The Body Snatcher, which premiered early in the summer of 1945, and was the last of producer Val Lewton's movies to find release during World War II, represents the great sea change in the fortunes of the RKO B-picture unit where Lewton made himself one of the great names in cinema horror. For most of the films Lewton had produced till this point had been smashing successes made on hardly any budget at all, and it was finally now, after three years and eight features, that RKO decided to throw a bit of real money Lewton's way; money that was to be spent on acquiring the first honest-to-God movie star that Lewton ever got to work with: a man who was horror's biggest icon by 1945, Boris Karloff, who appeared not just in The Body Snatcher, but in Lewton's two subsequent features as well, the producer's final work in the genre that made him famous before a changing marketplace snuffed his career out just as rapidly as the blazing success of Cat People started it.

Nor was this merely the most lavish film of Lewton's career yet: it was a homecoming of sorts to the horror genre after he'd spent all of 1944 exploring other avenues: The Curse of the Cat People, a family drama that is sometimes lumped in with the horror films as a matter of politeness, 19th Century French costume drama Mademoiselle Fifi, juvenile delinquency potboiler Youth Runs Wild. With The Body Snatcher, Lewton and his crew returned to the world of death and murder, gloomy black shadows, and psychological perversion with a vengeance, playing up the damp, decaying sets of their 1831 Edinburgh, and the roaring storm in the country that ends the film to such nightmarishly Expressionist ends that it feels almost more like a lost Universal horror picture than an RKO one. Perhaps Karloff's presence encourages this feeling.

The new grandeur of the Lewton Unit extends even to the choice of source material - comfortably in the public domain, but announced with a degree of onscreen refinement that almost wants to convince you that this is a prestige literary adaptation and not some mere B-grade shocker. Thus the titles which announce with due gravity "Robert Louis Stevenson's The Body Snatcher", a bid for respectability found nowhere else in the Lewton horror cycle. And a reasonably solid and faithful adaptation, at that, particularly by the standards of 1940s genre filmmaking, breaking away only in the direction of making the hero - not a particularly interesting or commanding figure, but we need a hero - less morally grey than he was in the original material, and in making the ending a bit less sensationalistic.

What remains, then, is something that amounts to Burke and Hare fanfic, which largely retells the horrible tale of those grave-robbing murderers, but a generation later and centered around fictional characters posited to have known and worked with the notorious pair. Idealistic medical student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) is one of many bright young things studying in Edinburgh under the great Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell), and he's particularly hurt by recent financial setbacks; to keep him around, the doctor grants him an unimaginable boon by making Fettes his new assistant. This is an extravagant honor, attached to one great big downside: it falls to Fettes to deal with the unpleasant John Gray (Karloff), a cabman by day who makes money on the side by bringing cadavers to the medical school, the kind of cadavers that you aren't meant to ask questions about, because you're just so damn grateful that cadavers are to be found, given the stringent rules placed upon the trade of dead bodies by a government that seems hellbent on making the advance of knowledge as hard as possible. Or, y'know, just doesn't want corpses shuttling back and forth across the countryside like Christmas parcels, but the impassioned MacFarlane certainly doesn't care about such niceties.

So that's the job, then: aide by day, middleman for the grave robber at night. In the meantime, Fettes uses his new influence to convince the doctor to go back into practice for just one surgery, to restore the spine of a poor crippled child, Georgina Marsh (Sharyn Moffett), whose case has come to Fettes attention because of Georgina's pretty, widowed mother (Rita Corday), and a cynical student of human behavior might think that she, and not her daughter's suffering, is the real source of Fettes's insistence on pushing this case through; at any rate, a chance meeting with Gray shames the doctor into agreeing, only he needs to study a fresh spine before he can perform the operation, and in his zeal, Fettes encourages Gray to find a spine at any cost...

The cost turns out to be the life of the simple-minded beggar woman (Donna Lee) who sings folk songs on the street that Fettes traverses every night, and when he sees her corpse brought into MacFarlane's offices, he immediately realises that Gray has used the boy's enthusiasm to jump the gap from grave-robbing to killing. In this moment, Fettes makes the fatal decision, probably with his dick, that seals the fate of everyone for the rest of the movie: he goes along with it, thus tying himself in with Gray's crime and exposing MacFarlane, already bogged down with quite a torrid past with the body snatcher, to further exploitation.

