“Halloween Twenty-Fifteen”: A Review of “The Body Snatcher” (1945)

ThebodysnatcherWell folks, this will be the final installment of “Halloween Twenty-Fifteen”. I hope you enjoyed the column which I started in early September. This upcoming film also happens to be the 1000th I have seen in my lifetime according to IMDB (more on that at a later day).

The body snatching days of the 1800’s have always been such a fascinating part of our history. Doctors, students, and colleges all trying to learn as much as they can about the human body, yet not allowed to use humans for dissection—the only logical way the learning could be done. Some exceptions were made for paupers and criminals, but for the most part, the acquiring of cadavers by medical schools became a shady business. There were grave-robbers and shadowy deals, and in some instances, even murder. The Body Snatcher is really not much of a horror movie. It will not scare you with jumps, but rather with subject matter. It essentially encompasses the entire history of the grave-robbing era and throws it into this movie, using Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel as the source.

Henry Daniell is a famous and brilliant doctor who needs all the bodies he can get. His business partner is the dark and morbidly eccentric coachman, played by Boris Karloff. The characters are given more depth than usual for a film of this era. It is revealed the two were friends of sort in the past, and got into some legal trouble. One took the fall for the other and continues to hold it over his head. This will climax towards the end of the film. In the mix is a young student-apprentice played by a hapless Russell Wade who has a moral opposition to what is happening. The story ebbs and flows through the duo’s trials and tribulations in acquiring bodies, their excitingly dark and exquisite dialogue, and multiple attempts at blackmail and murder. The Body Snatcher culminates with a haunting and brilliant final scene.

This may be Karloff’s finest hour for he is truly magnificent. Every close-up of his face, every word spoken from his lips is magnetic. We are drawn to this man who takes a pleasure in seeing his old friend suffer because of a longstanding grudge. Neither character will relent, and both will stop at nothing to get what they deserve. Daniell is also wonderful, downplaying his role and delivering a serious and morose performance. Bela Lugosi also makes an appearance, though his scenes and dialogue are limited. He is neither here nor there in terms of adding a reason to watch this, and his character is replaceable in every stretch of the word. Overall as a film, it is damn near perfect in establishing tone and atmosphere. The script is bright and well-written, and the lighting and cinematography can be a study in noir film-making. I shall make this an annual viewing near Halloween. Also starring Edith Atwater. Directed by Robert Wise.

8.5 out of 10.

More articles in this special “Halloween Twenty-Fifteen” column can be found here.

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