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The Body Snatcher

The Body Snatcher(1945)

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I don't want to sound like a bossy second-grade teacher, but you really are going to have to get The Val Lewton Horror Collection.

It's hardly a perfect collection, especially with all the audio commentaries by film historians who wallow in minutia that gets very tiring very quickly. But these facts are clear: (1) Lewton produced some of the best B-movies ever turned out on low budgets and quickie schedules for a Hollywood studio; and, (2) Some of the set's most noteworthy content is on the two discs available only within the five-disc boxed set.

First, some background. Struggling RKO hired Russian immigrant Lewton, then a story editor at David O. Selznick's studio, to head up a unit that would make low-budget horror movies and challenge Universal's dominance in that genre. RKO would have been happy to release monster movies like Universal's, and the studio imposed monstrous-sounding titles on Lewton's movies before scripts were ever penned. But the resultant stories were much more ambitious than that. Instead of using monsters, Lewton's subtle use of the power of suggestion left much of the terror to the viewer's imagination. By withholding shots of the source of terror in favor of foreboding shadows and sounds, and offering stories that usually took place in a contemporary, realistic setting, Lewton forged a distinctive mix in his RKO chillers. (Though he rarely took a writing credit, and never under his own name, Lewton wrote the final screenplay drafts for his RKO movies.)

Lewton's 1942-46 RKO chillers fall into three groups: the first trio of movies (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man), all directed by Jacques Tourneur; after RKO split up Lewton and Tourneur to spread their talents wider, a mid-section of Lewton movies that often stuck to the style of the Tourneur pictures (The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, The Curse of the Cat People); and, after the so-so financial performance of the straight dramas Mademoiselle Fifi and Youth Runs Wild, the three Lewton productions starring Boris Karloff (Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher and Bedlam).

Because the DVDs include two movies (each averages about only 72 minutes in length), the set often mixes titles from these periods on them:

Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People: Cat People, released in late 1942, is undoubtedly the most important Lewton movie, and this disc is the best place for the uninitiated to start. It set the tone for the rest of his RKO movies and, very importantly, was a big hit. Though the producer was forever stuck with imposed titles and tight budgets, its success gave Lewton a measure of creative control over his stories.

In its tale of the ill-fated marriage between a Serbian immigrant (Simone Simon) and a boat designer (Kent Smith), Cat People blends naturalistic staging and supernatural story as Lewton so often would. Irena, Simon's title character, believes she's descended from a line of women who turn into vengeful felines when sexually or emotionally aroused, so she won't consummate the marriage, which cranks up the sexual tension to levels unheard of in 1940s Hollywood movies, especially when Smith's character turns to the chummy co-worker who loves him (Jane Randolph) for advice. The movie's archetypal moments come when Irena stalks her rival through Central Park, and the extended silence becomes broken by a braking bus that lunges into the picture (a trademark Lewton device he'd often repeat) and when the still-stalked rival gets spooked by shadows and noises as she swims alone in a pool. Paul Schrader remade Cat People in 1982, but the original is the better version.

The Curse of the Cat People, out in 1944, is indicative of how Lewton subverted his RKO bosses' orders. Told to make a Cat People sequel, Curse is instead a very involving, very sensitive portrait of a lonely child. With the Smith and Randolph characters now married, following the death of Irena in the first film, their biggest worry is their daydreaming young daughter Amy (Ann Carter), who sees a picture of Irena and conjures up her image as an imaginary friend. Though lacking the visual lyricism of its predecessor, it's one of Lewton's best. Robert Wise co-directed with Gunther V. Fritsch, the first taking over for the second, who RKO fired for finishing only half the movie during the allotted schedule.

I Walked with a Zombie and The Body Snatcher: Another great double feature. The first, made just after Cat People, is more evidence of Tourneur's talent as a visual storyteller. A variation on Jane Eyre transposed to the West Indies, it finds a Canadian nurse (Frances Dee) arriving to her new post in the Caribbean, only to discover her new patient is a catatonic woman once caught in a love triangle between her husband (Tom Conway) and his half-brother (James Ellison), and that the island's native culture is steeped in voodoo. Like Cat People, an eerie chiller that travels far beyond the shocks we associate with horror. Meanwhile, The Body Snatcher is the best of Lewton's three pictures with Karloff (it was the second). Inspired by the Burke-Hare grave-robbing scandal, it's set in 1831 Edinburgh, with its main conflict pitting two former cadaver-stealing allies: a cabman (Karloff) who still digs up graves and a doctor (Henry Daniell) who's graduated to respectability and now only hires people to rob graves. The Body Snatcher, directed by Wise, is a fine example of how Lewton's movies not only avoided monsters, they also avoided outright villains and skillfully mined the moral grey zone.