Even more than in the case of some other Lewton horror movies, it's almost certainly the case that The Body Snatchers is far less effective as horror to the typical viewer in the 21st Century than it would have been in 1945, when the very idea of grave robbing was considerably more taboo than it is today (though less taboo still than it was when Stevenson wrote of it in 1884). But that doesn't mean that it's not effective as horror cinema, because it's pretty great on the whole; as the first ever true horror picture directed by Robert Wise, it amply demonstrates the flair for crazily excessive atmosphere that he'd bring in an even stronger form to his only other horror film, the masterpiece The Haunting. Of course, every horror film produced by Lewton traffics heavily in thick atmosphere, so The Body Snatcher isn't necessarily special in this regard - what makes it different is the tactility of the atmosphere. The three films directed by Jacques Tourneur especially - Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man - are atmospheric in ways that are pointedly unreal and fantastic, while Mark Robson's The Seventh Victim, while eschewing Tourneur's poetics, is still largely concerned with stripping the reality away from its New York setting, abstracting the already heightened mood of noir into something even more uncanny. The Body Snatcher goes in exactly the opposite direction: it is focused to an extreme degree on selling the reality of its costume-drama setting, focusing with keen attention to the details of the chilly Edinburgh streets and the cramped interiors.

This makes a fair amount of sense, and is, perhaps, even essential: if a film like Cat People works by thrusting regular, everyday contemporary people into disorienting situations, it can only get there because the people and their surroundings are largely familiar to us. The Body Snatchers, the first period film produced by Lewton, can't trade on making the familiar seem out-of-place; it must make the unfamiliar seem concrete and real, making 1831 seem as real to us as 1942 New York City, so that we're more invested in what happens there. Whether this was the conscious goal or not - Wise's subsequent movies imply that a certain level of realism just came naturally to him (take The Sound of Music, his best-known film, and one of the most physically realistic musicals ever filmed), so perhaps it was all quite inadvertent - this aspect of The Body Snatchers works tremendously well, particularly since its nightbound Edinburgh is still filmed in the haunting blacks of the best Lewton film, so it manages in fact to be realistic and Expressionist all at the same time.

Above and beyond its creation of space, this is a solid though not astonishing example of the Lewton style: the script, which Lewton himself co-wrote under a pseudonym with Philip MacDonald, does a fine job of transferring Stevenson's story to the screen, but it does occasionally feel like it's spinning its wheels at points, owing in part to its refusal to select a single character as its main protagonist and thus limiting its ability to build up narrative momentum. Nor does it help that Fettes is such a limited figure, given to virtually nothing other than reactions, thus being swamped as a character by the far more active and interesting MacFarlane (terrifically played by Daniell with a sort of brittle authority that shades into tyranny and desperation).

The best part of the film, almost beyond a shadow of a doubt, is Karloff's performance of Gray: boasting a terrific makeup job that makes him look as gaunt as the bodies he carts around, the actor was maybe never so outright menacing as he is here, playing a character without any shading of decency or morality in such a controlled way that he never turns into a caricature, despite the seeming impossibility of his becoming anything else. Given nothing to work with other than pure evil, Karloff still managed to give a terrifically nuanced role largely by finding different ways to express that evil: first as the delight in mischief, then as greed, than as a curdled resentment against life that has turned into a general hatred for anybody around him - it is more to Karloff's credit than the script that Gray's depths of villainy are introduced so slowly. It's one of the actor's greatest performances ever, and while it does not imbalance the movie, it surely pulls focus from everyone and everything else: Bela Lugosi crops up in a small role, much further along into his late-career descent into hell than Karloff at the time, and he is absolutely powerless to do much more than be eaten alive by the other icon, in the last of their several on-screen pairings. When the actor is taken from the movie, 15 minutes before the end, it takes a colossally dramatic and visually roiling thunderstorm to keep it alive in his absence, and even then, the end of The Body Snatcher it not remotely as rich with tension as its beginning and middle.

Karloff alone makes it a worthy classic, but Wise's smart direction is enough to push it well up into the second-tier at least of Lewton films, though it just falls short of their extremest heights of great atmosphere and psychological perception. Still, it's a nice tight horror movie of the old school, heavy on implication (the death of the singing beggar girl, her voice cutting off in the middle of the night, is among the best moments in any of Lewton's films, or Wise's) and resolutely performed by people who didn't care if they were talented enough to deserve better material. A strong, well above-average effort in almost every way, there's no evidence at all that Lewton's first brush with money and success dulled his instincts, and while it is generally agreed that he would make no more great films after this one, it by no means feels autumnal or valedictory - just another one of the rock-solid B-pictures that he so consistently cranked out, making better horror movies than anybody else in that generation.

Reviews in this series
Cat People (Tourneur, 1942)
I Walked with a Zombie (Tourneur, 1943)
The Leopard Man (Tourneur, 1943)
The Seventh Victim (Robson, 1943)
The Ghost Ship (Robson, 1943)
The Curse of the Cat People (von Fritsch/Wise, 1944)
The Body Snatcher (Wise, 1945)
Isle of the Dead (Robson, 1945)
Bedlam (Robson, 1946)