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Body Stealers, The

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Invasion of the Bodies/Thin Air
Release Date: 
Odeon Entertainment
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Gerry Levy
George Sanders
Maurice Evans
Patrick Allen
Neil Connery
Hilary Dwyer
Bottom Line: 

Odeon Entertainment pluck another semi-forgotten British genre piece from the vaults of Tony Tenser’s sixties production house Tigon, with their Best of British DVD re-release of “The Body Stealers”; but despite a top-notch cast and a talented crew of then already proven talent, such as cinematographer John Coquillon and editor Howard Lanning (both fresh off the artistic success of Michael Reeves’  “The Witchfinder General”), working behind the scenes, this cut price 50s-style sci-fi adventure second feature, intended as a popular, A rated summer release and pitched at a family audience to accompany the US produced, Darren ‘Kolchak’ McGavin starring, “Mars Mission” (for which Tigon had recently obtained distribution rights), fails to maintain much interest other than as a means to marvel at how committed a performance Hilary Dwyer manages to give in such an insultingly underwritten part. George Sanders is top-billed for a derisory secondary role that must have taken him all of one morning to shoot and yet still manages to register his complete indifference to proceedings even with such limited screen time. The former star of “All About Eve” was by now forced to slum it in the likes of middling Jess Franco pot boilers (“The Girl from Rio” is a token effort even by the Spanish maverick’s slapdash standards) after a mishandling of his finances had led him inexorably into bankruptcy, and even gave a press interview at the time to publicise “The Body Stealers”, which acts as about as damning a critique as anyone could have given the film, then or now. Reproduced in John Hamilton’s excellent ‘Beasts in the Cellar: The Exploitation Career of Tony Tenser’, it is worth quoting in full as the last word on this sorry effort (although even I’m not that lazy):

‘I don’t know what it was about. I don’t see any of my movies. All I know is that there were some planes going over and parachutes fell out and there was a big mystery of some sort because there were no bodies. I played a General or something because I remember looking through a pair of binoculars and saying “good God!” and a lot of rubbish like that’.

Yep … that’s about the size of it! Tenser actually planned this lethargic British-American co-production with tiny Florida-based outfit Sagittarius Films, to be a spearhead for his expansion of the Tigon brand, but the utterly nonsensical and flimsy script (which originally went by the less evocative title “Thin Air”) by one-time American actor Mike St. Clair, and routinely turgid and uninspired direction by former distributor turned hack-director for hire Gerry Levy, makes that ambition now seem laughable. The film wants so desperately to court a late-sixties Avengers-like mix of sexiness and James Bond adventure-espionage, and with it to exemplify the low budget gloss of sophistication attached to Department S or Strange Report-style science fiction mystery. It has the look and feel of an ITC adventure series (and a cast stuffed with familiar faces from such TV exploits) but somehow contrives to look a great deal cheaper and low-rent than Lew Grade’s formula action shows, and has half the wit or invention of even the most forced episode of “Jason King”. The film was eventually released in the early part of the summer of 1968 to avoid conflict with that year’s mainstream blockbusters, but in the wake of Stanley Kubrick’s game-changing “2001: A Space Odyssey” no one was fooled by such old-fashioned fare for long – although it managed to do adequate business thanks to Tenser’s skill at disingenuous marketing campaigns. It’s also worth commenting that even such innocuous material as this was forced to run the gauntlet of BBFC censor John Trevelyan, who insisted on an X certificate until a skinny dipping scene from the film’s would-be starlet Lorna Wild was cut to mere seconds, and several seconds sheared from Hilary Dwyer’s climactic screaming fit to make it less disturbing for a young audience! 

Duty binds me to attempt a slightly more detailed synopsis than the film’s main star felt able to provide at the time, although the story is actually pretty nebulous and even Patrick Allen, who plays the womanising, lantern-jawed hero of the piece ( but is still only the third name on the billing!), subsequently claimed that he had no idea what his character was actually meant to be doing all the way through the film (‘my first thought on reading the script was how much does it pay, not ‘oh no it’s Tigon!’ quipped Allen). Levy, operating under his non de plume Peter Marcus, doctored St. Clair’s script to change the location from California to England. Levy was evidently Tenser’s  go-to man  for filleting other people’s screenplays and performed similar duties on the almost equally woeful “The Curse of the Crimson Altar” and Michael Armstrong’s “The Haunted House of Horror”.  

After Reg Tilsley’s jazz inflected title theme (the composer provides amusingly histrionic cues throughout that attempt to make uneventful, slackly directed set-pieces at least sound a great deal more exciting than they ever manage to look) we witness a demonstration of a new experimental parachute designed by military boffin Jim Radford (played by Neil, brother of Sean, Connery – about as close to Bond as the film gets!) and overseen by British military top brass led by General Armstrong (George Sanders). When the parachutists (top trained British air force pilots mooted as potential astronaut material) vanish into thin air in mid drop, leaving just their parachutes floating over the Home Counties, something-must-be-done, Man from the Ministry Hindsmith (the always reliable-for-pin-stripe-&-bowler stiffs, Allan Cuthbertson) demands immediate action, thinking that the Russians or the Chinese might be up to no good. Radford calls in an independent expert:  his old mate, former air force hero and now freelance trouble-shooter and full time Lothario, Bob Megan (Patrick Allen) to solve the mystery.

