Robert Wise, 1945
Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater, Russell Wade
Val Lewton’s first film with horror icon Boris Karloff would begin a three-film relationship between the producer and actor, though this remains their finest work together and is possibly the best performance of Karloff’s career. Based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story of the same name, this is one of the first films that Lewton got a writing credit for, even though he had a hand in writing drafts of all of the films he produced. He added an element of realism to the story by including numerous details about real body snatchers William Burke and William Hare who first stole corpses and then begin murdering for profit to sell the bodies to Dr. Robert Knox, who used them for his anatomy classes at the Edinburgh medical college.
The Body Snatcher is set in the late 1800s in Edinburgh, a city that is still recovering from the crimes of Burke and Hare. A local medical student, Donald Fettes, quits medical school because his family can no longer afford it, but his mentor, Dr. MacFarlane recognizes his potential and takes him on as an assistant so that he can continue school. They are visited by Mrs. Marsh, whose young daughter is paralyzed. Mrs. Marsh believes that only Dr. MacFarlane can save Georgina, her daughter, with an operation. MacFarlane claims that he only teaches and no longer operates and sends the devastated woman away. Fettes must convince him to change his mind. Soon after, MacFarlane reveals to Fettes that he regularly has corpses delivered to perform experimental surgery on them and that not all of these corpses come through strictly legal channels. Enter John Gray, a local cabman who is more than he seems and has a very unhealthy relationship with MacFarlane, both business and personal.
This is the final film to feature Karloff and Lugosi together, though Lugosi is barely recognizable in the small role of Joseph, MacFarlane’s servant. Years of alcohol and drug abuse and likely the disappointments of a failing career have not treated him well and he looks far more aged than Karloff here. (In reality, Karloff was only five years younger.) The scene where Joseph confronts Gray and attempts to blackmail him is the finest scene in the film, the most explosively violent, and perfectly illustrates Karloff’s excellence. He is absolutely the reason to see The Body Snatcher and gives a very nuanced performance, ranging between menacing, soulless, murderous and kind, charismatic, and humorous. Henry Daniell also gives a good performance as the slimy, unlikable protagonist, Dr. MacFarlane. As with nearly all of Lewton’s films, the villain is humanized, but in this case, both MacFarlane and Gray are on equal playing fields: morally gray, willing to do anything for money or reputation.
Gray’s humanity, though there is precious little of it, is exposed in his treatment of both the innocent Fettes and the handicapped little girl. He holds her up to pet his horse, which gives her the motivation to stand later in the film, after she finally gets her operation. I don’t believe that Lewton is making a statement about the enduring humanity of men, rather it seems to be a cynical, obscure joke. MacFarlane’s only humanity is shown when he has private moments with housekeeper (Edith Atwater), who is secretly his wife. These are quickly dashed when we realize that he has kept their relationship secret for years because he is more concerned with his professional reputation than her feelings.
The only real human, feeling characters are unfortunately two-dimensional and hard to sympathize with. Fettes is cloyingly naive and is afraid to act even during moments when he feels revulsion about MacFarlane and Gray’s nocturnal activities. The handicapped girl and her mother are so far removed from the proceedings that they are utterly unbelievable and almost annoying.
There are some excellent scenes, but overall moments of the film lag, particularly when we are stuck with Fettes. But if you are familiar with Lewton's earlier masterpieces, story and acting are only two elements of his excellent films. Though much of The Body Snatchers takes place indoors, there are some excellent sets and Lewton’s typically wonderful visuals. Lewton takes a break from the noir-like nighttime sets and plenty of the film takes place in a thoroughly gloomy, fog-soaked, daytime Edinburgh. The soundscape is equally complex, focusing on moments of eerie silence and haunted by the lovely a cappella singing of a blind street girl.
Overall this comes recommended for Karloff's unbeatable performance. It will also interest fans of classic '30s and '40s horror or anyone who enjoys historical drama mixed with their terror. The Body Snatcher is available on a single disc with I Walked With a Zombie or as part of the Val Lewton Horror Collection box set.