The Body Snatcher was made relatively swiftly in the midst of the interrupted shooting of Isle of the Dead. Boris Karloff had recovered from his back problems, but it took a while to re-assemble the rest of the cast. In the end, The Body Snatcher was both filmed and released before Isle of the Dead was completed. The film was the third of Lewton’s direct literary adaptations, following on from The Leopard Man, which had been based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, and Mademoiselle Fifi, a costume drama based on a story by Guy de Maupassant. This time, the source was a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, and his title The Body Snatcher was considered eye-catching enough to keep. Stevenson had already had lines from his Child’s Garden of Verses poem The Unseen Playmate quoted in Curse of the Cat People. It’s also possible that his Suicide Club stories may have been an influence on The Seventh Victim. It would certainly appear that Lewton was familiar with Stevenson’s work in general. He remains faithful to the incidents in the story and lifts several of its lines of dialogue, but he significantly changes its structure, removing the retrospective framing which finds the once fresh-faced student Fettes mired in alcoholic dissolution. He stays true to the central motif which runs through much of Stevenson’s fiction, this short story included, and which is most famously exemplified by The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde; that of the doppelganger which haunts the ‘respectable’ protagonist and which can be seen as an emanation of the divided self. If we take this film to be subsequent to Isle of the Dead in Lewton’s filmography, it marks a further step back in terms of historical period, a retrogression which would continue with its follow up, Bedlam, which takes place in the eighteenth century. The historical contexts of these films are important and Lewton evidently put a lot of effort into his researches, ensuring that the background would be as accurate as possible within the confines of budgetary restrictions. Given his concern with how social and historical circumstance affects human relations, this detailing is much more than mere colourful set dressing.
As with The Isle of the Dead, the film’s music, by regular Lewton composer Roy Webb, plays over the RKO radio mast, establishing the atmosphere from the outset. This elision of the studio introduction suggests that Val Lewton productions were taking on an identity of their own. His name was beginning to signify a guarantee of quality which raised the picture beyond the level of generic RKO product. Such small steps towards individual autonomy could prove dangerous within the context of a studio system in which the balance of power lay firmly with the heads of production and ultimately with their employer, studio boss Charles Koerner. After his unhappy experiences on two non-horror pictures, Youth Runs Wild and Mademoiselle Fifi, Lewton’s unit had been moved to a production unit under the management of Jack Gross, who had headed the horror department at Universal. It was he who had brought Karloff into the fold, and his obvious intent was to reproduce the success of the Universal formula. This seemed to seal Lewton’s fate at RKO as a horror producer. He had to continue to strike a balance between delivering what the studio demanded of him and adhering to his personal vision. The creative forces which such polar stresses brought to bear continued to prove fruitful with the relatively sympathetic Charles Koerner remained at the top.
Boris Karloff’s name is the first to roll up on the credits, emphasising the fact that the film, like Isle of the Dead, was marketed as a star vehicle. Karloff’s persona of gentile menace and the lumbering physicality of his presence was something upon which Lewton could play. He could exploit the audience’s familiarity with the roles in which Karloff was becoming increasingly typecast. He uses Karloff’s voice particularly well in The Body Snatcher, employing it in a highly mannered fashion which reflects the self-conscious performance of the character, Cabman Gray, as much as the actor. The archness with which Karloff delivers his dialogue tells us that this character is playing a role, an earnest masquerade disguised beneath heavy layers of protective sardonicism which is entirely in keeping with the social play of status and power which lies at the heart of the film.
Literary pedigreeAfter Boris Karloff’s name comes a title card which announces the film as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher. This privileging of the author presages recent horror films which dishonestly trail their literary origins: wholesale adaptations such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which depart significantly from the authorial impimatur to which they lay claim. The former at least is given further complication by its movie novelisation, which labours under a title which could read Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Fred Saberhagen based on a script by James V. Hart. The foregrounding of The Body Snatcher’s literary antecedent once more points to a striving to expand the confines of cinematic horror, although the fact that Stevenson follows Karloff in precedence assures us that certain generic convention will still be observed. Whilst he might have chafed against them, it was within such strictures, with their alchemical challenge to transform base materials into gold (or its nitrate compound) that Lewton seemed to thrive.
