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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Retro Review: The Body Snatcher (1945)

Every now and then, the horror gods smile down, the planets come into alignment, and a project like this one comes to be. As horror fans, we are very lucky to have such a remarkable film which, thanks to the miracle of home video, we can see pretty much any time we want.

Let's break it down, shall we? The original story comes from a work by Robert Louis Stevenson, author of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Stevenson apparently based it upon true reports of grave robbers on a spree throughout England and Scotland.

Producing the film version is the one and only Val Lewton, the visionary filmmaker responsible for the finest horror highlights of the 1940s. More than any other producer, Lewton is cited as having a tangible, almost directorial influence on his movies. This is simply one of a string of classics Lewton brought to fruition, including I Walked with a Zombie, Cat People, and The Seventh Victim.

Nevertheless, Lewton did employ a director, and a formidable one, at that. The great Robert Wise cut his teeth as a cinematographer for Orson Welles, but it was Lewton who first gave him a chance to direct--this was the third film Wise helmed for him. Wise, of course, would go on to direct such films as The Day the Earth Stood Still, Somebody Up There Likes Me, West Side Story, The Haunting, The Sound of Music, The Andromeda Strain and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Not a bad resume, yes?

Taking center stage in this lurid tale of the dark side of the early medical profession is a group of actors whose talents would have been renowned whether or not they had ever chosen to appear in a single horror film. Firstly, it should be pointed out that this movie would mark the final on-screen teaming Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi--although Lugosi, already down on his luck and relegated to low-budget Monogram clunkers, played merely a supporting role while Karloff starred.

Fresh off his sinister turn as Dr. Neimann in his last Universal horror flick, House of Frankenstein, Karloff takes to the role of the titular body snatcher John Gray with particular relish. This would be the first of three consecutive Lewton flicks for Karloff, followed quickly by Isle of the Dead and Bedlam. It's debatable, but this may be the best of the three.

Playing alongside Karloff is one of classic Hollywood's true unsung heroes, Henry Daniell--a stage-trained British actor who might best be known for playing alongside Charles Laughton in the flawless legal dramedy Witness for the Prosecution. Usually relegated to supporting parts, Daniell appeared with Greta Garbo in Camille; with Charles Chaplin in The Great Dictator; with James Stewart, Kate Hepburn and Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story; with Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn in Lust for Life; and with Ava Gardner and Errol Flynn in The Sun Also Rises.

But this time out, Daniell takes the lead, playing the tragic role of Dr. "Toddy" McFarlane, a famous surgeon with a sordid past tied to the insidious grave robber and murderer Gray. The interplay between the two is gripping at all times, and their antagonistic yet strangely symbiotic relationship is at the heart of the picture. And the climax, for those who may not have seen it, is one of the most underrated cinematic triumphs of psychological horror ever. Absolutely chilling, in that Victorian-era-horror-yarn kind of way.

As with all Lewton films, much of the power here is also the result of the tremendously dark and foreboding look and feel. No doubt having an eye for good camera work himself, given his background, Wise uses as his cinematographer the accomplished Robert De Grasse, who had previously done The Leopard Man for Lewton, as well as the gorgeous Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.

And helping create the look of musty crypts, creepy graveyards and creaky 19th century medical laboratories is the amazing art director Albert S. D'Agostino--whose impressive horror credits include the Lewton films of the '40s, '30s Universal flicks like Werewolf of London and Dracula's Daughter, and '50s gem The Thing from Another World. There's a reason I picked his name to affix to the Cyber Horror Award for Best Art Direction!

Put all these ingredients together, and you have what is easily one of the top five horror films of the 1940s. Stevenson. Lewton. Wise. Karloff. Lugosi. D'Agostino. Like I said, an alignment of the horror planets if ever there was one. Highly recommended.


le0pard13 said...

Wonderful write-up B-Sol. This one is definitely worth viewing. Thanks for this.

B-Sol said...

You're very welcome Leopard! It is an underrated gem!

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