Monday, June 19, 2006

The Body Snatcher

Directed by
Robert Wise
Written by Philip MacDonald and Carlos Keith (Val Lewton) from a story by Robert Louis Stevenson
Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell
IMDB Entry

In the debate over who is better, it's not popular to prefer Boris Karloff over Bela Lugosi.  I'm in the minority:  I think Karloff was the better and more interesting actor; Lugosi, even in his best roles, was not up to the same level.  Maybe it was his accent, but I don't find him particularly sinister (or even erotic) inDracula. On the other hand, Karloff was superb as Frankenstein's monster and managed to keep up the good performances for much of his career (I'm particularly fond of his appearance -- in drag -- in The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.).

Lugosi's talent was wasted due to his drug addictions, and that's one reason for his popularity -- it's a much better story than Karloff's more sedate life (and, of course, the Ed Wood connection is fun).  I recognize him as an icon, but, though he did made a few good movies (including films with Karloff, notably The Black Cat and Son of Frankenstein), he was never more than a competent character actor, and just not in Karloff's class.

The Body Snatchers was Karloff's moment. It was an Oscar-worthy performance as John Gray, the character who gives the movie its name. Gray supplies corpses for Henry Daniell's medical school.  Of course, Gray does not just snatch corpses from graves; he will go out and find people and turn them into corpses. (BTW, this was a real issue in 18th and 19th century medical schools:  the book The Italian Boy gives an account of the time, when medical schools kept wicker hampers outside their gates for the convenience of body snatchers.)  Karloff dominates every scene he's in, smiling and gently sinister. 

Lugosi has one of his last good roles as Joseph, a worker at the medical school man, who foolishly tries to blackmail Gray, with predictable results.  Lugosi does a nice job of portraying the poor man, but it's all Karloff's film.

One nice touch of the film is that Karloff's Gray is not entirely evil; and Daniell is not entirely good.  Both have both good and evil sides, but Karloff is much more aware of the dichotomy that the doctor is.

One nice bit of history is that this was directed by Robert Wise, who went on to direct an even greater horror:  The Sound of Music.

This is a nice, atmospheric horror film (the final scene in the carriage is quite powerful) with some great performances.  Overlooking Karloff is one of the MPAA's biggest Oscar omission.

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