The Body Snatcher (1945)

Director: Robert Wise

Back to the Val Lewton films. I did intend to cover all of these chronologically, which I’ve mostly done except, obviously, for Curse, which made sense to consider at the point I did. Where was Lewton by that point, though? Answer: in rather some difficulty. After getting off to a good start at RKO, 1944 was not his most shining year: there was the legal debacle over Ghost Ship, then the budget blowout of Curse and the befuddlement surrounding same, and the box office calamities of two non-horror films Lewton produced. Basically RKO decided he could no longer be trusted with the freedom he once had, so appointed him a new supervisor (formerly from Universal, i.e. the “enemy”) and saddled him with Boris Karloff, who was fleeing Universal as the latter’s horror productions went ever downhill and hoping RKO would do better by him.

Despite Lewton’s initial displeasure, it actually became a happy meeting of minds; Karloff enjoyed the roles he was given at RKO, while Lewton had an actual genre icon to help sell his films. In fact, for The Body Snatcher he had two such icons, the other being Bela Lugosi, and the trailer on the DVD shows how keen RKO were to exploit the combination even if it meant kind of lying about the nature of the film; they’re not actually the team the trailer implies. It’s adapted, a bit liberally, from Stevenson’s story based on the Burke & Hare killings; Karloff is the titular “resurrection man”, hunting up bodies for Henry Daniell’s doctor in 1830s Edinburgh (Lugosi plays the latter’s manservant) for him and his medical students to practise upon, and when it suddenly gets hard to dig up buried bodies, well, he’s just going to have to find some that haven’t been buried yet. Karloff rises brilliantly to the occasion cos he saw Gray as a great acting part rather than just a monster role, and he has very visible fun with it, particularly in the scenes he shares with Daniell (Gray and MacFarlane have a complex history that the two play out well). But the latter is a key figure in the film, too, carefully presenting MacFarlane as flawed rather than evil, and really placed in an impossible position; how can he do his work and teach his students without bodies to work on, and can he make the end justify the means? (One of Gray’s murders ultimately leads to MacFarlane’s eventual success with a new operation.) I found myself liking this more than I remember doing when I last saw it about ten years ago; the film benefits from Lewton’s usual careful “borrowing” of existing sets and so forth to give added production value to these low-budget jobs, particularly useful with a period piece like this, and it now looks like one of the more impressive entries in the Lewton canon.

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