14 June 2008

THE BODY SNATCHER (Dir. Robert Wise, 1945, US) - Karloff's Greatest Screen Performance

Boris Karloff is one of the few actors who having helped define an entire genre, in this case early horror, and who's indelible and powerful screen presence is a quality of his performance style that really did leave a lasting impression on the audience. Directed by Robert Wise, The Body Snatcher is a studio film produced by the master of low budget horror, Val Lewton. Many critics feel that Karloff's portrayal of the sadistic Scottish cabdriver, John Gray, who works on the behest of Dr. Toddy McFarlane (Henry Daniel), haunting the local graveyard for dead bodies is his greatest achievement as an actor.

The film's stereotypical representation of
Edinburgh has dated somewhat today and though the squalor and despair of the local working class district is depicted atmospherically, the script is hampered by numerous lapses into over wrought melodrama concerning a sentimental plot line about a crippled girl. However, what makes this a worthwhile example of studio film making is the repressed and perverse relationship between John Gray (Karloff) and Dr. Toddy McFarlane, which is what gives the film a certain edge in terms of the way it deals with non traditional horror themes like class conflict, profit from death, and respectability.

Karloff like Lugosi in The Raven approaches the role of John Gray with a certain degree of playfulness, and the fun he has with such a despicable and amoral character who at heart is a true capitalist, profiting from the misfortune of others, comes through in the horror repertoire of malevolent facial distortions and menacing eye movements that had become iconic representations of Karloff as a studio star.

Gray has been in the services of McFarlane for a long time and his aspirations of excelling in the field of anatomy is curtailed by Gray’s existence, a casual reminder of the macabre extremes to which McFarlane has been prepared to go in the past so that he can pursue his own fascinations with the dead. Both Gray and McFarlane are men who have been pushed to the margins of a society that prides itself on reputation, but McFarlane’s attempts to distance and isolate himself from the estranged figure of Gray ends in tragedy and ultimately murder.

The fact that Gray is a working class character means that for McFarlane it becomes acceptable to take his life as it is as worthless as the lives of the dead people he operates on for his studies. The Body Snatcher was one of many low budget horror and noir films directed by Robert Wise in the 40s and 50s before he would go on to transform himself into an internationally bankable film maker with hits like The Sound of Music and West Side Story. However, it is the minor films that seemed to confirm his talent and capture his economical skills as a film maker.

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