What makes The Body Snatcher interesting is how much it isn't like a low budget horror movie. That's what it is, of course - one of several films shepherded by producer Val Lewton at RKO. In the early 1940s the studio was in financial straits. These problems were partly the responsibility of filmmaking wunderkind and box office underperformer Orson Welles. Both Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons were expensive films to make and ultimately box office disappointments. For RKO to keep itself afloat, it needed a profitable unit. Val Lewton's horror movies were supposed to be that vehicle, and it's one of the wonders of classical Hollywood that the movies are also some of the great secret artistic successes of the era.
The Body Snatcher, produced near the end of Lewton's tenure at RKO and one of his three pictures starring former Universal horror heavyweight Boris Karloff, was ghost written by Lewton with Phil MacDonald, and directed by eventual Hollywood blockbuster director Robert Wise. Wise had longtime been an editor at RKO, and for some is infamous as the editor who helped "butcher" The Magnificent Ambersons. Certainly, Orson Welles never spoke to the man again, but in Hollywood that wasn't necessarily a detriment to one's career.
Loosely based upon a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Body Snatcher springs from the mythology of famed "Resurrection Men" Burke and Hare. They were a pair of criminals in early 19th century London who supplied doctors with cadavers to dissect for study. When the legal sources of bodies ran low, Burke and Hare turned to grave robbing, and eventually murder, to keep their client Dr. Knox in constant supply of the needed subjects.
The story of The Body Snatcher takes place several years later. Dr. McFarlane, a student of Knox and a famed doctor in his own right, runs a well reputed doctor's academy. His prize student is Donald Fettes, who may lack MacFarlane's genius for anatomy but has a superb bedside manner and a kind personality. He welcomes the opportunity to become MacFarlane's favored assistant... until he learns it means dealing with John Gray.
John Gray, played by Boris Karloff, drive a carriage around London and is also MacFarlane's principal supplier of cadavers. On Fettes first night as assistant Gray comes knocking at the back door, and in a jovial and thoroughly professional manner walks Fettes through all of the little peculiarities of purchasing corpses of an undetermined origin. He takes his ten pounds, tells Fettes exactly what lies to write down in the log, and goes on his merry way.
The next day, Fettes sees the cemetery from which the corpse (of a small boy) was stolen, sees the grieving mother holding the corpse of a dog that was keeping watch over the body, whom the robber had unceremoniously bashed to death with his shovel. It's grim stuff, but it's also gripping. Coming in at a brisk 77 minutes long, The Body Snatcher is a lean horror thriller.
The central conflict is not necessarily between Fettes and his conscience dealing in this dirty business. It is between Gray and MacFarlane. MacFarlane owes a debt to Gray from long ago, when he kept the doctor out of jail, and it's a debt that he cannot repay and which Gray will never let him forget. He looms over every aspect of the doctor's life, and revels in the power he has. Dr. MacFarlane is a man of the upper class, and Gray is a commoner. "Being poor, I've had to do much that I did not want to do" Gray says. But he has something over a "better" man, and it's his only joy in life, twisting that knife.
It's a psychological complexity rare in low budget horror movies, where most character interaction happens at barely below surface level. The major complication in the plot involves a young girl suffering from paralysis. Fettes desperately wants to help her, but MacFarlane refuses, since he's now an educator and not a working doctor. They argue about it in front of Gray, who then demands MacFarlane perform the surgery; not because he cares about the girl, but just to exercise his power over Gray.
To do so, MacFarlane needs a cadaver to study. None are available, but Fettes pushes Gray, who decides to expedite the matter. The murder scene is one of the subtlest filmed - just a scene of a girl singing and walking down the street. Gray follows her into a dark tunnel in his cab. Suddenly, the singing stops.
Val Lewton understood that while there were many things that could not be done in the movies without spending a lot of money, there was a lot that could be done on the cheap. Atmospherics, playing with shadow and light and sound effects, a smart script, these didn't cost much money. They didn't need enormous sets and camera movements to make simple, and simply effective, horror scenes. The Body Snatcher takes place in very few locations, the costumes are simple and the special effects required were few. But Lewton understood how to make the most of what little he had, and his intelligent script, along with the sensitive direction of Robert Wise and a devious, understated performance by Boris Karloff turn The Body Snatcher into a gem of '40s Hollywood horror.
The Body Snatcher has been released on Blu-ray by Scream Factory! a label of Shout Factory! Besides a new (and incredibly crisp) scan of the film from the original camera negative, the disc contains a commentary track by director Robert Wise and historian Steve Haberman about the making of the film, and about Wise's work with Val Lewton in general. There's also a new 11 minute documentary on the film, "You'll Never Get Rid of Me: Resurrecting The Body Snatcher", and a gallery of stills of posters and lobby cards. There's also an hour long documentary, Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy, which was originally released with a DVD boxset of Val Lewton movies in 2005.