I’m pleased to host a guest, Craig R. of VIKING SAMURAI – Your Source for Foreign Horror, Sci-Fi, and Fantasy Films and purveyor of wisdom and fine movie buffery. please make him feel welcome and enjoy his thoughts on Lewton’s THE BODY SNATCHER…
Confession: Until Kristina graciously offered me the opportunity to participate in this Val Lewton event, I had never seen any of his films. For this effort, I chose the Lewton-produced and co-written (as Carlos Keith) The Body Snatcher, starring Boris Karloff, directed by Robert Wise, and based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Our story begins with Feddes, a young medical student, meeting Georgina and her mother, Mrs. Marsh, who have come to Edinburgh seeking treatment for Georgina’s paralysis. By some remarkable coincidence they are in town specifically to see Feddes’ mentor, the famous (for the purposes of this story) Wolfe MacFarlane. Unfortunately, even though MacFarlane says that he can cure her, he won’t perform the operation because it’s too risky. He needs to devote time to his students instead, saying that he could do much more good by teaching them (I couldn’t quite figure out how this one operation may affect his students so significantly).
Eventually, Feddes convinces MacFarlane to perform the operation. Unfortunately, they are short of cadavers to practice on, so they have to seek the help of Mr. Gray (Karloff), a cabman, who also moonlights as a grave robber. He also has a past with MacFarlane, which creates many interesting moments.
Mr. Gray is able to supply a cadaver for MacFarlane, but is discovered in the act of digging it up, so he loses that graveyard as a source. Since MacFarlane needs more bodies, this causes Mr. Gray to start creating his own cadavers. Feddes feels guilty about the situation, but because of his role, is unable to report it. Of course, from there, things soon begin to spiral out of control, leading to more murders and madness.
Having never seen a Lewton film, and randomly selecting this one from a list, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I mostly knew of him from his films that had supernatural aspects, such as Cat People and The Leopard Man. Unlike those films, The Body Snatcher has absolutely no supernatural elements. I’m not even sure that it could be classified as Horror, as it has a lot of suspenseful moments, but no outright scares.
Although Mr. Gray does some horrific things, his actions aren’t what’s most compelling about this film; it’s the mind games that he plays with the others, something best seen in his relationship with MacFarlane. Gray holds some type of sway over him; he can cow MacFarlane and make him do pretty much anything he bids. In return MacFarlane alternates between loathing Gray and confiding in him or seeking advice. Their relationship is complicated and the film does a masterful job of revealing the history that they share.
I really liked that this film was predictable; there were no real surprises, and all of the characters behaved as should be expected in certain situations. The story unfolded in a logical manner, and characters experienced natural consequences for their actions (I could give an example, but that might spoil it for you.) I honestly don’t recall thinking “Wait, what?” during my viewing and that’s actually a good thing. I liked the fact that I was just able to sit there, and watch the story being told.
Boris Karloff was obviously having a good time with the role of Mr. Gray. It’s pretty much obvious from the beginning that he’s a bad guy, and there was no effort to hide it. He’s really jovial and chummy, but it’s obvious that he’s up to no good. He’s like the devil on MacFarlane’s shoulder. The rest of the cast was serviceable, and none of the characters seemed out of place. Most notable among them was MacFarlane, who was played with a stilted, aristocratic air, which I guess could be expected of a character who is supposed to be so renowned, and Joseph, MacFarlane’s servant (Bela Legosi) who is mainly notable because he isn’t playing Dracula. Feddes, Georgiana, and Mrs. Marsh annoyed me; they were pretty much there for Mr. Gray’s benefit.
The film is well-paced; at no time did it seem to drag. The atmosphere was appropriately dark and foreboding. It just so happened that the night after I finished watching The Body Snatcher, I caught a documentary, titled Horror in Red, White, and Blue (available on Hulu),that had a segment on Lewton’s films (Caveat: While it’s an excellent documentary, it is very political regarding the messages of horror films, i.e. America sucks, traditional values suck). It mentioned how Lewton used minimalist style with a lot of darkness, because he believed in darkness people will see their darkest fears. That is certainly the case with this film. The settings and dress were also excellent, and I did get the sense that it actually was 19th Century Scotland.
As much as I liked this film, and I really liked it a lot, there were a few things that annoyed me. Even though the film is set in Scotland, I heard maybe one Scottish accent in the entire film. Some characters had American accents, some British, and some were indeterminate. Look, I understand that at the time, finances were tight, and movies were being cranked out pretty quickly, but at least make an effort, people. Anyway, that’s just me, and those things didn’t detract from my enjoyment at all. Besides, the same practice is being carried on by directors such as Uwe Boll, whose Nazis in Blood Rayne: Blood Reich not only didn’t speak German (the dude’s from Germany, for Pete’s sake), but they sounded like they were from Brooklyn.
This is a great movie and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Other than my pet peeves, there were no true negatives. It is available at this link on YouTube and is airing on Turner Classics today, Halloween, at 6:30 PM (EST).
I give it four out of five Robbed Graves.
This post is part of the Val Lewton blogathon hosted by Stephen aka Classic Movie Man & Kristina of the Speakeasy blog – see all the posts at Classic Movie Man’s Lewton page and the Speakeasy Lewton page