This set-up gloss’s over a multitude of plot contrivances: we’re never told exactly what is supposed to be so special about Radford’s ‘experimental’ parachutes; they look suspiciously like regular parachutes to me! Also, Hindsmith’s demands for action never deter him from also insisting that training exercises continue unabated, despite it emerging that top parachutists have been disappearing all over the country for some time (as illustrated by some stock air show footage of the Red Arrows in action). In between sexually harassing and leering at every female that moves, including dedicated NATO scientist Julie Slade (Hilary Dwyer, somehow injecting believability into the most thankless female role imaginable), Megan potters around in a cardigan seemingly doing nothing very much with any urgency. For some reason, NATO and the Government can’t even be arsed to give their top man on the job a decent hotel suite; Megan is forced to slum it in a sleepy country Bed & Breakfast above a pub instead, the attentions of the middle-aged-and-bored-to-tears landlady and barmaid (played by Luke Skywalker’s aunt in “Star Wars”, Shelagh Fraser) being the only female company he seems at all eager to spurn.

Megan’s lackadaisical, woman-chasing sleuthing methods unexpectedly pay dividends though when he becomes infatuated with a statuesque, scanty-clad blonde beauty (former model Lorna Wild) who he spies forlornly gazing at the stars while he’s strolling along a nearby beach one night. After he’s wasted little time in jumping on her and attempting to snog her to within an inch of her life, the mysterious beauty pulls away and runs off. Although he should be contemplating the charge for assault and sexual harassment he most assuredly deserves, Megan instead notices that the woman is able to disappear into thin air after flitting behind a sand dune, despite there being no obvious exit from the beach discernible. Meanwhile, more odd events are occurring elsewhere: a guard at a nearby military base is murdered and the parachutes of the disappeared pilots being examined there stolen; Julie is attacked and coshed across the head on the point of making a major discovery in the laboratory;  and after one of the vanished pilots is discovered dead with every cell in his body altered as though he’d become adapted to life in an alien atmosphere, Bob Megan begins to realise extra-terrestrial forces rather than foreign powers are behind the strange events.

The film meanders towards a less than thrilling conclusion as Radford suspects Megan’s blonde beau of being part of the alien conspiracy after her image fails to register on film (we never learn why he’s sneakily taking photos of the couple in the first place) but then gets murdered himself while attempting to follow her.  Julie gets into more danger when the big twist is finally revealed (look away now if you actually care): her senior at the lab, Doctor Matthews (Maurice Evans), has at some point been taken over by the aliens and has been behind the whole plot the entire time. Evans, who was at one time in his career a hugely respected theatre star, will be familiar to genre fans for a string of TV appearances as long as your arm and for juicy slots in Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” as well as for starring as science minister with a big secret to hide, Doctor Zaius, in the first two films in the Planet of the Apes series (shot on either side of this little effort). Here he has to dress up in a silver romper suit and attempt to point a toy ray gun with menaces after the affable Doctor Matthews is revealed to be behind what turns out to be a silly plot to repopulate his dying alien planet. Luckily the plan is foiled by Bob Megan’s sexual dynamism: Lorna the blonde beauty switches sides at the crucial moment out of love for our redoubtable hero, and agrees to Bob’s plan to find volunteers to help her rebuild her world through collaborative efforts instead of carrying out the procedure by force. It’s never explained why if these aliens have semi-magical powers which allow them to shape-shift into human form, and the ability to alter the cellular constitution of a human being, that they couldn’t just have solved their population problems through less invasive means to begin with.

“The Body Stealers” is not so much a bad film as just plain indifferent, particularly in the limited screenplay and in its flat direction. It’s amazing that the cast remain, throughout it all, such a spirited and game bunch; apart from an indifferent Sanders that is, most of the actors attempt to give the threadbare material a decent showing. Evans, Allen, Cuthbertson and Dwyer do wonders with their thinly written roles; Bob Megan may be a sub-Bondian misogynist posing as a romantic ladies man, but  Patrick Allen is always impossible to dislike in any role; and Cuthbertson, who can do ‘pompous stuffed shirt’ in his sleep, is in full officious nitwit flow here. Dwyer manages to compensate for the film’s complete lack of any credible alien threat on screen by reacting as though she’s being menaced by the most hideous sight conceivable when she stumbles into Matthews’ country cottage (which turns out to be the alien base, with the kidnapped parachutists stacked in futuristic bunk beds!) and uncovers the ludicrous plot. There’s also a small role for Sally Faulkner as a red herring of a secretary to Hindsmith, who looks incredibly like Diana Rigg here (which is as close as the film ever comes to the sophistication of “The Avengers”!). But these are the only kinds of pleasures really to be afforded to the modern viewer: for this is Tigon at its lowest ebb, lazily relying on previously tried and tested formulae such as casting photogenic but hopeless model-actress Lorna Wild, while all the while science fiction was becoming far more sophisticated than this film’s Saturday matinee plotting could cope with. This is a watchable curiosity piece but should be viewed with a healthy sense of humour, preferably while nursing a stiff drink or two.

The region 2 DVD from Odeon Entertainment features a middling, unrestored but watchable full-screen transfer (which appears to be an un-matted print rather than a cropped version) and reedy, thin mono audio track. The only extras are the film’s theatrical trailer and a collection of trailers for other titles in Odeon Entertainment’s Best of British cycle.

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