Following on from his on “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and May, and his “31 Days of American Horror” in August and October, Jules is fixing to round out 2018 with 31 more days of classic American Horror movies.
So brace yourself, folks. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Shot during a hiatus in the making of Isle Of The Dead, The Body Snatcher is another part of the trilogy of unconnected films producer Val Lewton made with Boris Karloff as he looked to escape what he felt was an ever-more ridiculous creative direction at Universal.
Instead of defanging their monsters and throwing as many if them in the pot at once to see what happened, Lewton and RKO’s approach here was much more subtle, more psychological and as a result, much more horrific.
Staying fairly faithful to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic 1884 short story, Lewton (under the alias Carlos Keith) and co-writer Philip MacDonald crafted a historical drama that’s very much set in the real world, with narrative connections to infamous Edinburgh murderers Burke and Hare, as well as their cadaver-buying customer Dr Knox.
Oh and Greyfriars Bobby gets his head smashed in with a spade.
Dr. Toddy MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) is an Edinburgh surgeon who now spends his time running a private anatomy school in the city. When his prize student and new assistant Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) brings a young disabled girl to him in the hope of a surgical cure, MacFarlane refuses.
Fettes soon discovers his mentor’s arrangement with graverobber John Gray (Boris Karloff), who supplies him with illegal cadavers for his experiments and research, so pressures him into helping the child. When another corpse is required as part of the investigation into her treatment though, the resurrection man takes to murder, bringing the fresh body of a blind street singer (Donna Lee) to the doctors.
Fettes is appalled, but MacFarlane is in too deep with the evil graverobber and soon the bodies begin to mount up…
You can see why Karloff was so emphatic that Lewton was “the man who rescued him from the living dead and restored his soul.” from just watching The Body Snatcher alone. He’s given free rein to pull off an absolute acting tour de force here. His take on John Grey is utterly chilling, an amoral killer who relishes in his power over an “important man” like MacFarlane, or “Toddy” as he insists on calling him.
It’s rare Gray ever stops smiling, which only makes him all the more disturbing. It’s a mean, predatory thing that reveals his confidence in his ability to pressure and control, to kill whenever and whoever suits him.
In fact, one of the only times the mask drops is in arguably the film’s best moment. In the last scene of the last of nine films together, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi face off in a small, intimate manner, but one loaded with drama. As MacFarlane’s general dogsbody Joseph, poor Bela doesn’t have much of a role, but he brings his usual quiet intensity to the part of the none-too bright lackey. His attempt to blackmail Gray is doomed from the off, but the way he’s toyed with is brilliantly unsettling. After that initial flinch, Gray is charm personified, as long as you can’t tell the difference between charm and murderous intent that is.
It’s a lovely looking film too, doing a fair job of recreating 19th century Edinburgh, even if the accents (with one exception) don’t even try to be Scottish. It looks very much like w grand city, but one with dark corners and even darker graveyards. Oh and that Greyfriars Bobby scene in one of them? He’s not called it by name, but it’s clear where the inspiration came from, so to see Karloff brain it then casually kick it out of the way as he disinterested it’s previous owner is a glorious piece of gallows humour.
Henry Daniell pulls off most of the heavy lifting that Karloff doesn’t take on and a fine job he does with it too. He pitches it just right, with a level of sympathy and humanity underneath the hubris and self-serving egotism that justifies his actions. A good job, as Russell Wade’s Fettes is more of a one-dimensional good chap, the moral foil for his more complex employer.
The Body Snatcher is that rare thing, when everything comes together almost, but not quite perfectly. It’s another absolute gem from Lewton, but it’s also one of the finest performances Karloff ever gave. Seriously. It’s that good. Magnificent.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy