In 1956's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," a mannequin-like figure mysteriously appears on a billiards table, a half-formed thing without hair, face or fingerprints. Meanwhile, a woman insists that her uncle isn't her uncle, but an imposter who looks just like him; husbands say the same of their wives and children of their parents. The town doctor finally discovers the awful truth: giant, fluid-oozing pods are producing human clones, part of a plot to -- what else? -- take over Earth.
But the science fiction classic isn't just another alien invasion B-picture, according to Jordan Peimer of the Skirball Cultural Center. It's among a group of 1950s sci-fi flicks that mirrored red scare paranoia -- four of which will screen at the Skirball's upcoming "Red Menace Film Series."
The films, which include "Red Planet Mars," "Invaders From Mars" and "Invasion USA," "played on the fear that Communists were secretly infiltrating America," Peimer said. " Suddenly people you knew and loved could be replaced by soulless automatons."
The series, which accompanies the Skirball's "Arnold Mesches: FBI Files," began when Peimer first saw that exhibit at Manhattan's PS 1 gallery about a year ago. There, he learned that the FBI started spying on Mesches, a one-time Communist Party member, during the McCarthy-era blacklists. The collages, inspired by his FBI dossier, included an image of Robby the Robot from the 1956 film, "Forbidden Planet."
While looking at Robby, Peimer suddenly remembered another sci-fi classic, 1978's remake of "Body Snatchers," and reviews that described the original as a political allegory.
"I had always thought of those kinds of movies as guilty pleasures," he said. "So the idea that they actually could contain a sociological message startled me."
Peimer figured a series featuring such films could parallel the paranoia reflected in Mesches' work. Accordingly, "Red Menace" includes movies such as "Red Planet Mars" (1952), in which radio signals reportedly from space spur earthlings into a mass panic. In "Invaders From Mars" (1953), a UFO turns humans into brainwashed (read Commie) aliens.
"The films all describe an inhuman enemy that threatens American society, and that wants to purge it of religion and emotion," said Julianna Brannum, a consultant who helped plan the series.
If the movies seem melodramatic by today's standards, consider the source, Brannum suggested.
"They reflect the level of hysteria people felt about the red menace," she said.
"Red Menace" consists of two Sunday afternoon double features: On Feb. 22, "Red Planet Mars" screens at 1:30 p.m. and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" at 3 p.m.; on March 28, "Invaders From Mars" screens at 1:30 p.m. and "Invasion USA" at 3 p.m. For tickets, $8 (general per double feature), $5 (students and members), call (323) 655-8587.