THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) – The Dungeon Review!

The Body Snatcher is the fourth film I’ve reviewed from producer extraordinaire Val Lewton. I spent enough time singing the praises of the brilliant Mr. Lewton in my previous posts so I won’t go on and on but the man’s contribution to the horror genre is massive. Lewton produced some of the greatest horror films ever made, and in 1945 he was responsible for bringing genre legend Boris Karloff into the fold. Karloff appeared in three Val Lewton produced films for RKO: Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher, and Bedlam. (The following text “in italics” was taken from Wikipedia). In a 1946 interview with Louis Berg of the Los Angeles Times, Karloff discussed his three-picture deal with RKO, his reasons for leaving Universal Pictures and working with producer Lewton. Karloff left Universal because he thought the Frankenstein franchise had run its course. The latest installment was what he called a “‘monster clambake,’ with everything thrown in—Frankenstein, Dracula, a hunchback and a ‘man-beast’ that howled in the night. It was too much. Karloff thought it was ridiculous and said so.” Berg continues, “Mr. Karloff has great love and respect for Mr. Lewton as the man who rescued him from the living dead and restored, so to speak, his soul.”

The Body Snatcher is based on a Robert Louis Stevenson’s story and takes place in 19th century Scotland. The use of cadavers was imperative in advancing medicine but the supply was scant and grave robbers were often employed to retrieve the bodies. Doctor MacFarlane heads a school of medicine and employs one such gravedigger to provide specimens for his students. While MacFarlane may be employer to gravedigger Gray it is Gray who yields the power. Gray and MacFarlane share a sordid past which Gray threatens to expose at every turn. Gray’s constant smirking reminders never fail to fluster the usually cold and composed MacFarlane. Gray’s taunts effect MacFarlane’s judgement and he soon begins to lose his grip on reality.

As in all Lewton films, the strength of the characters is key. In a career full of epic horror performances The Body Snatcher may very well be Boris Karloff’s best. That, I suppose is a matter of opinion, but his sinister turn here as Cabman Gray is one of those monumental genre performances that stays firmly engraved on the brain. With that marvellous voice of his delivering the promise of much malice how could you go wrong? Karloff’s performance is definitely a showstopper but it is his relationship with his co-star and partner in crime Dr. Wolfe ‘Toddy’ Macfarlane, played by Henry Daniell that gives the film its bite. Dr. MacFarlane is a hard looking man with a cold exterior and does not appear to be the type of man easily intimidated. In our introduction to MacFarlane we see him turn down a desperate mother in need of care for her wheelchair bound daughter. We get a glimpse of his icy demeanour not to mention his horrific bedside manner. We see a warmer side to MacFarlane when he is alone with his mistress, but the fact that she is a dirty little secret who poses as his housekeeper for the rest of the world cancels it out. MacFarlane is a pretty unlikeable guy, but I still could not help but feel a little empathy for him. Gray serves as a constant reminder of MacFarlane’s guilty past. Gray takes great pleasure in calling MacFarlane by his old nickname ‘Toddy’. “You’ll never get rid of me that way, Toddy,” (It inspired bad Karloff imitations for days around our house!) The nickname and the taunts never fail to fluster MacFarlane. The two characters are locked in a relationship of hatred and dependence that neither can escape. MacFarlane and Gray are an inspired pairing and every last second of banter between the two is ugly, nasty and a complete fascination to behold. Gray and MacFarlane give the story its dark heart and a naive young doctor adds a bit of levity. Donald Fettes is a student under MacFarlane who also acts as his lab assistant. He is the films moral center but even he is willing to compromise his principles to save a life. Fettes becomes involved with a woman and her crippled daughter who is in desperate need of surgery. He pleads with MacFarlane to help the child but is told they will need another body for further study before they can proceed. Soon Fettes is wandering the streets at night looking for Gray in hopes that he can acquire another specimen. Russell Wade does a decent job playing the mild-mannered Fettes although he is a little flat at times. Finally we have poor Bela Lugosi. If you were hoping for another great classic pairing of two horror icons, don’t look here. Lugosi’s plays one of MacFarlane’s servants and his role is tiny and not terribly significant.

The Body Snatcher’s intriguing story and its magnificent characters are perfectly complimented by its visuals. Filmed in black and white, oozing with malice and a foreboding atmosphere that escalates until it reaches its final tragic conclusion. The films wardrobe and sets do a commendable job of capturing 19th century Scotland. There are very few exterior shots used as much of the film takes place in the homes of MacFarlane and Gray. The tiny, dark, confines of Gray’s abode seem much bleaker in contrast with MacFarlanes large, elaborate and well-stated residence.

I tried to keep this review as vague as possible as it would be a terrible disservice to the film to give away too much. The Body Snatcher is well paced, beautifully filmed, and its excellent story and intriguing central characters were completely engrossing. My only complaint was it ended too soon! You must acquire a copy immediately and watch it with the lights out. You’ll do that for me now won’t you Toddy? Highest of recommendations!

Dungeon Rating: 5/5

Directed By: Robert Wise

Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater, Russell Wade, Rita Corday, Sharyn Moffett, Donna Lee

6 Responses to “THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) – The Dungeon Review!”

  1. Absolutely agree!

  2. The Film Reel Says:

    I loves me some Boris Karloff so I’ll have to pick this one up. But I’m not watching with the lights out, too scary! HAHA!

  3. […] GOREGIRL’S DUNGEON HEAR EVIL. SEE EVIL. SPEAK EVIL. « THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) – The Dungeon Review! […]

  4. This is my all-time favorite Boris Karloff performance, and that’s saying something! Villains don’t come any meaner than Cabman Gray. I’ll always shudder when I think about him and the cute little dog…

  5. Woah! I’m really loving the template/theme of this blog. It’s simple, yet effective.

    A lot of times it’s very difficult to get that “perfect balance” between superb usability and appearance. I must say you’ve done a superb job with this.
    Also, the blog loads very quick for me on Chrome. Exceptional Blog!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: