Home Video Hovel: The Body Snatcher, by David Bax
Horror is the best genre of cinema. Not all my favorite movies are horror movies but it’s the category of film in which I have the highest success rate of enjoyment. I’m convinced that there are more people than you’d think who feel the same way but are hesitant to admit it because of the genre’s “low” status. That’s why it’s so often that, when a horror movie is undeniably good, you see words like “elevated” get thrown around. I don’t know what the nature of snobbery was like in 1945 but, if The Body Snatcher (out now on Blu-ray from Scream Factory) were released today, this Val Lewton-produced, Robert Wise-directed movie might have earned that kind of condescending praise from the false sophisticates of the film world.
Set in 1831 Edinburgh, The Body Snatcher takes place in the shadow of the infamous Burke and Hare killings, in which two young men murdered sixteen people over the course of ten months and sold the corpses to Dr. Robert Knox for anatomical dissection and lessons. In what’s essentially a fictional sequel to real world events, Henry Daniell plays Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane, Knox’s successor, and Boris Karloff plays a coachman named Gray who soon takes up where the executed Burke and the exiled Hare left off. Russell Wade (ostensibly the film’s lead but by far the least interesting thing in it) plays MacFarlane’s new student who uncovers Gray’s actions. And Bela Lugosi plays a dimwitted man in MacFarlane’s employ in his final pairing with Karloff.
Some twenty years before making the movies for which he is best known, Wise may have still been fairly green as a director but his command of filmmaking is already on display in touches like the masterful blocking that gives depths to the small, gothic sets. The quiet and the patience of The Body Snatcher only intensifies the elements of the story that, while not exactly scary, are undeniably horrific. Gray’s first murder is no less shocking for the fact that it takes place unseen by the camera in the arches of shadow just outside the town square at midnight.
As much as it’s a movie about grisly killings, The Body Snatcher is also a movie about class. Gray is every bit as intelligent and cunning, if not more so, than the learned Dr. MacFarlane but his lower standing means he has less to lose even though he is the one directly responsible for the murders. The fact that he knows that makes him even more terrifyingly dangerous.
Scream Factory’s remastering, from a new 4K scan of the original camera negative, is sharp in contrast and rich in texture. The only picture issues are some occasional out of focus shots, which are inherent and can’t be helped. The audio is in stereo.
Special features include a featurette on the restoration; a commentary with historian Steve Haberman and Wise; and a documentary on Lewton.