Dark Dignitaries: When Karloff met Lewton Part II: The Body Snatcher

As part of this week's Boris Karloff blogathon, we continue to take a look at the Uncanny One's work with distinguished producer Val Lewton.

With work on Isle of the Dead coming to halt only days into the shoot due to Karloff needing to have a spinal operation, Lewton began working on his next film – The Body Snatcher. In early 1944, the ‘period thriller’ began to gain popularity again. Titles such as Gaslight and The Lodger had proved immensely popular with wartime audiences who relished the opportunity to step back in time to find their chills and thrills. After the 1930s cycle of horror films, Lewton had ‘Americanised’ and modernised horror with the contemporary Cat People, and many other filmmakers had followed suit; however it soon came to pass that period films were hot again, and Lewton, not content to just remix past glories, was eager to try and make his own mark on the period horror film.

Lewton thought it appropriate to return to the world of literature again for his next cinematic outing. He chose to adapt Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story The Body Snatcher. Stevenson’s grisly tale caused quite the stir when published in 1884, with its seamless meshing of fact and fiction. The story portrays fictional circumstances and characters in the employment of Robert Knox at the time of the notorious Burke and Hare murders. This dastardly duo provided corpses to Dr Knox, who was experimenting and researching for the sake of scientific and medical advancement. The cadavers eventually became ‘fresher’, until Burke and Hare took to murdering people for their mortal vessels. When the law caught up to them, Burke was hung, Hare was lynched by an angry mob and Knox fled to London to salvage his reputation.

Lewton loosely adapted the tale under his most famous pseudonym, Carlos Keith, and co-wrote it with Philip McDonald – who had previously written a short story that Karloff included in an anthology he’d compiled! After indulging in some characteristically extensive research, Lewton switched the setting to Edinburgh and was able to use the old sets left over from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) – ensuring The Body Snatcher was one of the most startlingly realised period horrors ever produced.

As Karloff recuperated, Lewton assembled together his usual crew and some of the stock RKO cast he’d previously collaborated with, including Russell Wade who had starred in The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship. Studio heads also wanted to cast ailing actor Bela Lugosi, to capitalise on his and Karloff’s combined pulling power. For the benefit of wary executives, who were beginning to doubt Lewton’s ability to garner another hit as big as Cat People, Lewton set about justifying why The Body Snatcher would be such an appropriate project. Compiling a list which he sent to the heads of the studio, Lewton noted why this film should go ahead:

1. The title seems good to us.
2. There is exploitation value in the use of a famous Robert Louis Stevenson classic
3. There is a ninety percent chance that this (title) is in the public domain. The legal department is now searching the title.
4. The characters are colourful. The background of London medical life in the 1830s is extremely interesting. The sets are limited in number but effective in type. The costumes are readily procurable and no great difficulties of any sort so far as production is concerned are evident.
5. There is also an excellent part for Bela Lugosi as a resurrection man.

Satisfied with his reasons to press ahead with The Body Snatcher, studio execs gave Lewton the thumbs up – the resulting film proved his biggest commercial – and critical – success since Cat People, three years prior. Not that Lewton could rest on his laurels and soak up the praise that would be lavished upon him – he was given two weeks to finish shooting Isle of the Dead before it was released shortly after the success of The Body Snatcher.

The Body Snatcher
Dir. Robert Wise

Edinburgh, 1831. Dr MacFarlane (Henry Daniel), an esteemed surgeon hires Cabman Gray (Boris Karloff) to rob graves to provide him with fresh corpses for dissection and academic demonstration purposes. With cemeteries being increasingly guarded, Gray turns to murder to provide MacFarlane with fresh bodies.
Realizing that he will never be rid of Gray, who constantly taunts him with his knowledge of MacFarlane's past indiscretions, the tormented surgeon plans to do away with the grave robber once and for all.
But like the bodies he so unceremoniously dug up, Gray’s own corpse refuses to stay still for long…

The Body Snatcher marked Wise’s second directorial outing under the guiding hand of Lewton – he had previously stepped in to helm Curse of the Cat People when Gunther von Fritsch bowed out.

The richly textured script by McDonald and Lewton pays as much attention to period detail as the carefully rendered sets. The film provides a tantalizing peek at the sordid art of ‘resurrecting’ corpses in the 19th Century. Whilst the original film posters promised all manner of vile and depraved sights – ‘The Screen’s Last Word in Shock Sensation! Graves Robbed! Corpses Carved! The Dead Despoiled! The Hero of Horror, Boris Karloff, joins forces with The Master of Menace, Bela Lugosi, in the Unholiest Partnership This Side of the Grave!! – the film itself is an expertly crafted, if unrelentingly dark, exploration of the human soul and its ability to do despicable things. The film points out that within each and every one of us is the ability to do both right and wrong – and it is this very duality that makes us what we are.

