The Body Snatcher and I Walked With a Zombie came together in the Val Lewton dvd I borrowed from my local library which is why we watched them back to back. I Walked With a Zombie and Val Lewton’s most noteworthy film Cat People, are both in the 101 Horror Films You Must See Before You Die book but after seeing The Body Snatcher I can only attribute it’s exclusion to gross oversight.
Playing a cab driver by day grave robber by night, Boris Karloff delivers what I consider to be his best on screen performance. Karloff provides the local medical school with the exhumed cadavers for a price. This is another one of those films that I so greatly enjoyed that the thought of spoiling it for an unsuspecting reader makes me nauseous. Without specific details I’ll say the plot deals with many weighty themes concerning medical ethics, the value of human life, systemic cycles of abuse and the seduction of power. That’s a lot for any film and The Body Snatcher deals with it expertly. I suspect Robert Louis Stevenson had little to do with the screenplay but whomever wrote this treatment overachieved.
A great script and arguably a legendary actor’s best performance are a really good start to a great movie but I don’t know if The Body Snatcher would’ve been as powerful or impressive if it hadn’t been directed by the man who edited Citizen Kane, Robert Wise. Look at the poster, smaller than Bela Lugosi and under Val Lewton sits the diminutive name of the man who would go on to direct The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music and West Side Story! Lugosi was only in the film to market it as another Karloff Lugosi picture, he barely has any lines and Wise himself mentioned in the commentary that he believed Lugosi to be ‘sick’ during the shooting. Yet no one knew what a phenomenal talent they had behind the camera, elevating another in a long line of low budget horror films starring Dracula and The Monster into one of the best movies of the decade. Wise’s name on the The Day the Earth Stood Still poster is barely larger. They’ll learn one day!
This film looks better than any other Karloff Lugosi film I’ve seen. Wise must’ve already had a phenomenal eye for framing and camera movement because there’s not a single wasted shot in this film. Most notably the sequence when an alms singer walks through the lonely moonlit streets of Edinburgh followed by a suspicious character until they both disappear into darkness and her voice falls silent. Masterfully chilling.
For a director famous for two legendary musical films, Wise used score sparingly and only in sequences in the height of excitement or emotion. This rationing successfully elevates those sequences from exciting to thrilling. This was only Wise’s third official film and yet his choices seem like the confident decisions of a master filmmaker.