The Body Snatcher

Karloff is king
Robert Wise
Boris Karloff, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater, Russell Wade, Bela Lugosi
The Setup: 
When the doctor needs corpses to study, the body snatcher prowls the night…

This is one of the last in my Val Lewton boxed set that I haven’t seen, and I am both eager to get through the whole set so I can write a Home Film Festival about it, but also wishing to keep some that I haven’t seen, because it is a wonderful thing to know that there’s another good, spooky, beautifully-made movie in my collection that I haven’t yet seen, ready to be deployed at just the right moment.

This is reputed to be one of the better of the ones that aren’t flat-out masterpieces, and, yeah, I guess I would agree with that. First we find out that it’s Edinburgh in 1831. Then we see a girl, Georgina, being driven to a Dr. Macfarland’s house in hopes that he will operate on her. She crosses paths with Boris Karloff as Cabman Gray, who tells her to watch for his white horse who will say hello when he sees her again. The girl’s father was killed and she injured when their carriage overturned. Macfarland meets her and agrees that he is the only one who could help her, but refuses to operate because he’s got a school to run.

Then there’s young doctor-in-training Donald Fettis, who Georgina responds to much more amiably than she does mean old Macfarland. A nurse, who turns out to be Macfarland’s wife, worries that Fettis will be corrupted by the doctor and his ways.

Now in here we’ve seen Gray leave at night to dig up a body. We have been told that there is a dog who will not leave the graveside of a young man that recently died, and Karloff, dressed in a large overcoat and top hat, all gorgeously silhouetted against the ivy-covered wall of the cemetery, raises his spade and offs the dog! So we know he’s digging up bodies, but it’s not too long into the movie before…

We come to understand that he’s actually killing people. One day as Fettis comes home he passes this woman singing a folk song on the corner. Then he tells Gray that they need another body. He drives off in his ominous carriage as we hear the song of the street singer, and just as you’re getting sick of the song and thinking “God, will someone please kill her?”—THEY DO! The song abruptly stops. [And then you’re like, “Thanks!”] He brings the body back and Fettis recognizes her, realizing that there’s more than just digging up bodies going on.

The deal is, as we find out later, that there was this earlier guy who was notorious for killing people for the medical cadavers. And there was a trial, wherein Gray shielded a nobleman from prosecution—who turns out to have been Macfarland—and the doctor wouldn’t stand up for Gray in return, making an enemy of him for life. There’s a lot more complications going on with the little girl and everything, but that’s the kernel of what’s behind everything.

I read the story that this is based on long ago, and I remember enough to know that the ending as done here is very faithful to it, and quite evocatively renders what happened through expressive photography and judicial editing.

Speaking of the photography it is here, as in all of the Lewton films, quite wonderful, if less visually stunning than some of the Tourneur films. However the photography and arrangement of backgrounds behind characters is here used to express their psychologies and what is going on in their heads at that moment. So, for instance, when Fettis is finding out something disturbing about Dr. Macfarland, he is framed inside an arched doorway that both highlights his figure and shows a depth around his head, like the depth of the thoughts he’s having. There is also a fair share of well-composed shots, for instance the one below. Look at how many different planes are separately lit, and look at how the illuminated arch in the upper left is matched by a line of illumination across the lower right, giving the entire thing the feeling of an inward spiral, which I believe is used to express the depths of Gray’s evil which saves them from having to SHOW anything more direct than they do. It is used well here, as this shot is of Gray preparing to go out and procure another body.

The more I see Karloff the more of a pleasure he is. It’s a shame most people only know his work from behind the mask and reduced expressiveness of Frankenstein’s monster, as he is quite a fine actor when he is free to roam and speak like a person. He is very successfully used in the Lewton films as a figure of powerful menace who YOU DO NOT WANT TO MAKE ANGRY. I love the shot below where he is framed looming over the camera, the lights to the side to draw out the wrinkles and veins on his face.

So there ya go. A nice, scary, well-written and beautifully shot ghost story. Maybe not as completely haunting as Curse of the Cat People or I Walked With A Zombie, but an excellent entry nonetheless, for those times when you need an injection of that old Lewton magic.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it’s creepy and satisfying.