Criterion Prediction #56: The Body Snatcher, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Body Snatcher
Director: Robert Wise
Cast: Boris Karloff, Henry Daniell, Bela Lugosi, Edith Atwater, Russell Wade, Rita Corday
Synopsis: In the early 1800s, nefarious cab driver Gray (Karloff) moonlights as a grave robber, a lucrative (but unseemly) trade that provides doctors with cadavers to operate on. One of Gray’s consistent clients is the respected Dr. MacFarlane (Daniell). However, his reputation is in jeopardy as he engages with Gray whose methods veer from grave robbing to murder, and his nefarious schemes consume MacFarlane and his new assistant Dr. Fettes.
Critique: I’ll start by saying I’m a huge fan of Val Lewton’s work, and The Body Snatcher is not only one of his best, but it also features (I dare say) one of Karloff’s finest performances. Universal’s other monster star, Bela Lugosi, might be limited to a few scenes, but the two of them are nothing short of miraculous together. It is bittersweet seeing Lugosi in his later era, but the glimmer of his charisma shines through. Of course, the pairing of Lugosi and Karloff was a big drawing card, although The Body Snatcher would be the last time these two would share the screen. In a more lofty sense, it’s intriguing to see two monumental actors who earned fame by playing larger-than-life horror icons return in much more human roles here in a Lewton picture.
Although Lewton believed that working with a major star would be the kiss of death to his career in RKO’s low budget horror unit, Karloff and Lewton made three excellent pictures, which I would consider high water marks for all involved.
Lewton was infamous for his ability to make miracles with little money, and you can see that every dollar is on the screen, even more so in these period films. The Body Snatcher is spilling with atmosphere, thus exceeding the usual depth we expect in Lewton’s genre films – the studio-bound RKO sets always contributed to the expressionistic artifice that permeated these movies with an underlying emphasis on old-timey bric-a-brac.
Succeeding Jacques Tourneur (whose Cat People became Lewton’s model film) was Robert Wise, who confidently helms The Body Snatcher like a consummate pro, long before The Day the Earth Stood Still or West Side Story confirmed it. Following The Curse of the Cat People and Mademoiselle Fifi Wise, Lewton’s return to more macabre material in The Body Snatcher is their most lavish (yet uncompromised regarding Lewton’s trademark style) production as it expands the boundaries of these already progressive horror films in its path.
Built from the literary mind of Robert Louis Stevenson, this is rooted as a horror tale but stately in period detail, predating the go-to “It’s scary because it’s true” adage.
Karloff’s restrained performance is more than a revelation but enigmatic; he’s menacing, relentless, homicidal, but human. Karloff isn’t twirling a mustache, nor is he lurching about: he’s most frightening when he calmly hectors Dr. MacFarlane, thinking of the way he hisses “Toddy” at him with that coolly menacing Scottish timbre throughout. Lewton and his directorial collaborations rewrote the horror genre by playing sensationalist sounding genre fare as mature, straight faced features.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: I can’t say I’m surprised that Val Lewton graduated from Criterion Laserdisc Limbo to a newly restored Blu-ray, and as a Lewton fan I can’t help but rejoice that Cat People is here. While the double feature DVDs featured by Warner Brothers have been held in high regard among fans for some time now, I always harbored a fantasy that his work would someday get the Criterion treatment. Now that his most popular chiller has a spine number, let’s move forward with more Val Lewton! I love that Cat People has received a Blu-ray upgrade, but for many horror fans, the film’s best scenes have lost thier impact after being paraded on so many documentaries, horror movie countdowns, retrospectives. I’m rooting for The Body Snatcher, but for the record any of his eight remaining horror/thrilers would be an occasion to rejoice, whether it be Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (a close contender for this week’s article) or the lesser-celebrated but unnerving horror/noir The 7th Victim.