Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Microreview [film]: The Body Snatcher

Val Lewton was in charge of the "horror unit" at RKO Studios in the early 1940s. He produced nearly a dozen genre-defining movies, saving the studio from financial collapse, launching the careers of several directors, and resurrecting (pun intended) the career of Boris Karloff in the process.

The Meat

The Body Snatcher is my favorite of all the Val Lewton movies. It may not have be influential as Cat People or as lauded in later years as I Walked with a Zombie, but for me it does eerie, skin-crawling atmosphere about as well as any movie of the period, whatever the budget or pedigree. The movie is based on the short story of the same name by Robert Louis Stevenson (of Jekyll and Hyde fame, of course), which was in turn inspired by the real-life serial murderers Burke and Hare, who sold the bodies of the people they killed for medical dissection.

The movie follows Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane (what a name, right?!?) as he rises in prominence and social station due to his success as a surgeon. But he's only able to gain the surgical insights necessary for his breakthroughs from his work dissecting cadavers. To get those puppies, he enlists coachman (symbolism?) John Gray, played by Boris Karloff at his most oily and sinister, to dig them up out of graves. But after a while, Gray decides to go for...fresher...specimens. A very interesting power struggle goes on between the two men, and it raises interesting questions about the moral imperative of advancing medical knowledge and at what cost, but doesn't linger on the questions, keeping the proceedings a fun diversion.

The Math

Objective Quality: 6/10

Bonuses: +1, for being the first movie directed entirely by Robert Wise, who would go on to become a legendary director and producer; +1, for Karloff's nuanced and caustic performance; +1 for being the final onscreen pairing of Karloff and Lugosi.

Penalties: -1, for the comically out-of-place sound cue that mars what would've been an otherwise haunting murder of a singer.

Cult Movie Coefficient: 8/10. Well worth your time and attention.

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]