Starring Boris Karloff and Henry Daniell
My rating: ★★★ 1/2 stars
Beautifully photographed, atmospheric horror classic features Boris Karloff in his greatest performance.
Horror icon Boris Karloff will always be Frankenstein’s monster in the minds of most filmgoers. However, he reached his zenith as an actor in a lesser known, but more accomplished film than the three Frankenstein films he did for Universal in the 1930s. The Body Snatcher (1945) was produced by Val Lewton for RKO in the 1940s as part of a notable cycle of horror films, which includes Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. In the film, which is set in 19th-century Edinburgh, Karloff plays John Gray, a cabman who moonlights as a “resurrection man.” This is someone who digs up graves to procure fresh corpses for medical study. At times, the demand for bodies by Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell), Gray’s employer, outstrips the supply, and Gray employs less acceptable methods than grave robbing to meet that demand.
The movie is ostensibly based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Treasure Island). However, the plot, as with many classic Hollywood adaptations of literary works, is merely suggested by the source story, which was inspired by the real life Burke and Hare murders that took place in Edinburgh in the 1820s. The movie picks up some of the character names from the Stevenson short story and the general idea of committing murder to provide bodies for medical study, but the plot varies greatly.
The film is technically superb. It uses few special effects to create its sense of horror. Instead, the film relies on lighting, shot composition, and editing to produce an atmosphere of menace. Much of the credit has to be given to director Robert Wise, who, despite winning the Oscar for Best Director twice (for West Side Story and The Sound of Music), is not acknowledged as an elite director among the critical establishment. Perhaps, this is because he never had a distinctive style that marked a film as “Wiseian.” He was more a chameleon, adopting whatever style most suited the material.
Here, Wise displays a solid understanding of the German Expressionist techniques that came to define horror filmmaking in the first half of the 20th century. The heavy shadows, diagonals in the composition, and canted camera angles create a sense of distortion and unease in the viewer. The cinematographer, Robert De Grasse, was more journeyman than artist, making several movies a year at RKO in the ‘30s and ‘40s before shifting to television in the ‘50s. The look of The Body Snatcher shares more with some of Wise’s later films, including The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), I Want to Live!, and The Haunting (1963), than anything De Grasse would go on to do. The Body Snatcher was shot on the sets from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), a film Wise edited, and Wise displays an affinity for the spaces, particularly the interiors, knowing how to use the architecture of the rooms to enhance the scene.
The success of the editing must be attributed to Wise, also. The credited editor, J. R. Whittredge, has no other films of note on his resume, while Wise was just beginning his career as a director after starting as an editor (most notably on Citizen Kane). Wise had a gift for the craft of editing. If the editing is truly great, the audience is not conscious of how the process affects the impact of the film. A weak editor would shoot the film’s most violent scene, where Gray smothers a man with his bare hands, with a lot of quick cuts to heighten the action. Wise opts for shots of longer duration, cutting rarely. From the beginning of the attack to the man’s death, there are only four cuts. There’s something almost sensual in the slowness of it. Wise holds the death shot longer than necessary, leaving a strangely beautiful tableau of the killer straddling the victim, their shared outline sketched by the firelight.
As technically good as the film is, Karloff is its main focus and attraction. Karloff was so great in his famous role as Frankenstein’s monster because he brought out the vulnerability of the creature that that belied his monstrous appearance. Here, he imbues the repellent Gray with a compelling seductiveness, a seductiveness that does not come as a result of physical appearance. Uncredited make-up artist Mel Berns highlights the heavy eyebrows, the sunken cheeks, and the lines in the aging actor’s face. Lacking posture and grace, Gray seems to curl in on himself (which might be less of an acting choice than the result of a crippling back injury that Karloff sustained on Frankenstein, one that would plague him for the rest of his life). And, yet, Gray draws people to him. Through charisma and sheer force of personality, he dominates higher class, better educated people, including Dr. MacFarlane and Macfarlane’s young protégé, Donald Fettes (Russell Wade), convincing them to act against their better judgment, against their moral feelings. Even little children seemed charmed by Gray, as in the film’s first scene, showing Gray bringing a young patient to see Dr. MacFarlane.
Seductiveness and charm are important facets of the role, as Gray manages to persuade those around him how beneficial wholesale murder is to humanity, convincing people who believe they are moral and righteous to accept his actions as he brings in corpse after corpse. The greatest horror in the film is the realization that moral boundaries are frangible.
The one major flaw in the film is the stiffness of British actor Henry Daniell. As uptight, priggish characters, Daniell was an effective character actor. As the morally compromised, charismatic teacher Dr. MacFarlane, however, he is sadly miscast, failing to capture the nuances of insecurity and vigor that underlie the superciliousness of the doctor. Daniell seems at a loss in his scenes with Karloff, displaying a rigidity that doesn’t fit the character or the action of the scenes. He struggles also in his scenes with MacFarlane’s housekeeper/wife Meg (Edith Atwater). Atwater, who had a long career in small, forgettable roles, is very good here, sympathetic to her husband but repulsed by the hold Gray has over him. Daniell, however, doesn’t seem to know how to interact with her. He’s better in scenes with Wade’s Fettes, as if he understands the dynamic of teacher/student better than the forces at work in the other relationships in the film.
Nevertheless, The Body Snatcher is a classic horror film, reflecting an era where horror developed out of psychology and mood, out of the realization of the evil people do and come to accept, rather than out of gore and special effects.
HORROR MOVIE TRIVIA: This was the eighth and final film Karloff appeared in with fellow horror icon Bela Lugosi, who has a small role as a servant in the MacFarlane household.