My taste in horror films tends towards the classical. I like a movie with a creepy or macabre point of view more than one that tries really hard to shock or frighten me. Even the term “horror” seems excessive. Too often it becomes an indulgence in bloodiness and sadism. And as I’ve said before, the only show that really frightens me anymore is the news. I offer this caveat as a prelude to recommending an older, minor, yet worthy example of the genre for Halloween—from 1945, The Body Snatcher, directed by Robert Wise.
Donald Fettes, a young medical student (played by Russell Wade) is taken under the wing of a distinguished Edinburgh doctor Wolfe MacFarlane (played by Henry Daniell). Dedicated to finding cures for suffering patients, MacFarlane needs more cadavers for his research than can be obtained legally, so he employs a shady cabman named John Gray (Boris Karloff) to do some grave robbing. Fettes suspects that Gray also resorts to murder in order to obtain bodies, but the sinister cabman knows incriminating secrets that keeps Dr. MacFarlane in his grip.
This is one of the interesting series of horror movies created by the talented writer-producer Val Lewton in the 1940s. The film was adapted by Lewton and Philip McDonald from a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robert Wise (still in his apprenticeship as a director) creates a marvelously gloomy period feeling, full of fog and shadow. The Body Snatcher has more on its mind, though, than just fear—it’s a portrait of the dark side of human nature, with Karloff and Daniell representing a kind of mirror-image example of moral degradation.
Boris Karloff, it must be said, is just perfect for this part. This is certainly one of the best performance of his career. John Gray is not just some villain, but a fascinating and complex figure, whose disturbing behavior springs from an understandable inner source. Henry Daniell, in a central role for once, is quite fine as the doctor with a tortured conscience. Their scenes together are amazing—Karloff, ingratiating yet contemptuous, subtly showing how Gray sees through the Doctor’s idealistic notions to the real point: the intractability of human nature. Bela Lugosi also appears in a small role as a foolish blackmailer, and Karloff acts rings around him.
This is a film memorable for its atmosphere, a nice slam-bang ending, and of course Karloff. Still, there’s a ripe sense of evil that places The Body Snatcher a notch above the average studio film of that time and makes it well worth a look. It’s available on DVD.