Throwback Thursday: ‘The Body Snatcher’
In 1942, at the age of 38, Val Lewton was named the head of RKO Studios’ horror unit. As part of his job, he was to follow three rules. His films had to cost the studio less than $150,000, his films had to run under 75 minutes in length, and his supervisor’s would be supplying the names of each film. For the next four years, Lewton would write and produce nine horror films, each of them earning a status in history as black and white horror classics.Nine for nine. That’s not a bad batting average for a young producer in Hollywood, particularly when dealing with horror films. Of these nine films, Lewton had a hand in writing the screenplays for three of them. Of these three, perhaps the most famous is 1945’s ‘The Body Snatcher.’
Based on the short story from the 1880s by Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘The Body Snatcher’ tells the story of a surgeon in 1830’s Edinburgh. As part of his research in anatomy, the doctor has hired a cabman to exhume corpses and bring the dead bodies to him. As authorities begin to investigate the grave robberies, the cabman resorts to more wicked ways of providing the doctor fresh corpses.
Stevenson’s original short, while a work of fiction, was based on the real-life serial killer case of Burke and Hare. Between 1827 and 1828, William Burke and William Hare murdered and sold the bodies of 17 victims to a surgeon in Edinburgh, Scotland. The murders were also known as the West Port murders. Beyond Stevenson’s short story and the Val Lewton motion picture, their story has been portrayed in the media throughout the last century, finding itself the basis for a number of films and television shows.
‘The Body Snatcher’ was directed by Robert Wise, who used his sense of substance over style to grand effect with ‘The Body Snatcher.’ That’s not to say the film isn’t directed with a sense of flair. On the contrary, ‘The Body Snatcher,’ like most of Wise’s films, has just as much brilliance to look at as it does to take in via the immersing narrative. Wise’s direction on this film is the very defintion of efficiency. It’s pacing is incredibly tight; the cinematography by Robert De Grasse, who also worked with Lewton on 1943’s ‘The Leopard Man,’ is stunning in its contrast between black and white; and the film offers up some of the best atmosphere to be found in a Val Lewton picture. That’s saying something for the man who also brought us ‘I Walk With a Zombie’ and ‘Isle of the Dead.’
This film marked the last of three times Wise and Lewton worked together. They had previously done the horror picture, ‘The Curse of the Cat People,’ in 1943 (it was released in 1944), and they would go on to collaborate on ‘Mademoiselle Fifi’ in 1944. The latter of these is a rare period war drama from Lewton, one of only five films the man would direct outside of RKO’s horror division.
‘The Body Snatcher,’ for all of its excellence in classic, horror cinema, also features a resounding and unforgettable performance by Boris Karloff as Mr. Gray, the cabman. Karloff, while portraying a dispicable and rotten character with every ounce of sincerity, still finds plenty of time to elicit a grand sense of charm. There is no question why the man became a legend in the genre. Karloff the Uncanny gives one of his greatest performances in ‘The Body Snatcher,’ and, his memorable and fascinating voice is one more element that brings the character to life.
This movie also marks the final time Karloff would share the screen with Bela Lugosi, who turns in a glorified cameo performance as the surgeon’s covetous servant. Outside of archival footage, the two shared billing on eight, different films. While their scene in ‘The Body Snatcher’ together is not particularly long, it is incredibly notable.
‘The Body Snatcher’ made its premiere in New York City on May 25th, 1945. Val Lewton’s career as producer of RKO horror films would generate two films after this, ‘Isle of the Dead’ in September of that same year and ‘Bedlam’ in May of 1946. Upon its release in the UK, many cuts were made to the film to remove any direct references to the real-life murders, Burke and Hare. It wasn’t until the film’s video release in 1998 that these scenes were restored for UK viewers.
The film is available on a Double Feature DVD along with ‘I Walked With a Zombie.’ This DVD can also be found in the Val Lewton boxed set, which features all nine horror films Lewton produced during his time at RKO along with a 53-minute documentary called ‘Shadows in the Dark’ about Lewton’s producing career.
Lewton’s time producing horror films at RKO was short-lived, and despite only generating nine films, he certainly left his stamp on the horror genre. With impeccable direction by Robert Wise and an outstanding performance by Boris Karloff, it isn’t hard to see why ‘The Body Snatcher’ is arguably Lewton’s most memorable film.