Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Body Snatcher

Val Lewton's career as a Hollywood producer was dense with classic horror films packed into less than a decade. His films are moody, atmospheric, and infused with an air of gloom. Considered "B" pictures in their day, they've become classics of the horror genre.

The Body Snatcher is a particular treat for the horror fan, as it stars Boris Karloff, with Bela Lugosi in a supporting role. Set in a perpetually overcast Edinburgh in 1831, the story centers on a medical school run by Dr. MacFarlane, a brilliant surgeon. Played by Henry Daniell, MacFarlane is brusque, apparently more used to dealing with the cadavers he dissects than living patients. Dour and impatient, he has set up a scheme where he gets cadavers for his school from a mysterious cabman, Gray, played with impeccable menace by Boris Karloff. How Gray comes by his corpses is of little import to MacFarlane, though the assumption is that Gray is a grave robber. As disrespectful as it is, MacFarlane can at least rationalize that the ends justify the means; he genuinely desires to add to the body, so to speak, of medical knowledge.

The already distasteful situation becomes more complicated as a paralyzed little girl is in need of MacFarlane's expertise. MacFarlane needs to practice a complex spinal surgery that will help the girl. MacFarlane's kind but naive apprentice presses Gray for more cadavers, which sets off a chain of events that make an already dark situation even darker.

This is an unsettling film. Lewton was not afraid to challenge his audience with uncomfortable questions and downbeat endings. Fate and death hang heavy over Lewton's films, and no more so than in this one. MacFarlane's wife, a Highland woman with the gift - or curse - of foresight, sees doom for her husband. Gray's white horse is a portent of death, clopping slowly through the murky night. The shadows never seem to leave, even in the light of day.

Boris Karloff's performance is one of my favorites of his. He looms over the film, his smile an evil rictus, his lined face demonic. Cool, calm, and methodical, he moves slowly and deliberately, an avatar of death, or Death, prowling the streets. He is MacFarlane's conscience, history, and evil nature all in one, forcing the surgeon to confront and embrace his own shadow, driving the plot - both the movie's and MacFarlane's - forward with a profound inevitability. This is Karloff at his best, a true villain, almost supernatural in his ability to evoke dread.

The Body Snatcher is a brief film - 77 minutes - but it is densely packed. It is about death and the dark things that are often necessary for life. It is about where the boundary lies between good and evil, and where the gray area lies between them, and how that gray area changes for the individual depending on circumstances. It is also about the self-destruction that can come when the gray becomes all-consuming, until suddenly it snaps back into focus and one sees they have passed into full shadow.

1 comment:

  1. I love this movie - it was on TCM a couple of months ago. The ending is superb.

    If you haven't seen it already, I strongly recommend The Black Room - Mr Karloff plays twins.