The Body Snatcher (1945)
Director: Robert Wise
Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater, Rita Corday
By request. Karloff and Lugosi together in a classic from producer Val Lewton and director Robert Wise (The Haunting).
Second audio track is a commentary by director Robert Wise.
In Edinburgh, renowned surgeon and now teacher of anatomy Dr. MacFarlane, has been paying John Gray, a cabman, to clandestinely bring him exhumed bodies of the recently deceased for classroom demonstration purposes. With cemeteries being increasingly guarded, Gray turns to murder to provide MacFarlane with fresh bodies. Realizing that he will never be rid of Gray, who constantly taunts him with his knowledge of MacFarland's past indiscretions, MacFarlane engages the malevolent Gray in a hand-to-hand fight to the death, the ultimate results of which provide the victor with an episode of unprecedented psychological horror.
With his last two films – this and Bedlam – Lewton began to turn away from the ambiguously superstitious to dark,ghoulish period pieces. This was the first of many films based on the Burkeand Hare story – others include The Flesh andthe Fiends/Mania (1960), Burke and Hare (1971) and The Doctor and the Devils (1985). Wise demonstrates a considerable mastery of the trademark Lewtonian effects of suggested horror. One scene that stands long in the memory is the onewhere the camera sits watching an old woman singer as she disappears down a gloomy alley followed by Boris Karloff’s cab – she vanishes off into the darkness singing and the cab follows after, there is a long moment and then the singing stops with a quiet yelp. The scene where Karloff steals the first body is told with a shocking economy – we seeing an exaggerated shadow creeping along the graveyard wall as we hear the dog waiting beside it's dead master’s grave whining, the shadow swings the spade with a clang and the dog’s howl suddenly dies. The only real lapse is the climax with the scene with the body under the sack returning to life which, while quite shocking, adds a quasi-supernatural element that jars with the rest ofthe film’s carefully established mood.
The film contains one of Boris Karloff’s finest performances. The character is one of sharp ambiguity – on one hand kind to children and full of overly exaggerated genteel, but capable of turning cold at a moment’s notice and delivering wonderfully implied threats. Even Bela Lugosi manages to give a good performance, disguising his hammy propensities in a brief role as a genuinely thick character. Not too much attention is paid to obtaining authentic Scottish accents, but it doesn’t matter too much in this otherwise fine film. - The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review