Director: Robert Wise
Boris Karloff is a great actor. That may not come as a surprise to a lot of people, but I was used to seeing him as the lumbering Frankenstein’s monster or the Mummy. He was a great Frankenstein’s monster. In fact, he IS Frankenstein’s monster. But when he’s actually given lines to work with and not buried beneath pounds of make-up, he’s able to freak you out even when he doesn’t have bolts glued to his neck or isn't wrapped head to toe in bandages. This film proves he had range. The Body Snatcher is a suspenseful, dark tragedy (based loosely on real life events) that was handed over to Karloff as a perfectly wrapped present, which he was eager to feverishly unwrap. When Val Lewton opted to expand Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story of the same name about grave robbers into a feature film, he must have had a lot of confidence in his rag-tag production team. Directing duties were handed off to Robert Wise (Wise had previously co-directed The Curse of the Cat People, but this film is remembered as his first solo effort), who proudly leans back and puts his feet up enough for the performances to create an eerie and dark mood all by themselves.
The setting is 1831 Edinburgh, Scotland. The town is a series of claustrophobic sets that look less than impressive, and are scarcely populated. The story begins when a young paralyzed girl arrives with her mother to seek medical attention for her ailment. The two arrive at the estate of Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) and his new assistant, Donald Fettes (Russell Wade), but are turned down for an operation due to Dr. MacFarlane’s understaffed facility. If he treated her, he would have to treat everybody who came in, leaving no time to teach his students in the hopes of furthering medical research. This slightly contradictory notion is one of many that permeate throughout the story. This film’s script would resonate today due to its remarkable similarities to the controversial Stem Cell debate -- destroying a life to save lives. The simple premise leads to an open discussion throughout the film that doesn’t grow dull, mostly due to the actors’ performances. It turns out Dr. MacFarlane has been doing some dealings with a less than credible creep named John Gray (Boris Karloff). Gray has been supplying the doctor with bodies for his students to dissect. Soon, Fettes discovers that, with a low supply of graves to rob, Gray has found an alternate way of coming up with dead bodies. Karloff is the reason I would recommend this picture. He’s totally believable as a grave robber turned murderer. He stands head and shoulders above the rest of the cast, which includes a role played by Bela Lugosi. Lugosi is essentially a janitor at Dr. MacFarlane’s facility, who eventually attempts to blackmail Gray in a spooky scene between two iconic actors. McFarlane and Gray have a history together that Gray is all too happy to use in various attempts at manipulating MacFarlane. Fettes is the moral hero, who maintains sanity and holds the reigns on this outlandish story so as not to get too far off the trail.
The social relevance makes up for the lack of interesting directing techniques, and ultimately is the backbone of the whole movie. The plot points are systematically ratcheted up a notch, almost unnoticeably, so that you won’t even realize you’re totally buying every one. The acting scenes between Karloff and Daniell, as Dr. MacFarlane, are superb and quite unexpected for a low budget horror/thriller flick. Karloff’s performance skates that thin line between being cartoonishly over the top and believably psychotic. Whichever it is, it’s fun to watch. Once the little paralyzed girl finally walks, as we all knew she would, it comes close to being an unintentional spoof of heartwarming dramas of that era. It’s a shame they weren’t brave enough to just go all out and tell their story without having to endear the widest demographic possible. Val Lewton’s films he produced for RKO are not the greatest horror movies I’ve ever seen, but what they all share in common is an attention to detail despite being restrained by a low budget. They take a story, whether it seems goofy or, for lack of a better word, stupid, and put their hearts into it to try and make it work somehow. Typical Hollywood hacks of that era (and even this era) didn’t respect their actors or their scripts enough to let them speak for themselves, and assumed low budgets could only breed low quality. Lewton, however, wrote the book on handling with care.