Feature: 78 mins. Aspect ratio 1.33:1.
Previous Region A/Region 1 Disc Editions
Warner. 2005. DVD. (A double feature with I Walked with a Zombie.)
The Body Snatcher is the penultimate film made by RKO studios’ B-horror unit under the guidance of producer Val Lewton. A Russian immigrant, Lewton was a writer who became a right-hand man to maverick producer David O. Selznick. In 1942, Lewton left Selznick’s employ to become the head of an RKO unit tasked with developing horror films to rival those from Universal studios. There were several stipulations for films produced by this “B-horror” unit: They had to use titles pre-tested by the marketing department; the running time had to be within 75 minutes; and the budget had to not exceed $100,000.
As long as Lewton kept within these restrictions, he was allowed to assemble his own team and had a large degree of creative freedom. The Lewton unit’s first film, Cat People (1942), was a huge financial success as well as highly influential in its literate, intelligent, and subtle style of psychological horror. And so, one of the most influential and innovative series of horror films began.
The success of period historical thrillers like Gaslight and The Lodger — both released in 1944 — paved the way for Lewton’s suggestion to RKO executive producer Jack Gross to adapt Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story “The Body Snatcher.” First published in 1884, Stevenson’s story is about several characters working for real-life surgeon Robert Knox (identified in the story as “Dr. K_____”) to help acquire dead bodies for dissection in anatomy class.
The three main characters in Stevenson’s narrative are two students of Knox—Macfarlane and Fettes— and Gray, a “resurrection man” (modeled after Burke and Hare) who is paid for supplying corpses. Note: If you want to read the original story, I highly recommend you seek out “The Ghouls” which is an anthology of stories that inspired classic horror films, edited by Peter Haining.
Adapted from this story, the film was written by Philip MacDonald and “Carlos Keith.” As in all the films he produced, Val Lewton did extensive work on the screenplay. In the case of The Body Snatcher, he rewrote it so completely that original writer MacDonald wanted Lewton to share a writing credit so that the blame could be spread if the film was a failure. Though Lewton did ultimately get credit as co-writer, it was under his pseudonym, Carlos Keith. The screenplay has Lewton’s trademark layers of minute, historically accurate detail and is an expansion of the Stevenson short story, with some additions that work well (such as the expanded scenes with Gray) and some that do not (the characters Fettes and Mrs. Marsh are bland and have little impact).
At this time in his career, Boris Karloff was disenchanted with the Universal cycle of horror films, which had started to degrade into juvenile monster rallies like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and House of Frankenstein (1944). Still an admirer of the horror genre, but aching for a change, Karloff signed with RKO in May 1944. As both were well-read, artistically minded, and highly critical of the current state of the horror genre in cinema, Karloff and Lewton got along famously.
The first of Lewton’s three films with Karloff, Isle of the Dead (1945), went into hiatus just after production began due to its star undergoing back surgery. And so, their second collaboration, The Body Snatcher was actually completed before their initial film was finished. Production on The Body Snatcher finished in November 1944 and the film was released on May 25, 1945, while Isle of the Dead finally wrapped production in December 1944 and opened September 7, 1945.
Lewton created the role of Josef, MacFarlane’s servant, for Bela Lugosi; the part was not in the original draft of the screenplay. By this time in his career, Lugosi was a heroin addict and took any part that was offered to him. His role in The Body Snatcher is a very small part, and sadly marks the last time that Lugosi and Karloff would appear together on screen.
Set in Edinburgh in 1831, the film opens with cabman John Gray (Karloff) delivering a disabled little girl, paralyzed from an accident, and her mother to see Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). MacFarlane is cold and impatient with the child and asks his student Fettes (Russell Wade, in an ineffectual performance) to examine her. She needs an operation to remove a tumour on her spine, an operation MacFarlane says he does not have the time to perform.
Fettes says he has to quit medical school; MacFarlane responds by making the student his assistant. Taking Fettes into his confidence, he reveals that cadavers for medical school are in short supply. Gray is then shown entering a graveyard at night to disinter a recently-buried corpse, after killing the deceased’s dog that is keeping a vigil at the grave of his master.
Karloff’s nuanced performance as Gray is one of his best. Though Gray can be callous and murderous, he also shows kindness and sympathy for the crippled child. He persuades MacFarlane to go through with the operation to restore her ability to walk. Karloff gives Gray a subtle smile that hints at some undercurrent of evil, even as he seems superficially accommodating. The hold he has over MacFarlane is revealed to be due to his taking the fall for the doctor, shielding him at a trial. Gray revels in this hold, and says in a key scene that without this power he is nothing.
Though The Body Snatcher lacks a trademark Lewton “walk of fear”, it ends with a justifiably famous horror sequence. MacFarlane and Fettes ride through a stormy night in a cab with a sheet-wrapped corpse propped between them, a body that appears to change and come to life.
The film is directed by Robert Wise, who also helmed Curse of the Cat People (1944) for Lewton. Wise’s direction lacks the poetry of Jacques Tourneur, but he stages the film well and does rise to the occasion in some key moments, aided considerably by the photography.
The cinematography is by Robert de Grasse and not Nicolas Musuraca, who was responsible for the striking photography on Lewton classics like Cat People (1942). However, de Grasse does an admirable job on The Body Snatcher, contributing some darkly atmospheric night shots. In one particularly striking visual, a young woman walks through a partially lit archway, a light drizzle speckling the half-light, Gray’s cab then coming into shot, following her and being slowly swallowed up by shadow.
De Grasse also photographed Lewton’s The Leopard Man (1943), at time of writing forthcoming on Blu-ray from Scream Factory. Though The Body Snatcher lacks some of the visual lyricism of the Tourneur-Musuraca-Robson team on past Lewton classics like I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Body Snatcher is a dark and literate story of murder, guilt and the hypocrisies that can undergird ambition and success. It’s another triumph for Val Lewton and his talented B-horror team.
 Editor Mark Robson used his cutting skills to create the “walk of fear” and the “bus”, two critical and innovative components of the style of the Lewton films.
The transfer on this disc is from a new 4K scan of the original camera negative, and it’s glorious. There’s so much texture and detail to the various shades of black and grey that the picture almost looks three-dimensional at times and is startlingly free of blemishes. This is a significant upgrade from the previously available DVD.
Shadows In The Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy (53 minutes)
Produced in 2005, this is a documentary on Lewton’s films. It was originally included in the DVD box set The Val Lewton Horror Collection. Narrated by James Cromwell, the documentary features interview clips with William Friedkin, Steven Jones, Steve Haberman, Joe Dante, Guillermo Del Toro, Kim Newman, Harlan Ellison, Ramsey Campbell, John Landis, Mick Garris, Robert Wise, Neil Gaiman and George Romero. It’s a decent, well-produced introduction to Val Lewton and his films.
You’ll Never Get Rid Of Me (11 minutes)
A brief appreciation of The Body Snatcher by Gregory William Mank, author of “Karloff and Lugosi: The Story of a Haunting Collaboration.”
A feature-length commentary with director Robert Wise and writer/film historian Steve Haberman. This commentary was also featured on the Warner DVD of I Walked with a Zombie / The Body Snatcher. Wise is lucid and interesting, sharing some fascinating recollections of this film plus his time with Lewton. However, the commentary is not synchronized with the film at all and would have worked better as a standalone piece.
A poster and lobby card gallery (4 minutes) and a still gallery (5 minutes).
One of the most atypical and interesting films in the oeuvre of the Val Lewton horror unit at RKO, The Body Snatcher is a must for classic horror aficionados, and the gorgeous transfer alone justifies a purchase of this disc.