Film Score: Roy Webb Cinematography: Robert De Grasse
Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell and Edith Atwater
Val Lewton’s RKO horror pictures featured the two stars most closely associated with Universal’s horror films, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. From my vantage point, this was no accident. Unlike the woman in distress emphasis of most of the series, The Body Snatcher is an old-fashioned horror film in the Universal mode and, as a result, was the most artistically successful of the bunch. The debt to Universal is further strengthened by the fact that after Karloff’s name above the title, the next billing was Lugosi, even over Henry Daniell who was a very successful character actor at the time and would no doubt have received billing above Lugosi had it been a non-horror film.
The script is based on the short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, itself based on the actual account of Burke and Hare, who graduated from robbing graves to sell to the local Edinburgh medical school, to committing murder when the bodies couldn’t be supplied fast enough. Lewton himself contributed to the script under the name Carlos Keith. Daniell, who mostly played villains during his career, is excellent here as Dr. MacFarlane who needs more bodies as dissection material for his students. Karloff has one of his great roles, simultaneously polite and malevolent, perfect for the role. Lugosi no doubt rankled at having to play a menial servant and, yet again, second fiddle to Karloff’s lead. But while his role is little more than a cameo, his scenes with Karloff show him every bit his equal, if not his superior. Russell Wade, who was very active in Hollywood in the thirties and forties, but retired after World War II, is the youthful student who becomes Daniell’s assistant and must deal directly with Karloff, much to his distaste.
Everything in the film works brilliantly. The setting, Scotland in the nineteenth century, is slightly different than Universal’s more Teutonic settings, but other than that it would have been quite at home as one of the series Lugosi and Karloff did for the studio, despite the lack of an actual monster. It was the last film that the two horror stars would appear in together. The direction by Robert Wise is, of course, solid as usual, and the film score is by RKO’s terrific Roy Webb. In the end, The Body Snatcher was Val Lewton’s biggest success, a bitter pill to swallow no doubt, after attempting to subvert Universal’s dominance at the box office for years and achieving success only after adapting to the look and feel of Universal’s own product. The fans, however, are the big winners because it's a tremendous genre picture that deserves the adjective classic.