‘Good day to you, Madame Tosspot!’ is a fresh contender for best line of the year so far, uttered in Val Lewton’s robust horror film from 1945. Regular readers will know that I’ve had an ongoing obsession with Lewton’s work for a good few decades, and although he’s hardly a recognised horror brand today, it’s notable that the directors he worked with, such as Mark Robson or Robert Wise here, were making blockbusters for decades to come; something about the Lewton style rubbed off on them.
Adding a great deal of his own to Robert Louis Stevenson’s original story, The Body Snatcher takes place in Edinburgh 1831, where there’s a lot of bother due to loose laws about the use of corpses for medical experiments and research. Dr MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) is outwardly respected and respectable, but his practice hides a dependence on the cadavers supplied by walking cadaver Gray (Boris Karloff). Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) is keen to learn from the doctor, but realises that the older man is being blackmailed through his association with Gray. If that sounds straightforward, there’s a little girl who needs an operation on her spine, and Gray insists that the good doctor takes on this new patient, but as the corpses pile up downstairs, it’s clear that Gray and MacFarlane are caught in a remorseless death grip with no earthly escape.
Lewton scripts here under another name, working with Phillip Macdonald, and the dialogue is unusually literate. ‘I’m sure you won’t hold me to an agreement written in grit,’ the doctor complains, and The Body Snatcher does well to convey the twisted ethics of the time. Karloff is a truly sinister presence here, and yet his character as dimensions; a villain motivated to cure a sick child is hard to argue with, and it’s to the film’s credit that the answers are not straightforward.
With a dramatic climax on a speeding coach, plus the usual Lewton musical diversions including some haunting old Scottish songs, The Body Snatcher is a good example of a kind of horror style that we’ve lost the knack of; intelligent, thoughtful, thrilling and yet subtle in it’s intention. It’s one of Lewton’s best efforts, and a great little amuse bouche for the horror season.