There is no real mystery as to what The Body Snatcher might be about, the title telling you quite plainly just what it is. Despite that, you find yourself mesmerized by a picture rife with blackmail, violence, murder and horror. Also in this movie is Boris Karloff and you know that in some way, he will be the catalyst for the horror found within and you would not be wrong. For the most part, Karloff steals the show as the sinister John Gray. At first, he seems harmless, if a little off, but that soon ends and the man’s true nature is soon revealed and it ends up being one of the very best performances in the man’s career. The film would also feature Bela Lugosi in a bit part, the second Universal stalwart to appear in the picture and though the two would only have one small scene together, it brings back fond memories of their previous efforts.
Grave-robbing is a vile thing and in this film, the securing of bodies of the recently departed leads to the downfall of more than one character. As a resurrection man, as those who stole bodies used to be coined, John Gray is a truly foul human being. He not only does so for the money but because he likes to do it and it makes him even more repulsive than you originally thought. The Body Snatcher is not the first film to feature the subject, having been seen in everything from Frankenstein on the big screen to Supernatural on television, but it does so in a more prominent manner than most films and puts the subject on full display. Karloff was the perfect man for the job when it came time for casting the villain of the piece and it made the film more than anything else. There was little in the way of makeup and no costumes to be found, all Karloff had at his disposal was talent and he essentially danced around the rest of the cast which included Henry Daniell and Russell Wade among them.
Produced by the legendary Val Lewton, this film relied more on its actors to relate the horror to the viewer than it did his usual bag of tricks though a few would be present, also because it did not necessarily require them. There were no supernatural creatures here, no cats or zombies or what have you, simply an evil man committing evil acts. There was a very moody atmosphere to go along with the unfolding events though and a very good score by Roy Webb which helped to set the scene. While the subject matter was fairly dark, it was balanced out by the storyline involving the little girl who needed surgery and it brought a little light where there might not otherwise have been any. What was intriguing was how the two would rub up against each other in the film, how John Gray’s skills as a procurer of bodies would be needed so that the girl would have a chance to walk again. Sometimes a little good can come from a little evil.
When it came to the end of the film, it is interesting to note how different it would be compared to the rest of the movie when it came to the presentation of the horror. Throughout the picture, whatever it was that had taken place, whether the killing of the dog or the street singer or the stealing of bodies, was all inferred and done off-screen. You knew what happened without seeing it and thus the need for any sort of special effects was unneeded. That would change when Daniell’s character Dr. MacFarlane is driving through the storm and John Gray’s body is on full display and seemingly taking MacFarlane to his doom. It was a very graphic scene, especially as nothing like it had been previously shown like it, and a real highlight in a film full of great moments.
Directed with great skill by Robert Wise, The Body Snatcher is a true gem of the horror genre that proves an effective movie can be made without resorting to the visceral, only taking a bit of skill and talent to conjure something that is far more memorable and far more frightening.
4 out of 5