Friday, December 05, 2014

The Body Stealers



Sometimes you watch a film, find it mildly diverting, then forget about until you come across some mention of it in print or on the web and you find yourself asking - why all the hate?  Such is the case with Tigon's 1969 pulp science fiction thriller The Body Stealers.  If you are to believe the critics (both professional and amateur) this is the worst British film ever made - a worthless farrago with a lame script, poor pacing and threadbare production values.  However, when the film turned up on TV for the first time in years, on Movies4Men last Saturday afternoon, I was left wondering just where all that vitriol had come from.  It certainly isn't the worst British film ever.  Not even close.  Damn it, even Tigon made worse films than The Body Stealers - what I've seen of Zeta One, for instance, indicates even poorer production values, dialogue and performances.  Sure, The Body Stealers is, by no stretch of the imagination, a great movie.  It probably isn't even a good movie, but it is surprisingly entertaining in a barking mad sort of way.  In fact, I'd say that it was my second favourite completely insane Tigon film after their delirious giant moth horror flick The Blood Beast Terror.

In fact, The Body Stealers has much in common with The Blood Beast Terror: a meandering plot in which various characters you think are going to be significant are swiftly (and somewhat arbitrarily) killed off, a mysterious beautiful woman who isn't what she seems (alien in Body Stealers, giant moth in Blood Beast) and a cast of well known British actors looking all at sea, (Robert Flemyng features in both, whilst George Sanders as a General in Body Stealers looks even more bewildered by the script that Peter Cushing's police inspector had in Blood Beast).  But, unlike the Victorian era set Blood Beast Terror, The Body Stealers has a contemporary setting and its portrayal of the very late sixties makes for a fascinating cultural time capsule, particularly with regard to sexual politics.  Despite only having third billing, future Barrett Homes salesman Patrick Allen actually plays the lead character, a sort of freelance sex pest called Bob, who is called in to investigate a series of mysterious disappearances of parachutists.  Bob is apparently incapable of even walking past an attractive young woman without attempting to seduce her, make some kind of sexist comment or simply ogle her.  Amazingly, to twenty first century eyes, he never seems to get slapped or reprimanded for sexual harassment.  Indeed, his behaviour is seen as some kind of acceptable norm.  It's clear that women really love this kind of attention - when they reject him, they're just playing hard to get.

Even Hilary Dwyer's lady scientist is ultimately unable to resist his 'charms' (even though he's simultaneously attempting to get his leg over - to use the vernacular of the time - with alien temptress Lorna) - she might wear glasses, look down microscopes and come up with vital scientific evidence, but it is clear that her place is to be entirely subsidiary to the male characters.  Only Lorna is allowed to be more proactive and show herself superior to (some) of the men - but she isn't really a woman: she's an alien whose apparently human female form is merely a fa├žade.   Fascinatingly, 1969's idea of an irresistable male sex bomb who can seduce both lady scientists and alien temptresses is a middle aged man with a penchant for wearing cardigans.  This theme is bizarrely continued with Allan Cutherbertson's senior civil servant 'working late' with his secretary - the sight of the one-time straight man to Tommy Cooper and Terry and June being undressed by a young girl in her underwear is something you'll never forget.

Whilst it is true to say that the plot of The Body Stealers makes no sense,  (surely there must be less conspicuous ways for technologically advanced aliens to kidnap parachutists than dematerialising them in mid-air whilst they jump), and that the production values and performances often leave something to be desired, (the NATO base looks suspiciously like the Shepperton Studios office block and their 'laboratory' is curiously devoid of scientific equipment, whilst Maurice Evans' utter contempt is all too evident when announcing that he's 'from the planet Migon'), but that would be to miss the point.  The film's true pleasures lie in its attention to the little details of life in late sixties Britain: the seedy hotel full of sales reps who drive Ford Cortinas, the manual telephone switch boards, the afore-mentioned casual sexism and that curious, uneasy, co-existence of tradition and new-fangled 'grooviness' (embodied in Allen's clearly establishment troubleshooter who adopts many of the trappings of the 'swinging sixties' in order to 'pull birds').  It takes us back to a time when the military used Ford Zodiacs and Zephyrs as staff cars (they use MkIIIs in the film, but I know from my childhood memories that by that time the real military were using the bigger and boxier MkIVs), and Hillman Imps were still considered fashionable.  Hell, not only does The Body Stealers feature Neil (brother of Sean) Connery's only film appearance other than OK Connery, the alien spaceship is the Dalek flying saucer from the Daleks Invasion Earth film.  On top of all that, it also has the most groovy sixties musical score.  What's not to like?

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