Here's a classic horror picture that we never expected to see in such good condition... and NOBODY is complaining.
RKO never gave their house producer Val Lewton proper credit for practically saving the studio with Cat People. But on Isle of the Dead and The Body Snatcher they changed his production profile, actually doing him a big favor. Boris Karloff was hired, which pushed the pictures to a higher level of industry respectability. Lewton still rankled at being told what he had to produce, and still remained an intense worrywart that should have been looking out for ulcers and heart attacks. But the producer found that he got along exceedingly well with Karloff, who was grateful to be given such elevated material to play -- leading roles with complex characters. The Body Snatcher turned out to be one of the better Lewtons. Karloff may give his best film performance this side of the original Frankenstein.
Lewton's film unit creates an impressive Edinburgh on RKO's standing sets, using only a few stock shots of the city's famous castle. Impoverished cabbie John Gray (Boris Karloff) follows in the footsteps of the infamous Burke and Hare by 'procuring' unusually fresh corpses for the dissection classrooms of noted anatomist Wolfe 'Toddy' MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). When the graveyards are too closely guarded, Gray asphyxiates his victims with his large hands, a technique he calls 'Burking.' MacFarlane's promising anatomy student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) discovers the illegal commerce going on below stairs and tries to stop the killing by interesting his teacher in curing a paralyzed child (Sharyn Moffett). But Toddy and Gray are engaged in a grim war of entreaties and threats... as much as he denies it, MacFarlane is complicit in murder, a fact the bitter Gray won't let him forget.
To adapt Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale Val Lewton tapped author Philip McDonald. Lewton's own writing contribution to The Body Snatcher was so substantial that he gave himself a credit under his occasional nom de plume Carlos Keith. His adaptation of the basic Burke and Hare resurrectionist story is an excellent example of how clever writing could reshuffle gory and sordid material into a form acceptable to the Production Code. Other 'straight' tellings of the same tale (1959's The Flesh and the Fiends and 1985's The Doctor and the Devils) use the all-too predictable device that one of the 'Burked' corpses turns out to be someone beloved to the anatomists. Lewton bests them by managing a semi-superstitious shocker of an finale that really surprises audiences. He also works in the Edinburgh legend of Greyfriars Bobby.
The dialogue is superb, particularly between Boris Karloff and Henry Daniell -- this is probably Daniell's finest acting hour as well. Gray and MacFarlane are a strange pair of symbiotic ghouls, 'fiends for the flesh,' yet also sympathetic. MacFarlane has high ideals and a lofty station in society, yet he lacks the ability to empathize with his patients. When the little handicapped girl won't answer his questions, he doesn't realize that she's simply afraid, and would trust him if he stopped being so autocratic. John Gray is even more complicated -- he likes people and animals, and easily charms the little girl by introducing her to his horse. But he's also a verminous lowlife that long ago lost his faith in justice and is now a reject who must live in a stable. Gray has his pride and an unlimited ability to hold a grudge. He served a prison sentence for MacFarlane and resentment of 'Toddy' oozes from his pores. Once Gray gets his hooks into the imperious 'great man of consequence,' nothing can make him loosen his grip.
The great actor Karloff made many films that wasted his potential, so it's gratifying to see show what he can do. Whether sitting alone in his stable or downing a pint in the pub, ingrained hatred shows though Gray's feigned good manners, and comes out in long speeches: as he punctures a piece of bread with his knife, Gray surmises that "Toddy would like to do this all over my body," Unlike the greedy ghouls of the other body-snatching movies, money is not Gray's basic motivation. Unable to channel his rage into anything productive, he is raw material for a one-man lower-class revolution. Gray doesn't want peace with the pompous doctor, as he derives far too much pleasure from watching him squirm.
Bela Lugosi has little to do and it's pitiful to see him stuttering through scenes, overwhelmed by the 'upstart' who took over the crown of horror king so many years before. Although various commentators say that Lugosi's scenes with Karloff are an equal match, it's just not borne out in the film. The young lead Russell Wade is more credible than he was in The Ghost Ship but is still merely adequate. Edith Atwater's Meg is a perfect example of a Val Lewton 'minor' role given special significance: the 'great doctor' MacFarland hides their relationship because she's not of his class, yet she's entirely devoted to him. The subplot about curing a little girl's injured back is handled exceedingly well, yet when placed against the movie's darker themes it seems more ordinary and less inspired.