A picture of Edinburgh Castle looming dark and drear provides the backdrop to the title cards, over which Roy Webb’s music plays, incorporating melancholy echoes of a Scottish dance tune. The gloomy prospect depicted by this painting indicates that the Scotland we are to be shown will be one of gothic shadows rather than the tartan romance of Walter Scott. Val Lewton and Robert Wise each receive a separate full-screen credit. This was Wise’s second full directorial assignment with Lewton, the first having been the budget-straightened Mademoiselle Fifi. Wise had in fact made his directorial debut on Curse of the Cat People, having been promoted from editor when its director Gunter von Fritsch proved unable or unwilling to keep up with the tight shooting schedule. Wise proves adept at projecting Lewton’s world of darkness onto the screen. Whereas Curse of the Cat People had been a film of daylight as well as night (daydreams and nightmares), The Body Snatcher has almost as many deep black shadows beneath the arches of its city walls as The Seventh Victim’s metropolitan noir.
The historical context of the film is brusquely set up with a title indicating time and place; Edinburgh, 1831. Lewton eschews his customary opening quotation on this occasion, although he does oblige at the end. Perhaps he felt that the prominent use of Stevenson’s name had already sufficiently established the film’s literary credentials. The choice of the year 1831 is significant and its choice no doubt arose from Lewton’s scrupulous historical research. It is the year which preceded the 1832 Anatomy Act, which effectively put an end to the need for grave robbing by opening up a new supply source. The act was partly prompted by the notoriety of and outrage at the Burke and Hare case, which received a huge amount of tabloid-style publicity in 1828. Burke and Hare murdered seventeen people in order to supply the needs of the Edinburgh surgeon John Knox for bodies to dissect in his anatomy class. Their victims were the old, the destitute and the marginal, and Lewton focuses on the social divisions which the resurrectionist’s trade preys on. In Burke and Hare’s day, legitimate anatomical specimens were provided from the corpses of executed criminals. This failed to provide sufficient material for the blossoming of medical education within the city. Grave robbing, or resurrection, was not technically illegal, since the body after death was not defined as property. But the grave robber risked violent public opprobrium if caught. After the 1832 act, it was the bodies of those who died in the workhouses and who remained unclaimed, largely due to the inability of relatives to afford the costs of a funeral, which could legally be used by anatomists. This transition in the availability of cadavers for dissection from executed criminals to the institutionalised poor carried with it the implication that destitution was in itself essentially criminal. The ownership of the bodies of the poor in the workhouse seemed to extend both sides of the grave. The Anatomy Act was one more reason to dread the workhouse and the condition of poverty which would drive you there, and to fear that once in, you might never come out again.
Dr Knox was part of the Scottish Enlightenment which centred on Edinburgh at this time. He and his colleagues anatomised the human frame into its corporeal components, their invaluable work indicative of a shift towards an increasingly materialistic view of the world, and by implication of society. This trend would culminate in the explosive impact of Darwin’s revolutionary theories of evolution and the adaptation of successful species to their environment (and the extinction of those which failed to make this adaptation), but his ideas were already played out at the lower levels of society in the struggle for status and survival by any means available.
The idea of human beings as part of a wider Darwinian order is suggested by the presence of animals throughout the film, from Gray’s horse to the cat which he keeps at home to the terrier guarding its master’s grave. They would have been considered to be at a lower level of the medieval and renaissance theological concept of the great chain of being, which posited a divinely ordered stratification of existence. This ordering of the natural world, whether human or divine, in some senses anticipated the phyla into which modern naturalists place their compartmentalised classifications of life. It encompassed all levels of creation, from the mineral through the plant world, on to the ranks of animals and humans, before finally ascending to the different castes of angels and ultimately to God her/him/itself. The great chain of being differed in defining a static, divinely ordained system rather than one which was in a state of flux and dynamic evolution. It was further extended to the stratifications and divisions of human society and thus used to justify the status quo, with the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. The gradual repudiation of this worldview could therefore have profound social as well as philosophical implications. It would also dispel the notion that mankind was elevated and fundamentally separate from the rest of the animal kingdom. We may be the smartest monkeys, but common behavioural patterns still prevail.
