The psychological horror films produced at RKO by Val Lewton, in the brief but fertile span from 1942 to 1946, are really something special. They stand apart from the more flamboyant, monster-dominated thrillers that came out of Universal Studios in the 1930s. Lewton was a highly-educated, sensitive man who brought a subtlety and finely-tuned artistic sensibility to what was considered by many in the industry as a crass, "lowest common denominator" genre. He was far more interested in the horrors of the mind, and the kinds of psychological violence that man perpetuates on to others and torments himself with, than in any outright presence of the supernatural. There are plenty who might prefer the grab-you-by-the-throat monster menaces of Universal over the ambiguous, "is it real or imagined?" horrors that populate Lewton's works, but few can dispute the skill with which Lewton and his crew of talented collaborators made such powerful films out of such low means.
Young medical student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) becomes assistant to the famed Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane (Henry Daniel) at his medical school in Edinburgh. Fettes soon finds that the much-needed bodies for dissection and study, being provided by the sinister Cabman John Gray (Boris Karloff) have actually been robbed from their freshly-dug graves. Fettes learns that Gray has some strange hold over Dr. MacFarlane, related to dark events shared in their past. In order to help cure a crippled young girl, Fettes soon finds himself making moral compromises as well, which threaten to send him down the same path as his mentor, into a cycle of crime, guilt and murder...
Despite its small scale, The Body Snatcher is a compelling drama about human greed, malice and the corrupting influence of evil deeds done with good intentions. The elegant script, co-written by Lewton and Phillip McDonald (adapted from a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson), cleverly acknowledges the historical precedent of its central premise by name-checking the notorious Burke and Hare murders (even making Dr. MacFarlane a former protege of the real-life Dr. Robert Knox). This adds a sense of realism to the film that, along with some fine art direction and excellent direction from Robert Wise, helps camoflauge the fact that the film was made in Hollywood and at the RKO Ranch, and not actually in Scotland. The story and mood are so effectively executed, I doubt many viewers would even notice this artificiality.
The real highlight of the film is the masterful central performance by Boris Karloff, who brings to life one of the most chilling and believable depictions of malevolence and cruelty in horror cinema. Karloff's Cabman Gray is an unforgettable creation, all smiling bonhomie masking a murderous, controlling, predatory mind. Karloff uses his wonderful, silky voice to good effect, lulling his prey into a sense of false security before he slips his hands around their throat. Gray toys with MacFarlane, the lower-class killer enjoying his power games over the upper-crust, highly-educated doctor, one of his so-called betters. You can tell that Karloff relished this script and role, and reigns in any tendencies to ham things up. His performance is reptilian, cold, tightly-controlled, and all the more effective for its subtlety (a Lewton trademark).
Henry Daniel matches Karloff as the arrogant, essentially well-meaning but morally compromised MacFarlane. Conflicted and tormented by his connection to the evil Gray, he eventually slips over the line into darkness and rage, and from there on to murder and the madness that awaits. The script makes it clear that MacFarlane was once like the idealistic Fettes, and that time, bad decisions and Gray's corrupting influence turned him into the tortured soul he has now become. This is easily one the best parts in Daniel's career, and he and Karloff crackle in their scenes together.
Bela Lugosi, as Joseph, the dim-witted assistant to MacFarlane, receives much higher billing than his tiny role warrants, but with such a modest production, you can't blame the filmmakers for milking their two big horror marque names for all they were worth. Lugosi makes the most of his big scene with Karloff, but unfortunately for him, it's the latter actor who we can't tear our eyes away from. Still, this remains one of Lugosi's better late-career parts (before his last hurrah as Dracula in 1948's delightful Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein).
Russell Wade is fine in the pivotal role of the young, naive Fettes. He's our entree into the weird, twisted relationships and dark world of the film, and remains a sympathetic character, despite his increasingly maddening indecision towards the end. Wade was an extremely busy actor, racking up a whopping 80 film roles in his 15-year career. The rest of the small cast do nice work as well (including Edith Atwater as MacFarlane's housekeeper/secret wife), but the film really belongs to the three leads. Special mention should also be given the evocative camera work by Robert De Grasse, who also did sterling work on another Lewton horror film, The Leopard Man.
The only hint of a possible supernatural effect in the film comes during the storm-lashed finale, but to my mind it's pretty clear that these ghostly overtones are the product of a mind suddenly unhinged, rather than anything to be taken at face value. But that's typical Lewton, who never prefers to spell things out clearly one way or the other when he can leave it up to the audience to decide. His is a world of suggestive horror, and any way you slice it, the final, nightmarish hansom cab ride down a treacherous, lonely stretch of road that concludes The Body Snatcher is beautifully constructed and executed with flair. It acts as a fittingly dramatic crescendo to a taut, 77-minute film that will likely haunt you for days after seeing it.
DVD Note: Part of the 5 disc, 9 film (plus documentary) Val Lewton Horror Collection boxed set, The Body Snatcher looks just fine on a DVD that gives a decent gloss, if not remarkable sharpness, to its striking black-and-white cinematography.