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Review: Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher on Shout! Factory Blu-ray

This sterling Blu-ray transfer is occasion for reconsidering the film as more than a minor entry in producer Val Lewton’s body of work.

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Clayton Dillard

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The Body Snatcher

Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher thrives on dramatizing how individual responsibility functions within a larger chain of command. Though the film is set in late-19th-century Edinburgh, the dilemmas faced by medical student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) are in lockstep with the global catastrophe of World War II, as Fettes struggles to determine whether or not he should obey the unorthodox commands of his mentor, Dr. “Toddy” MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). MacFarlane employs the graverobber John Gray (Boris Karloff) to deliver corpses for his medical experiments, as bodies are in short supply due to legal reasons. While not an explicitly coded story about Nazi war crimes (for one, neither MacFarlane nor Gray profess an ideology of hate), the focus on the shadowy machinations of power is prescient of the rhetoric of the Nuremberg trials, where Nazis who participated in the atrocities committed in Auschwitz and other concentration camps denied their criminal culpability.

Though the stakes of The Body Snatcher are much lower than genocide, one of the film’s primary thematic concerns is the psychological guilt of those who participate in murderous schemes for personal benefit. The medical field becomes a conduit for fascism, as Fettes wants to develop a medical practice devoted to personal care rather than profit, personal agendas, or scientific advancement at all costs. And since these ideas are being explored under the supervision of producer Val Lewton, they’re conveyed in the style of his frightening poetics.

One remarkable scene finds Wise amplifying the claustrophobia of confined spaces through tight framings. In it, MacFarlane’s slow-witted assistant, Joseph (Bela Lugosi), has just announced to Gray his blackmail demands after learning of Gray’s body-snatching practice. Despite the initiative to profit from his knowledge, Joseph is at best inept and seems to be merely imitating the kinds of exploitation he witnesses all around him. Wise flips Lugosi’s popular on-screen persona from suave predator to clueless victim. Karloff gives Gray a snarling confidence that manifests in the steady luring of Joseph toward his death. Confronted with the reality of his actions, Gray immediately locks into a mode of self-preservation, seduction, and murder. Such cold and calculating actions project the underlying terror of how rationality might be abused to harm weak or unsuspecting citizens.

A lesser, plot-driven subplot of the film concerns the efforts of Fettes to restore spinal function to young Georgina (Sharyn Moffett), a paraplegic who arrives with her mother, Mrs. Marsh (Rita Corday), at MacFarlane’s home seeking help. Georgina feels like a redux of the girl from Wise’s prior Lewton production, 1944’s The Curse of the Cat People. Whereas in that film Wise gave profound expression to how a child’s mind is affected by parental abuse, The Body Snatcher reduces Georgina’s emotions to a plot device, as Fettes’s more personal and intimate approach to medicine is meant to impugn MacFarlane’s unfeeling, hard-nosed methods.

Even if the narrative threads aren’t as tightly focused on exploring a complex theme as one might hope, The Body Snatcher nevertheless manages to still send chills, and predominately through Wise’s fleet direction and Karloff’s unflinching embodiment of a real-world monster. As with other Lewton productions, the scares are rooted in how character guilt or corruption gives way to fear rather than vice versa. Indeed, while Karloff receives top billing as the film’s embodiment of terror, it’s actually Daniell’s MacFarlane who pulls the strings. In fact, after MacFarlane believes he’s snipped away all loose ends, it’s his own mind that proves to be the final obstacle that cannot be overcome. Less supernatural than secular, the film challenges viewers to look more closely at how society might be impacted by their own behaviors and actions—especially those conceived of or acted upon when others aren’t watching.

Image/Sound

While the DVD transfer of The Body Snatcher released with Warner Home Video’s The Val Lewton Horror Collection was certainly serviceable, the new 4K scan of the film’s original camera negative absolutely sparkles on this Blu-ray release. From beginning to end, the film’s sumptuous high-contrast, black-and-white images are stable and without discernible fault. Depth of field is sharp and focus remains consistent throughout. To this viewer’s eye, hardly a single shot looks anything less than superb. The DTS-HD monaural soundtrack is clean and highly audible, with dialogue and music perfectly balanced.

Extras

Several extras are holdovers from Warner’s 2005 DVD collection, including a feature commentary track by Robert Wise and historian Steve Haberman, as well as the documentary Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy. Each are a wonderful means to comprehend the significance of both this film and Lewton’s legacy, especially if one is just getting acquainted with the extent of the producer’s work. The one new extra is a brief appreciation of The Body Snatcher by Gregory Mank, who spends the bulk of his time talking about why Boris Karloff’s performance is so special. Also included on the disc are a theatrical trailer and a stills gallery.

Overall

Shout! Factory’s sterling Blu-ray transfer is occasion for reconsidering The Body Snatcher as more than a minor entry in producer Val Lewton’s body of work.

Cast: Boris Karloff, Rita Corday, Russell Wade, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater, Sharyn Moffett, Bela Lugosi Director: Robert Wise Screenwriter: Philip MacDonald, Val Lewton Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 77 min Rating: NR Year: 1945 Release Date: March 26, 2019 Buy: Video

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