The establishing scenes in the film are packed with incidental historical detail. Joel Siegel, in his book Val Lewton - The Reality of Terror, suggests there is too much detail on display here and quotes from the script in which all is laid out with great specificity. He has a point, but the detail is all packed into this one scene. The script doesn’t go into such detail again, and so the quotation given doesn’t really give a fair description of its overall tone. This is an establishment of historical context of which the details Lewton has provided are a condensed representation. They are there to be picked up by the viewer who is aware of Scotland’s history, but such recognition is not essential. They work equally well as background colour and as the constituent parts which go towards creating period atmosphere. It’s indicative of the care Lewton lavished on all of his work that he should be so concerned about the accuracy of the apparently incidental. Such depth of research and the thematic ends to which it was put is one of the elements which give his films the kind of multi-layered depth which rewards closer scrutiny.
Stock footage - ignore those cars!After the titles, we see what looks like stock footage of the castle and the royal mile. The city is showing its better side here, offering the kind of views which would sell a thousand postcards. We swiftly move on to another face of the city, however, and one of the film’s main studio sets. This is a far grubbier and narrower street through which a pony and trap swiftly ride, as if this is a place which in which its occupants have no desire to linger. An old woman sells cloth from a cart at the side of the street. A soldier marches down the street to the beat of the snare rapped out by the drummer boy who follows him. Another boy runs alongside them, as if they are still a novelty, a object of curiosity in this southern city. Lewton specifies the soldiers as being from the Seaforth Higlanders, a native regiment composed of higlanders, many of whom would have taken the king’s silver as a desperate last measure following the massive population shift known as the clearances, which had swept away the pre-existing social order of the clans. The camera pans along the street until the soldier reaches a guard box, onto which he pins the recruitment poster which he has been carrying. There will be plenty of young men who have drifted down from the north who will be more than eager to take up this call to arms, even if it is for a monarchy which has done much to create the conditions for their displacement in the first place. The sentry box suggests a surreptitious form of military occupation, or at least a military presence which watches over the population as much as it guards the gates of the castle.
Singing for her supperBesides the box stands a young woman in a tartan shawl who sings a street ballad in the old Scottish dialect. As the camera moves in on her face, the words of the song tell of ‘a time o’war’. This singer, a pure voiced beggar, will appear as a chorus figure bridging scenes in the by now traditional Lewton manner. She is a living as opposed to inanimate symbol such as those employed by Lewton as recurrent visual devices in previous films; the statue of Ti Misery in I Walked With a Zombie, the fountain in the Leopard Man and the magic tree in Curse of the Cat People. The presence of soldiers alongside such conspicuous poverty points to the aftermath of a catastrophic social upheaval. The highland clearances were still ongoing at this time and caused a massive population movement. Many emigrated, some resettled in small crofts, and many more came down south. A spinning wheel in a shop window points to the major new form of land usage, with landlords displacing tenants to make way for sheep. A man in a top hat and one with a shepherd’s crook both drop coins into the begging bowl. They stand for the two faces of the new Scotland, the forward looking age of urban industrialisation and the increasingly intensive farming of the landowner’s estates. The ballad singer is the voice of the streets and of the rural highlands, the embodiment of a notion of Scottish culture which is being condemned as an anachronism, disappearing into sentimental nationalist myth and the romanticised history of the defeated. Scraps of tartan folklore will crop up throughout the film and will duly be trampled into the dust of a harsh new world.
From this start, we dissolve to a house with castellated turrets atop round towers in the familiar Scottish style, even if this is only the Scotland of Walter Scott via Hollywood. Sheep are being driven towards a pair of grandiose gates, once more hinting at the changes in land use which had so drastically altered the balance of highland society. This is a more prosperous face of the city, and is in pronounced contrast to the poverty we have just seen. The camera moves on to find a church, and through the graveyard gates we get the first glimpse of our protagonist and ‘innocent’ witness of events. The following scene was placed as the opening one in the script, but was swapped around with the establishment of historical detail and context outlined above. Lewton sketched in the world of the film before placing his characters into it. We find the young protagonist sitting on a table-top tomb eating his lunch, the sustenance of the living beside the cold stone silence of the grave. He is immediately given an association with death, although his eager demolishing of his pie shows a relish which contrasts the worlds of the living and the dead. His acquaintance with questions of mortality would appear casual and unexamined.
