Cinema, Month of Madness

Some Magical Day

Tuesday, October 6

The Body Snatcher (1945)

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This is one of those horror films I first read about as a kid, in a book checked out over and over from the library.  Darned if I can remember the title now, but it was a guide to horror movies, aimed at a young audience; something to get us kids hooked right away so that we could grow up to be the pushers. I’m not sure, but I may have been the only kid who ever checked that book out – it was always in when I went looking for it.  It covered all of the films you’d expect: Frankenstein, Dracula, all that stuff from Universal.  And then it went on to introduce me to Fritz Lang’s M (1931), Rondo Hatten, London After Midnight (1927), Freaks (1932), and the shadowy films of Val Lewton.

One film in particular that stuck in my little kid brain was Lewton’s The Body Snatcher (1945). With a title that sounded like those pod-people movies, and a non-monster Boris Karloff, it stood out from the classic creature features surrounding it in the book. The author was lavish with his praise for this movie, citing specifically the end scene; his description of it has been imprinted in my mind ever since.

But twenty-five years ago, when I was sitting on the backyard swing eating a pb&j and reading this book for the fifth or tenth time, these classic films were really hard to come by.  They rarely came on television.  There were no internet videos or rentals. We didn’t even have a VCR.  So I made a mental checklist of Movies I Would See If I Ever Could Some Magical Day and The Body Snatcher was right at the top.

And guess what?  Some Magical Day has arrived!  I’m all grown up with a VCR and DVD player of my own.  Movies are plentiful.  They are for rent in mega-chains everywhere, and for loan (for free!) at the library.  Netflix has given me access to a whole lot of movies that are hard to find, and there are a whole lot of horror fans like me who trade and share rarities on the internet. Sometimes I can scarcely believe my good fortune.

So why did it take me this long to get to The Body Snatcher? It’s been at my nearby library for years and I’ve even picked it up and put it down a half-dozen times. I don’t know why I haven’t watched it sooner, but last Tuesday, I finally sat down to take it in.  And I devoured it.  That horror movie book guy was right.  It was fantastic.  Little Meg was over the moon.

The story takes its general outline from a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, and from the real-life crimes of a couple of nineteenth century grave robbers named Burke & Hare. They dug up bodies and sold them to a doctor who used them to teach anatomy to his medical students.  When freshly-buried bodies proved harder to procure, Burke & Hare began rolling their own, if you know what I mean.  The Body Snatcher takes this general concept but doesn’t retell the Burke & Hare story, it follows along what happened after those diabolical gentlemen were long gone.

90520-004-170596D4The need for bodies to study did not go away when Burke & Hare did; neither did the need for money in the hearts of unscrupulous men.  Our film’s unscrupulous man, John Gray, is masterfully portrayed by Boris Karloff.  He is a cabman and “resurrectionist,” supplying bodies to a school for anatomy, which is run by a doctor who seems curiously tied to Gray.  Directed by virtuoso lensman Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965) and The Andromeda Strain (1971) among many others), The Body Snatcher grabs you with a tight suspense in very first frame and keeps you in its grips until the last.

The performances are top-notch here.  The schoolmaster, Dr, McFarlane is played with a precise mixture of snobbery and desperation by Henry Daniell, an accomplished Shakespearean actor.  Bela Lugosi has a small role here in which he shines like in few of his post-Dracula films.  This is my favorite of Karloff’s roles.  He is at once charming and unnerving, completely generous and kind to children, menacing and frightening in the next moment.  I found him riveting in his ability to inhabit this character, making me forget he was Boris Karloff at all.  I really believe he was a master of the character piece, his incredible talent perhaps too overshadowed by the genre in which he excelled.

I am so glad I finally saw this movie.

I know little Meg, curled up in the backyard and wondering what it would be like to actually see such old, old movies, would never believe me if I told her that in just a few years she could see almost any movie in that book.  Well, I’m telling her now.  And she is freaking out.  I guess that, in large part, this is what the Month of Madness is all about.  I am treating my ten-year old self to the horror moviepalooza of her dreams.  You enjoy it, little Meg.

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