Sunday, September 20, 2009

Karloff and Val Lewton are at their best with 'The Body Snatcher'

The Body Snatcher (1945)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Henry Daniell, Russell Wade, Bela Lugosi and Edith Atwater
Director: Robert Wise
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

In this loose adaptation of a Robert Louis Stevenson short story, a young medical student (Russell Wade) becomes drawn into the twisted relationship between a brilliant but coldhearted surgeon (Henry Daniell) and a strange coachman who moonlights as a body snatcher to provide the doctor with research specimens (Boris Karloff).

"The Body Snatcher" is a one-stop spot to discover why producer Val Lewton, actor Boris Karloff and director Robert Wise are held in such high regard by horror movie fans and filmmakers.

Lewton's touch is all over this film, and there is barely a scene that doesn't feature terror technqiues that filmmakers copy and rely on to this very day. Karloff gives one of the very best performances of his career, oozing gresy charm and quiet menace with every word and gesture. And then there's the very chilling scene where he's just choked a man to death, is sitting over the corpse, and then reaches out to stroke his pet cat. And, finally, Wise mounts a brilliantly structured film where the mystery and tension keeps mounting until the end, and every scene is perfectly paced, framed and lit. Much gets said about film noir, but the use of light and shadow in black and white horror films like this one is far more important that in crime dramas, and Wise here Wise uses the medium to perfection.

And, of course, the stars are backed up by an excellent supporting cast (which includes Bela Lugosi in his final horror film for a major studio) and excellently deployed soundtrack music and foley work.

This film alone is almost worth the price of the Val Lewton Collection (which features three Karloff movies and all of the groundbreaking horror films Lewton produced for RKO.)

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