The Body Snatcher is a 1945 film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story of the same name, an exploration of grave-robbing tactics for aspiring doctors-in-training that occurred during the early 1800s. Both the story and the film closely resemble the exploits of Burke and Hare, both of whom are name-dropped frequently throughout; but this takes place after those two, with Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) filling in as the experimenting physician while his apprentice Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) questions the moral quandary of digging up dead bodies for research. But it doesn’t stop at just exhuming the already dead – Cabman John Gray (Boris Karloff) ensures that MacFarlane has a wide supply of cadavers by committing various atrocities, able to get away with it because of blackmail. Wasn’t the Victorian era a fun time?
While the ideas presented in The Body Snatcher are quite familiar, the film’s most impressive offering is Karloff himself, who plays Gray with a panache and evilness that compels the viewer to keep watching. Director Robert Wise focuses on the human elements of the storyline, primarily Fettes’ reticence at participating in such a ghastly endeavor; and pairing that with Gray’s lack of moral compass works extremely well to create a foil throughout. Though the film eschews most violence, its most inspired scene is a long shot of a woman singing through the darkened streets while Gray’s cab pursues her. Both head off-screen until the woman’s singing is cut short. It’s a powerful scene that works well for The Body Snatcher without requiring explicit bloodshed, though most other scenes don’t come close to this level of suspense.
The Body Snatcher is billed as a film starring both Karloff and Bela Lugosi, but ultimately Lugosi gets the shaft here with a bit part playing one of MacFarlane’s assistants. It’s a bit saddening because Karloff and Lugosi barely share any screen time besides a quick encounter together, and it’s clear that Lugosi is really only featured in the film at all due to his name. Karloff certainly gets a lot more to do and that’s the reason he stands out from the pack, but one is left wondering how much better The Body Snatcher could be if Lugosi was given the role of Dr. MacFarlane – getting to share barbs with Karloff would certainly have elevated this from an occasionally thrilling film to one with much more character.
Wise’s film is a good representation of Stevenson’s short story, with a few minor changes to make it more cinematic. It’s not exactly thrilling, and it does suffer from its generic plotting and relation to the Burke and Hare story that it routinely references; but overall, Karloff buoys the film along as the compelling villain figure, and the rest of the cast does a fairly good job as well. And that aforementioned murder sequence is absolutely worth a look.
Again ahead of Scream Factory’s planned release of a Karloff/Lugosi collection, The Body Snatcher gets a new Blu-ray with a 4k scan of the original camera negative, presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio (perhaps just a little off, as some note its original theatrical release had a 1.37:1 ratio). The results are quite eye-catching, with excellent depth and grain composition. It highlights the shadowy nature of the film’s Victorian streets, and this new scan has a lot of atmosphere thanks to the chiaroscuro. Overall, this is a great transfer for the film with nice detail and very few flaws.
The audio is presented in DTS-HD 2.0 Mono and sounds good, with no pops, hisses, or other audio defect. Dialogue is clear and musical scores swell nicely. English subtitles are also included.
For extra features, Scream Factory has assembled a nice new featurette with Gregory William Mank, a scholar of Karloff and Lugosi films who goes into detail about the importance of the film and some tidbits about Lugosi’s very small part. This runs about 12 minutes. This is the sole new feature.
The rest of the extras are ported from other releases, including an audio commentary with director Robert Wise and a 50-minute documentary on the legacy of Val Lewton. Poster and still galleries and trailers are also featured.
Overall, Scream Factory has given The Body Snatcher nice treatment with an excellent 4k scan. Obviously, special features are limited due to the film’s age, but the new inclusion offers relevant insight and the Blu-ray also collects some related items available previously. For those interested in this Val Lewton classic, this release is a no-brainer.