Dining with the deadHe attempts to share his food with a terrier which sits atop the earth of a freshly dug grave, but his overtures are rejected. This is the first example in the film of kindness to animals, the compassion or fondness for ‘lower’ forms, a very un-Darwinian impulse. An old woman comes in to feed the dog with more success and reveals that this is Robbie, who guards the grave of her son. This is a version of Greyfriars Bobbie, the Edinburgh icon whose statue is an essential stop on any tourist trail. This wee doggie apparently kept guard over the grave of its master, John Gray, for fourteen years between 1858 and its death in 1872. The old woman talks of her son, ‘a fine lad…gentle with all little things, like Robbie here’. The value of compassion towards ‘little’ or lesser things is emphasised, and the young man’s treatment of the dog suggests that this is a quality which he possesses. The old woman brings up the question of a ‘grave watcher’, which she can’t afford. The young man expresses incredulity at the possibility of grave robbing in the heart of Edinburgh. Given the references to Burke and Hare throughout the film, this suggests a degree of naivety which hints at a sheltered upbringing far from centres in which news circulates. The voice of local authority sets out to disabuse him of his dangerous ignorance, telling him ‘they’re uncommon bold, the grave robbers…and the daft doctors who drive them on’. She shows a canny awareness of the two sides to the supply and demand chain, and that both bear equal responsibility for the acts in which they are involved. The young man lets on, in an airily casual fashion, that he is ‘something of a medico’, at least ‘until today’. Some decision has been arrived at, perhaps with the help of the perspective offered by the gravestones which surround him.
Graveyard occultationAs the young man gets up with a decisive air, our perspective is shifted to the road which passes outside the graveyard. He walks towards the gates. At this moment a black cab pulled by a white horse drives by. In the script, this cab was also to have driven down the street with the soldier’s sentry box, blocking out our view of the ballad singer. But perhaps due to the reshuffling of the opening scenes, it only makes its appearance here, where its juxtaposition with the graveyard gives it the appropriate symbolic charge. The cab is driven by the imposing hulk of a figure who is bundled up in a bulky cape, his head topped with a tall black hat. He leans forward with a carrion stoop, his head emerging from the hunchback of the cape like that of a vulture. The gates of the graveyard and the young man exiting it are occulted by this isolated piece of traffic, the horses hooves echoing on the cobbles. The cabman’s dark form has something of the bearing of death about him.
The kindness of GrayThere is a screenwipe and the same white horse and cab pulls up at the stone porticoed doorway of a handsome and luxurious house (‘an imposing edifice’ as it is described in the script). The driver gets down and opens the door of the cab for a woman before setting a chair down and lifting a little girl out. ‘Cabman Gray will see you through safe enough’, he reassures her, and takes her to see his horse. Gray will be associated with animals throughout the film. This both reflects his own lowly status and the dual nature of his character. He is capable of kindness and care as well as cruelty and offhand brutality. Here, he immediately strikes us as a kind and considerate man, who understands the needs of the little girl. ‘Someday, when you’re running and playing in the streets, he’ll nicker at you as we go by’, he tells her. When she replies that she can’t run and play, since she’s paralysed, he says ‘all the more reason then for friend here to give you a hello’. She smiles and pats the horse, and he puts her in her chair, ‘safe in your own wee cab’.
Speaking on the levelThe equation of the wheelchair to which she is confined with his cab suggests a similar confinement on his part. He is restricted to his own cab as the means by which he must earn his meagre living, which he is driven to supplement through other channels. He bends down to be on her level and tell her ‘now you watch sharp, little miss, for my horse to give you a hello’. This exchange, conducted on the same physical level, contrasts with the treatment she will receive from Doctor MacFarlane. It will also provide the major psychological factor in her will to recover. It’s significant that Gray crouches down to address her, as the shifting patterns of power are indicated throughout the film by the level of elevation of those involved in conversational exchanges; sitting and standing, or looking down from staircases. The front door is opened by a woman in a tartan shawl, and the little girl’s mother asks to see Doctor MacFarlane. The woman glances at Gray, and there is a look there of recognition, a cognisance which encompasses dislike, wariness and possibly even fear. There is personal history here which remains to be uncovered.