By 1945, something else scary was happening. The great Bela Lugosi was being relegated to a small, minor player in horror movies. Here he plays second fiddle (at best) to Karloff's lead. Ironically, it was Lugosi's passing on the part of Frankenstein's Monster that helped Karloff become a star in the first place. His characterization in the 1994 film Ed Wood has all the more poignancy when knowing the back story. Just watch the Trailer for The Body Snatcher. Karloff's name is practically shouted and is thrown out at the audience in huge fonts repeatedly. Then there's a brief mention that Bela Lugosi might be somewhere in this too. Oh, uh-huh!
Still, don't they make quite a pair, regardless of their behind-the-scenes animosity. Karloff's near-Richard III, evil acting, coupled with Lugosi's ambitious latter-day Iago (or Igor as the case may be) support helps The Body Snatcher to stand up with the best of the Universal Horror Classics.
Well... it would... except that The Body Snatcher wasn't a Universal Picture. The Body Snatcher was produced by Val Lewton for RKO Radio Pictures. While it evokes some of the best of that age of Horror, The Body Snatcher is a nightmare all its own, playing with light and shadow and offering up a suspenseful psychological horror.
Robert Wise offers up one of the best directorial efforts of his classic era (this was only his third film) and evokes some great performances from his solid cast. All the while he plays with the scenery, letting the camera find its mark and the microphone seek out its sounds for some horrific unseen frights.
Henry Daniell's Dr. Wolfe "Toddy" MacFarlane is the SPAWN of the Faustian legends having long ago made a deal with the devilish Cabman John Gray. MacFarlane is a teacher of Medicine, and considers himself a rather brilliant surgeon. But he's gotten to where he is thanks to the Cadavers that Gray delivers him for dissection. MacFarlane's star student, an idealistic young man named Donald Fettes (Russell Wade), takes up the case of a young girl named Georgina Marsh (Sharyn Moffett) and her mother (Rita Corday) who are convinced that MacFarlane is the only hope for the kid to ever walk again (after a spine-shattering accident)! This trio becomes the positive foil for the darkening MacFarlane, his evil benefactor John, and Lugosi's freaky Joseph! Somewhere in the middle is Meg Camden, MacFarlane's secret wife wonderfully played by the complex Edith Atwater! Her subtle shifts in tone, mood and expression are incredible to watch. The lady can act!
Wise is brilliant in his reconciliation of the opposites of light and dark, good and evil here. He shows through his (actually, quite literal) shades of gray that the potential is there, even in the good guys. The hair's breadth between the yin and the yang, coupled with the strange possibility of doing bad things for the right reasons is played for all its worth here. Lewton's screenplay (credited to pseudonym Carlos Keith and co-written by Philip MacDonald) captures the haunting tone of Robert Louis Stevenson's short horror story. But it works best with Wise's direction.
There is a chilling scene in which a lovely voiced Street Singer (played by Donna Lee) stands alone on a dark street as a menacing John Gray approaches and the camera pans away. Wise shows no violence and films no horror, but the sudden silence is crippling. Wise knows when to imply the horror and when to show it outright. The final sequences are scary as hell, even today. Sure it's still a credit to the voice and visage of Boris Karloff, but Wise's use of light as "the great reveal" amid the velvet darkness of his filmic palate makes for a real nail-biter. I can only imagine what it must have been like to see it in the theatre in its first run.
The Body Snatcher is rarely noted as one of the true horror classics, but it's most definitely one of my favorites. Whether it was a case of the right actor in the right part, a great story and script, the efficiency and craftsmanship of Val Lewton or the smart artistry of Robert Wise, The Body Snatcher snatches Four and One Half Stars out of Five. This is a truly smart horror film, subtle and inventive, not to mention touching and well-acted. It's worth your time to check out... it'll invade your consciousness! Just don't blink... you'll miss Bela!
I'm kind of horny! Not because of this flick, though.
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