Isle of the Dead and Bedlam: The first and third Lewton-Karloff collaborations, both also period pieces, are indicative of how Lewton's later RKO movies could be well-crafted, yet not as interesting as intended. The first, about a group of people quarantined on a Greek island during a plague scare, and the second, centered on London's notorious insane asylum of the 18th century, used period paintings and drawing as visual inspiration, so maybe it's not surprising they feel static. They're not bad and they give Karloff roles superior to his usual characters, but they feel flat compared to Lewton's more evocative work.

The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship: the first of the two discs available only within the set offers two fine movies. The first is Tourneur's rendering of Cornell Woolrich's novel, Black Alibi, about what happens when a deadly black leopard gets loose in a New Mexico town. It's surely more uneven than Tourneur's two previous Lewton movies, yet it has great set pieces, especially when the cat stalks a teen who's been sent to the store by her mother. The Ghost Ship has been one of the most elusive Lewton movies, as it was pulled from release by RKO after a writer filed a plagiarism lawsuit, claiming the movie took elements from a script he had submitted to Lewton's office. Although Lewton never saw that script, RKO lost the case and pulled the movie. As with Curse of the Cat People, made just after it, Ghost Ship comes up with something much better than the mere horror film RKO wanted. Its conflict between the idealistic new third officer (Russell Wade) and the power-mad captain (Richard Dix) on a freighter doesn't just recall The Caine Mutiny, which Herman Wouk hadn't written yet, it also turns into an exploration of authority run amok, an anti-Fascist parable for its wartime audience.

The Seventh Victimand Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy: the second of the boxed-set-only discs contains two essentials. The Seventh Victim,, the first non-Tourneur Lewton movie, directed by Mark Robson in keeping with Tourneur's style, may be the eeriest of the producer's movies. Kim Hunter makes her film debut as a teen who travels to New York City to look for her missing older sister (Jean Brooks), and discovers that her sister became involved with a devil-worshipping cult that now wants her dead. If Lewton's movies stew in the juices of death, grief and loneliness, The Seventh Victim may be his grimmest. It's also his most noir movie, with all of its dangers stemming from human loneliness. A beautiful piece of melancholy.

Running a little under an hour, Shadows in the Dark is literally littered with interview subjects. Do we really need five film historians, four writers and seven directors praising Lewton? An indication of how cluttered it is comes when George A. Romero who, like Lewton, knows a thing or two about movie zombies, is never heard offering his take on Lewton's kind of voodoo-based zombie, much different from Romero's Pittsburgh zombies. Still, this is a good overview of the producer's life and work, and it's hard to argue with any of the praise heaped upon Lewton's movies. They deserve it. Full of family snapshots and home movie footage, as well as the comments of Lewton's son, Val E. Lewton, Shadows of the Dark offers a strong sense of how Lewton's RKO movies reflected his personality: dark, literate, competent.


Most of those film historians in the documentary handle audio commentaries on the set's movies, though there's no commentary for The Ghost Ship, which seemingly has the most interesting "back story." The most worthwhile commentary is definitely the late Robert Wise's, on . It's apparently culled from one long interview with the director, with the interviewer edited out, and it covers all of his movies with Lewton (the others being The Curse of the Cat People and Mademoiselle Fifi).

Wise's first-hand anecdotes are much more interesting than the historians' micro-observations and rabid research, which is often along the lines of "This scene was filmed on October 13, but this insert within it was filmed on November 4." Sorry, stuff like that is just not that interesting. The historians are all well-prepared and speak well, but when I cautiously popped in director William Friedkin's commentary for The Leopard Man—cautiously because Friedkin's The Narrow Margin commentary had some dubious observations — it was really refreshing to hear him say, "Frankly, the movie speaks for itself" in the first minute. Greg Mank's commentaries on Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People also include snippets of his phone interview with the late Simone Simon. For some reason, though, these snippets are often semi-arbitrarily dropped in with no set-up and, like most of the historians commenting, Mank doesn't even open by telling us his qualifications to do a commentary for a Val Lewton movie. When that happens, I just want to ask, "Dude, where's your credibility?"

For more information about The Val Lewton Horror Collection, visit Warner Video. To order The Val Lewton Collection, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman