Friday, March 20, 2009

The Body Snatcher

The Body Snatcher continues producer Val Lewton's streak of intelligent, substantial horror films for RKO, a run of films that were meant to be nothing but B-grade schlock with a few scares and thrills, but which consistently rose above this modest aim. Lewton's films are extraordinary, not just because of their justly acclaimed eerie atmosphere and inventive use of shadows to suggest horror rather than showing it directly, but because the producer never failed to locate the horror of his scenarios in interesting moral and psychological foundations. For Lewton, these low-budget horror productions became ways of exploring sexual attraction and foreignness (Cat People), class issues (The Leopard Man) and the psychology of childhood (The Curse of the Cat People). The Body Snatcher is, on its surface, a quietly creepy tale of serial murders that incorporates both the real-life story of the early 1800s Burke and Hare murders and the Robert Lewis Stevenson short story based on those events. Burke and Hare were a pair of murderers who killed 18 victims and then sold the corpses of their victims to the Edinburgh Medical College, where the doctors essentially disposed of the evidence through dissection. The film picks up on the underlying themes of this grisly incident, delving into the questions of morality raised by the story: the compromises involved in scientific research, the comparative value of human lives and the ethics of the medical profession in general.

The film's Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) is an eminent and well-respected researcher, the head of a school for doctors in training and an expert in anatomy. However, his practice is tainted by his association with the sinister Cabman Gray (Boris Karloff), a monstrous man who digs up graves and supplies the doctor's hospital with a steady supply of corpses for dissection and study. The doctor sees Gray as an ugly necessity, a way of getting around the laws that he believes constrain scientific research and limit the progress of medicine. If Gray can supply the school with more corpses, MacFarlane reasons, he can train better doctors who can go on to save more lives. However, MacFarlane's justifications aside, Gray also has a powerful hold over the doctor; they have apparently known one another for many years and were somehow involved together in the Burke and Hare murders. MacFarlane draws his innocent young assistant Fettes (Russell Wade) into the plot by enlisting him to receive corpses from Gray, signing for them as though they attained them through legal means.

Lewton, together with director Robert Wise, creates a typically dark, shadowy atmosphere in which this story can play out. The streets of Edinburgh, as rendered here, seem to consist mainly of dark back alleys through which sinister characters like Gray can stalk, his shadow stretched out across the wall in front of him. The sound design is equally stunning. A beggar woman who seems to be constantly around fills the night with her haunting, melancholy songs. The steady clip-clop of Gray's horse, its hooves echoing off the cobblestones as it pulls his carriage, signals the arrival of more nasty cargo through the night. Things only get darker when Gray, urged by Fettes to get more specimens for the school, switches from robbing graves to making his own fresh corpses. There's an eerily memorable sequence in which Gray's carriage quietly pursues a woman who walks down the street, singing, eventually disappearing into the foggy dark beyond an archway. As the carriage fades into the night after her, her singing abruptly cuts off a few moments later, her voice strangled into silence, the only indication of what's happened to her.

Karloff's performance as Gray is powerful and overbearing, and yet also, as the film goes on, surprisingly complex. Karloff is an intimidating presence, especially once he reveals his stylized one-handed technique for suffocating his victims. This character is sinister and evil, a nasty brute who thinks nothing of committing the most foul deeds. And yet it also becomes clear that he is more complex than a simple horror movie villain, that he's actually a lonely, poor man with very little to live for beyond the sense of power he gets from associating with a famed doctor like MacFarlane. There's a note of genuine sadness to Karloff's portrayal, a subtle emotional core beneath the evil surface; this subtlety and complexity mark Karloff as one of the greats of horror. This film was his last screen pairing with his fellow icon of 30s and 40s horror, Bela Lugosi, though it's a rather uneven match-up here since Lugosi only gets the minor role of MacFarlane's Igor-esque manservant Joseph. This confrontation between the two screen legends is horribly unbalanced as a result, not at all like the oneupsmanship on display when the two clash in Edgar Ulmer's The Black Cat. Here, Karloff clearly dominates Lugosi, though it's great fun to hear the Hungarian actor earnestly saying, through his characteristic thick accent, "I'm from Liverpool."

Karloff's Gray is, throughout this film, the locus for various tensions about scientific ethics and the evolution of morality in response to the rapidly developing advances of society. Gray might be a monster, but the corpses he supplies to MacFarlane and Fettes throughout the film allow the doctors to treat a critically wounded young girl (Sharyn Moffett) paralyzed from the legs down. Because of Gray's horrible actions, a young girl is able to walk again, and science has advanced in being able to treat a problem that had previously been deemed incurable. Lewton's consideration of these issues is ambiguous and subtle, allowing the contradictions between murderous horror and life-saving ingenuity to remain troublingly unresolved by the film's end. There is no answer: lives were lost to allow this girl to walk again, but her walking is undeniably a victory nonetheless, undeniably a beautiful and nearly miraculous thing. Lewton and Wise never lose sight of the film's primary raison d'être — to horrify, to frighten, to evoke a mood of gloom and murder — but at the same time they engage directly with the complicated tangle of ethics and trade-offs involved in scientific progress.


Anonymous said...

I dare say I believe this film contains the best performance of Karloff's career, and yes it's a gothic, shadowy melodarama with an astounding sound design. It's the best film of Lewton's final three RKO's starring Karloff (BEDLAM was too static and cliched, but still had some great touches, and ISLE OF THE DEAD had a dreadful script but a buried alive sequence in a tomb that ranks among the most horrifying moments in any Lewton film) and it has in the final "you'll never get rid of me" carriage in a stormy night sequence some out and out hair raising terror.

This is a literate and solid work, elegantly directed, acted and written.

Excellent review, but I know I'm being redundant on that point.

Ed Howard said...

I haven't seen Lewton's final two RKO films yet, but this one certainly isn't bad. Not up there with his earlier work (what is?) but still interesting and atmospheric. And yes, the final carriage ride with Karloff looking like a pale and creepy corpse -- that's really effective gothic horror.

James Robert Smith said...

THE BODY SNATCHER contained Karloff's finest performance. He never matched it. All cinema fans should see this film for the amazing turn he gave us as Gray.