When RKO split up the Val Lewton / Jacques Tourneur team, Lewton didn't play politics by courting other directors, but instead insisted on promoting his star editors Robert Wise and Mark Robson to director status. Had his Orson Welles association not put him in the doghouse, the solid talent Robert Wise might have started directing two years earlier. He does a very good job, but he's not an actor's director -- Karloff and Daniell hardly need direction, and the performances of the other overtaxed contract players are not exemplary. It's all in the script and a bit of special casting.
Lewton can't afford many extras, but a parade of guardsmen in uniforms gives a street scene excellent flavor. Nailing the Scottish atmosphere is the small role played by 15 year-old Donna Lee, a singing prodigy whose voice manages a heartbreaking accent. Often credited to Robert Wise is a very effective minimalist scene of murder that uses just one static angle on an arched roadway, and a plaintive folk song. The scene puts an end to our split attitude about John Gray -- despite his underdog status, he's still a despicable villain.
Because of its name star casting The Body Snatcher could no longer be called an impoverished B Picture, especially when it outperformed RKO projects that cost five times as much. It was about this time that Val Lewton was earning national publicity, inspired by glowing reviews from critic James Agee. Savant once read a publicity-oriented Life magazine article that bestowed upon Lewton the title, 'Sultan of Shudders.' I wonder if the publicity actually hurt Lewton's standing with the new regime at RKO. 'B' unit 'employees' were likely expected to remain invisible, and speak up only when contacted by the studio publicity department. They were there to earn safe money, not make the studio's hierarchy look upside-down.
Scream Factory's Blu-ray of The Body Snatcher knocks us out. When inquiring about the beat-up, dupe-y status of some of the RKO pictures, I was once told that the extremely popular The Body Snatcher had been printed to death through several reissues, and that good elements no longer existed. In 1977 a Ron Haver-curated RKO season at the Los Angeles County Museum of art paired The Body Snatcher with Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past. The marvelous film noir looked amazing -- a flawless NITRATE PRINT -- but all they had for Snatcher was a beat-up 16mm copy. The 2005 DVD from Warners was no beauty either.
So suddenly we're confronted with a '4K scan from the Original Camera Negative.' The Body Snatcher now looks very, very good. The image behind the main title was once a dark blur, but now we can tell that it is artwork of Edinburgh Castle. There are no scratches or breaks to speak of, the image is stable and clear, the contrast is rich and the focus is sharp. We can see every stubble hair in Karloff's gnarly unshaved face. The famous shot of the coach disappearing under the dark archway is no longer a dirt storm of white speckles. For overall quality, the film is almost as good as the excellent stills we see for this vintage title. The ultra-clear soundtrack also deserves applause -- no more hiss under the street singer's song, or pops and scratches. Was a near-perfect negative there in the vaults all the time?
The final coach ride scene once looked dark in some prints, but is fine here. As with the selective blurring and exposure-shifting used judiciously in Cat People and Howard Hawks' The Thing, Linwood Dunn's optical geniuses enhanced the 'surprise passenger' shots by grossly overexposing certain parts of the frame (you'll know what I mean). On my monitor they almost look TOO bright, but they now carry a real kick.
Licensing the Lewton pictures to Scream Factory gives us a slightly fancier presentation. This time around most of the extras came from Warners' older DVD. I believe the fine commentary is taken from a very old Image laserdisc. Robert Wise talks about his career and the Lewton experience, and Steve Haberman is also heard on the track. The lengthy documentary The Val Lewton Legacy comes from the old DVD set as well. It pulls in many spokespeople and uses the 'don't let any one person develop a full idea' editorial technique. But the speakers are well chosen: Val Lewton, Jr., Sara Karloff and the directors George Romero, Joe Dante, John Landis, William Friedkin, and Robert Wise.
Another reissue trailer is included. A new featurette You'll Never Get Rid of Me: Resurrecting The Body Snatcher is not about the restoration (too bad) but is an appreciation piece hosted by author-authority Gregory Mank. Don't see it first because it's at least 40% clips from the film. (Greg has a new book out, about the life of actor Colin Clive.)
The Body Snatcher
Text (c) Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson