April 1, 2019
Stars Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, Russell Wade.
The Body Snatcher from 1945 finds the young Robert Wise in his career breakout (or something close), adapting a Robert Louis Stevenson story that does not have celestial seed pods nor Dana Wynter in a cocktail dress as standout components. The result is a 77-minute fan favorite that goes against certain expectations, though most would venture a good (and also correct) guess that Val Lewton produced it. Lewton’s onetime boss David O. Selznick may have had Dom Perignon budgets at his disposal, but Lewton had to do it the hard way. His touch remains as unmistakable here in terms of mood, atmospherics and tight storytelling — except that he had to produce quality on bankrolls, which, by comparison to the wallet marked DOS, conceivably might have floated a six-pack of Nehi’s.
The mild surprises I noted come in the casting. Here’s a Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi pairing filmed not at those horror titans’ standard homestead Universal but at RKO — though, yes, 1940’s You’ll Find Out had been at RKO as well. Of course, that one was primarily a Kay Kyser musical, which tends to take it out of this discussion — though I suppose one can make a case that Ish Kabibble (who was popular band leader Kyser’s house lunatic) was as scary as either. The other surprise here has to do with some misleading hype: against Lewton’s wishes, a second-billed Lugosi was added to the cast as an afterthought for some added box office clout — and yet it’s a surprisingly small role even if Lugosi does totally nail it in one his big scene here of note.
In truth, all three principals nail what primarily turns out to be a heavyweight acting duel between Karloff and Henry Daniell, as the former finesses a characterization fully equatable with his career meal-ticket Frankenstein — while Daniell carries a huge chunk of the story’s dramatic load playing a med-school proprietor and potentially brilliant surgeon who’s also become a borderline dissipated sot. The latter’s fall from grace is due to the Daniell character’s sanctioning of grave-robbing from a nearby cemetery in 1831 Edinburgh to make it possible for his students to have hands-on experience, which is probably not the way to get invited to all the best parties. Karloff is the actual robber who graduates to the deal-breaking practice of murder, and their unholy alliance extends way back into their younger days — leading to a kind of blackmail situation that pretty well guaranteed that Karloff would become a lifelong leech.
A master at projecting constipated villainy often accompanied by a mean streak, Daniell had been unforgettable not long before his turn as boarding school proprietor Reverend Brocklehurst in the 20th Century-Fox version of Jane Eyre — the one whose sadistic severity leads to little Elizabeth Taylor’s death from pneumonia. In Body Snatchers, his character is rigid as well, yet with a sympathetic streak that suggests a potentially good man, at least at the beginning, who never had a chance to relax. It takes nearly a movie’s length of prodding even to get him to consider operating on a little girl (RKO’s resident femme child Sharyn Moffett) whose paralysis he might cure.
As the editor of Citizen Kane, the young Wise had wanted to direct, and he got his chance for at least a shared on-screen credit when initially hired Gunther V. Fritsch fell behind schedule on Lewton’s The Curse of the Cat People and had to be replaced mid-production. Wise’s work pleased the studio, and his work was seamless with Fritsch’s — something you can easily see in People’s earlier Scream Factory Blu-ray release. That one was more visually stunning (particularly in the Simone Simon apparition scenes) than this heavily nocturnal Stevenson yarn, but this Body Snatchers Blu-ray is a big leap over the old DVD. Beyond that, it rarely lets up in the character dynamics, and even the comparably bland Russell Wade as a med school student/assistant projects the naive sincerity his role demands.
Lewton produced 11 low-budget movies at RKO from 1942 to 1946 (two of them unsuccessful non-horror entries) after his Cat People debut became one of the biggest box office sleepers of the war years. Body Snatchers came late in the horror cycle (seventh of the nine) after a multi-picture contract with Karloff pushed the series into a slightly higher production bracket. Though their choice of material couldn’t have been more different, Lewton’s success was eerily reminiscent of Preston Sturges’; both filmmakers were like comets who had an amazing but brief run of movies that are as good now as when they were made. Oddly, Lewton’s slide began when he left RKO for Paramount after a contract skirmish, while Sturges lost his touch after leaving Paramount for — talk about a fool’s errand — a typically pipe dream deal with mercurial Howard Hughes.
Beyond 4K scanning, the Blu-ray is a nice mix between the recycled and new, starting with a shared commentary between Wise (who died in 2005) and Steve Haberman, whose credits include the screenplay for Mel Brooks’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It, whose stake-through-the-heart scene got the single hardest guffaws I ever heard at a New York press screening. Both voiceovers are self-contained, with Haberman taking over after Wise’s personal reminisces (i.e. they’re not scene-specific) about what was for him a pleasant experience. There’s also the 2005 doc Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy, plus a new featurette (You’ll Never Get Rid of Me: Resurrecting The Body Snatcher) that in part tries making the quite defensible case that this was the best horror film of the ‘40s.
When all was said and done, Wise also rated Body Snatchers as a personal career favorite, along with The Set-Up, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Sand Pebbles, to name three for which he had significant fondness. I’m assuming he had considerable affection for West Side Story and The Sound of Music as well, both Oscar winners that were a long way from the Lewton pictures, Wise had his share of clunkers to go along the films of his that are still beloved, but there weren’t too many directors whose careers had as many dimensions.