music, there is a serious lack of urgency or indeed any sort of momentum within the narrative. Matters are not helped plot developments which go nowhere, such as Neil Connery (OK Connery 1967) discovering that the photographs he has taken of Allen with Wilde, retain no image of the latter, or a leading character who misses evidence or ignores that which he does uncover, all apparent to bring the running time up to a feature length. The screenwriter seems more concerned with the hero’s romantic liaisons than the alien abduction element that was the key element in the production’s promotion. Allen’s sexual exploits are handled in such a perfunctory manner by Marcus and Levy that they fail to make any impression on the viewer, and merely underline the haphazardness of the overall plotting.
Movie from the Tigon stable have a reputation for featuring large amounts of exploitative material, including female nudity, action and gore. Sadly the “X” certificate awarded by the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) to The Body Stealers, turns out to be completely unwarranted, with the finished work turning out to be a very modest affair in all senses of the word. In the mid-1970s, it actually turned up on Saturday morning children’s television, along with another recipient of a BBFC “X” certificate, Charles Lamont’s Abbot and Costello Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1953). The only remotely salacious scene occurs when Lorna Wilde strips off for a midnight dip in the ocean, with some partial nudity on display. One of Cuthbertson’s secretaries (Sally Faulkner, Vampyres 1973) is later seen stripped down to her underwear, for the benefit of very easily amused voyeurs.
The much-anticipated unmasking of the aliens’ true selves, in which it is revealed exactly what Connery and Dwyer were screaming at, unfortunately does not materialise. Instead, Maurice Evans (Terror in the Wax Museum 1973) appears, in purportedly futuristic garb, to explain to Allen why his people have been kidnapping humans. The climax does feature one of the few occasions when special effects are employed, with Evans firing a rather tatty looking ray gun that emits a bright red light, much like the one that enveloped the parachutists earlier on. Like everything else in this movie it proves rather ineffectual. Some viewers may wonder exactly what contribution make-up wizard Roy Ashton (The Reptile 1966) made to the enterprise. Of minor interest is the appearance of the alien spacecraft near the end of the picture; it is in fact the Dalek mothership from Gordon Flemyng’s Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966).
Production values are just above the level of superior filmed television dramas such as Department S and The Avengers, with spartan art direction from Wilfred Arnold (Konga 1961) and similar visual style from director Gerry Levy, something of a “fixer” at Tigon, carrying out reshoots on the likes of Curse of the Crimson Altar and The Haunted House of Horror. The cinematography by John Coquillon, a frequent collaborator with American director Sam Peckinpah, makes the film rather more attractive than is the reality, with particularly good use of lighting being made in sequences such as where Hilary Dwyer explores Evans old dark house, along with rather striking examples of location work.
While The Body Stealers remains a resolutely minor work, its cast is superb for such a meagre venture. Probably because the British film industry was heading for one of its periodic depressions, with most of the Hollywood majors pulling out en mass, and domestic production houses facing economic uncertainty, Tigon managed to secure the talents of such notable performers as Hollywood veterans George Sanders (Psychomania 1972), as the harassed general, and Maurice Evans, along with high calibre local talent like Robert Flemying (L’Orrible Segreto del Dr Hichcock 1962) for their production. The supporting players are also excellent, notably an extended cameo by Shelagh Fraser and the striking Hilary Dwyer, who succeeds in making a favourable impression in a basically thankless role.
Apart from an uncredited cameo in Tsui Hark’s Bond spoof Aces Go Places III: Our Man in Bond Street (!984), this was Neil Connery’s last part in a movie, his burgeoning career being scuttled by the collapse of the film industry and appearing in projects like this. He did continue working sporadically in Scotland during the ‘70s and ‘80s.
As Hilary Heath, Hilary Dwyer channelled her talents into production from the mid-1980s onwards, primarily on internationally co-produced television dramas, with the occasional cinematic venture such as Martin Campbell’s Criminal Law (1988) and Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth (1997).
Gerry Levy became of the industry’s most sought after location and production managers, with credits including Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), Michael Apted’s Gorillas in the Mist (1988), and Bob Rafelson’s Mountains of the Moon (1990), along with several TV dramas to his name.
Tigon continued with its production roster until 1974 and the failure of Pete Walker’s gruelling Frightmare, when Tenser parted company with the organisation he founded. It continued to act as a distributor until the 1980s.
©Iain McLachlan 2004
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