The characters that exist in this morose tale are all fully fleshed individuals – from the rather naïve and doomed to be corrupted doctor’s assistant Donald Fettes (Russell Wade), to the doctor himself, a distinguished man who has done deplorable things in the name of medicine and scientific advancement – and of course ghastly Cabman Gray, who as the film’s main villain, does a good job of disturbing us with his fiendish actions – and perhaps even more troubling – his unabashed delivery of blunt and carefully observed home truths.

Boris Karloff’s performance in The Body Snatcher is undoubtedly the actor’s finest. At the age of 57 Karloff was still keen to prove his worth. His role as Cabman Gray would give him the opportunity to exhibit his range and show he was not just a ‘monster for hire.’ Gray comes across as a morally complex rogue thanks to Karloff. While his actions are frequently ghastly (grave robbing, body snatching and murder – oh my!) he is also seen to be warm, friendly and generous (his kindly manner towards the little girl in a wheelchair). His ‘duality’ is lent further complexity because his personality never changes, no matter he is doing. Indeed, the many scenes where Karloff’s Gray and Daniell’s Dr MacFarlane interact are amongst the films many highlights, as two men whose hatred for each other is matched only by their dependence on each other. It’s a joy to see Karloff and Daniell verbally sparring with each other.

Author of ‘Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career’, Edmund G. Bansak interviewed Robert Wise – director of The Body Snatcher – in 1991. Wise had this to say about Karloff:

‘Boris was very keen to do this film because he felt it gave him an opportunity to show that he could act, as well as play the monster. He was fascinated by the duel between him and Henry Daniell, one of the great character actors of the time. This pleased Boris very much and he worked hard on his performance. He was not feeling well during the shooting; he had back problems, but he never let that interfere a bit and was determined to show that he could hold his own with Henry Daniell… We had very good meetings with Boris before we started to shoot. Boris, as you probably know, was the opposite of what he appeared on the screen. He was very urbane, very well read, very well educated, soft-spoken, a real English gentleman. His role in The Body Snatcher meant a lot to him.’

Elsewhere, the rest of the cast equip themselves commendably. Even Lugosi, lost soul that he was in his later years, provides an understated and sturdy performance – despite the fact he was addicted to morphine and rarely left his dressing room. The disturbing and strangely poignant scene he shares with Karloff, when his character attempts to blackmail Gray, mirrors how the careers of the two men – often presented as bitter rivals - would subsequently play out after The Body Snatcher. As Gray, Karloff quickly overpowers the weaker Joseph (Lugosi) and suffocates the man. Karloff’s career would go from strength to strength, whereas Lugosi would finish his career languishing in bit parts on Poverty Row. Until Ed Wood infamy beckoned.

One of the standout scenes comes shortly after Fettes has requested more corpses from Gray. Upon leaving Gray’s house, Fettes passes a street singer – who Gray also notices – much to her later ‘misfortune’. The singer walks down an alleyway and is swallowed up by darkness as the camera remains fixed on the dark mouth of the tunnel she enters. All we hear are the fading strains of her voice. And then the clip clop of horses’ hooves as Gray’s carriage enters the shot and follows the young woman into the dark tunnel. The camera still remains fixed on the darkness until the singing abruptly stops and all we are left with is silence and bloody implication.

As events move towards the climax and the situation between Gray and MacFarlane escalates, the tension continues to mount until the thunderous climax onboard a carriage hurtling through the night. After murdering Gray, MacFarlane is convinced the body in the carriage is Gray’s and has come back to seek revenge. The sight of the ‘nudging corpse’ wrapped in white sheets, bouncing about frantically whilst lighting flashes and rain belts down into the speeding carriage is unforgettably hair-raising, whilst Karloff’s unmistakable voice echoes over the soundtrack – ‘Toddy. Toddy. Toddy. Never get rid of me. Never get rid of me. Never, never, never get rid of me.

A genuinely macabre, yet undeniably sophisticated film that despite its lack of budget, has managed to retain its effectiveness and ability to chill throughout the years – and one that features a career best performance from Mr Karloff.

Follow the links to read more about Karloff's collaborations with Lewton.

Dark Dignitaries: When Karloff met Lewton Part I: Isle of the Dead

Dark Dignitaries: When Karloff met Lewton Part III: Bedlam


Will Errickson said…
*Fantastic* post on this wonderful movie. I only saw it for the first time in the last few years on Turner Classics and was blown away by the terrifying climax. Thankfully Lewton's stuff found its way to DVD for all to see any time they want.
James Gracey said…
Thanks for your comment Will. The climax of The Body Snatcher is particularly memorable, isn't it!

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