Release Date(s)1945 (March 26, 2019)
Studio(s)RKO Radio Pictures/Warner Bros. (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B-
One of three Val Lewton produced projects to feature the great Boris Karloff (Isle of the Dead and Bedlam being the other two), The Body Snatcher continued Lewton’s penchant for taking what could have been a simple piece of “B” grade material and transforming it into something more thought-provoking, well-acted, and beautifully-photographed – often standing toe to toe with many of its “A” counterparts. Based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson and directed by the great Robert Wise, this tale of an unsavory doctor haunted by his past and his lower class cohort, a grave robber (and murderer) for hire who fiendishly and perpetually reminds him of it, is one of the crowning jewels of the Val Lewton legacy.
Karloff, who was a theatrically-trained actor and deemed his recent success as The Monster in Universal’s Frankenstein series to have run its course chose to work with Lewton in hopes of doing something different. He got his wish on The Body Snatcher, outacting every other performer on the production, including a brief appearance by Bela Lugosi, who purportedly had a difficult time remembering his lines. Also in the cast is Henry Daniell, who genre fans will remember from The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake and From the Earth to the Moon, among other great works. His turn as a doctor of moral dilemmas and tragic beginnings is unsavory yet somehow relatable, making his eventual exit from the story one of misfortune (despite the fact that he truly deserves what happens to him, in an almost E.C. Comics sort of way).
Besides Karloff and Daniell, the film’s greatest strength is in its cinematography. Take the scene in which the street singer is murdered. A large empty space of the frame filled with mostly rainfall as she sings her way into the shadows as Gray (Karloff) follows close behind. In mid-harmony she is cut short, making the moment all the more haunting in the deafening silence. It’s the perfect combination of elements all working in tandem to create a truly chilling and effective scene, of which The Body Snatcher has many. It’s a compelling film that challenges ideals and unapologetically horrifies its audience at all the right intervals.
The Body Snatcher comes to Blu-ray with a “new 2018 high definition transfer [that] was created in 4K resolution at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging on the Lasergraphics Director scanner from the original camera negative.” Gone are the crushed blacks and lack of fine detail of the older DVD release. Grain is mostly even from scene to scene, outside of transitions, while detail is tremendously high, particularly during darker scenes, including the aforementioned street singer murder scene which is just gorgeous. This transfer also features well-attenuated grayscale, with contrast and brightness levels helping to expose an abundant amount of visual information without clouding it. The element is in remarkably strong and stable condition with only minor speckling leftover. To be succinct, the film has never looked this good.
The audio is included in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD with optional subtitles in English SDH. Outside of minor hiss and occasional bits of crackle, this too is a satisfying upgrade. There are no major dips in quality and dialogue is well-rendered at all times. The score has a surprising amount of heft to it while hard-hitting sound effects, including the sound of a weaponized shovel, have plenty of weight to them as well. It’s an obviously narrow presentation by its very nature, but there are no problems with it that stand out – serving its visual counterpart quite well.
Supplements on this release include a 2005 audio commentary featuring director Robert Wise with contributions by author Steve Haberman, both of whom offer a wealth of information about the film and the era in which it was made. There’s also Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy, Constantine Nasr’s excellent 54-minute documentary from 2005 about the legendary creative producer, his life, and his work – narrated by James Cromwell and featuring interviews with directors William Friedkin, Joe Dante, Guillermo Del Toro, George A. Romero, John Landis, Mick Garris, Robert Wise, film historians Stephen Jones, Steve Haberman, Kim Newman, authors Harlan Ellison, Richard Matheson, Neil Gaiman, Ramsey Campbell, film professors Drew Casper, Rick Jewell, Boris Karloff’s daughter Sara Karloff, and Val Lewton’s son Val E. Lewton. Also included is You’ll Never Get Rid of Me: Resurrecting The Body Snatcher, a new 12-minute interview with author Gregory William Mank about the film and its star, pointing to multiple examples of the greatness of his performance; an animated poster and lobby card still gallery featuring 48 images; and an animated still gallery featuring 57 promotional and on-set images.
With a great transfer and entertaining extras, Scream Factory brings The Body Snatcher to Blu-ray in an excellent package that belongs on any genre fan’s shelf right next to the other Val Lewton Blu-rays, some of which are still yet to come. Highly recommended!
– Tim Salmons