B&W, 1945, 78 mins. 9 secs.
Directed by Robert Wise
Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater, Russell Wade
Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Warner Bros. (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)

The The Body Snatcherseventh of nine outstanding, The Body Snatcherintelligent chillers produced by Val Lewton at RKO, The Body Snatcher (adapted from a story by Robert Louis Stevenson) remains a highlight of 1940s horror films and a turning point in the career of its leading man, Boris Karloff. Tired of the Universal horror grind and other middling offers, Karloff found a perfect creative rejuvenation with Lewton and stayed on to make two more excellent films, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam. This also marked the last of his many on-screen pairings with fellow Universal monster icon Bela Lugosi, though this is really Karloff's show all the way.

In 1831 Edinburgh soon after the infamous body-stealing crimes of Burke and Hare, Dr. MacFarlane (Daniell) has a respectable practice and a dark secret. He's in league with the disreputable horse-drawn cab driver John Gray (Karloff) to acquire fresh bodies from graveyards to use for scientific study, something necessary to advance the cause of medicine and help MacFarlane's career as a medical instructor. Meanwhile MacFarlane enlists a new assistant, Donald Fettes (Wade), who has no idea about the means used to bring in new cadavers, something initially unbeknownst as well to another of the doctor's helpers, Joseph (Lugosi). As Macfarlane is pressured to perform major surgery to help a little The Body Snatchergirl to walk, he's also forced to deal with the fact that perhaps this supply of bodies could also be attributed to murder The Body Snatchermost foul with Gray posing a very real threat to everyone he knows.

One of the more visually elaborate of the Lewton RKO horrors, The Body Snatcher features intricate period detail and plenty of visual style courtesy of director Robert Wise, who shared duties on the earlier Curse of the Cat People. The film is loaded with indelible moment including the justly praised murder of a street singer (a master class in using sound -- and its absence -- to chill the blood) and the dark and stormy climax that left a major impression on viewers for many years. Interestingly, the film also continues Lewton's shift away from supernatural elements, something present in earlier films like Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie but downplayed more increasingly as the cycle went along.

As part of the RKO library, The Body Snatcher has remained readily available on home video in all major formats from VHS to laserdisc to DVD, with the last option appearing for Halloween in 2005 from Warner Bros. as part of a comprehensive Lewton set and as a separate single disc paired up with I Walked with a Zombie. In 2013, a no-frills DVD edition The Body Snatchercame The Body Snatcherout as a four-film release from Warner under the TCM brand along with the two Cat People films and Zombie. However, none of them can come even remotely close to touching the 2019 Blu-ray from Scream Factory, advertised as featuring a new 4K scan of the original camera negative. The result is simply staggering; the leap forward in detail and shadow depth is remarkable and boosts the film's atmosphere considerably. The little touches in the production design are much easier to make out and appreciate, from cobblestones to grass to drawings and charts on the walls. It's a real beauty. The DTS-HD English mono audio is also much cleaner and dynamic than before, with optional English SDH subtitles provided.

Ported over from the DVD is an audio commentary with Wise and Steve Haberman that aims for a broad look at his rise through RKO (including his role in the notorious butchering of The Magnificent Ambersons) and his experiences working with Lewton rather than a scene-specific track about this film alone. It's a valuable record of the early years of this pivotal director who passed away later the same year the original disc was released. Ported over from the box is Constantine Nasr's excellent 2005 documentary, Shadows In The The Body SnatcherDark: The Body SnatcherThe Val Lewton Legacy (53m27s), with participants like Joe Dante, William Friedkin, Guillermo Del Toro, Harlan Ellison, Ramsey Campbell, Neil Gaiman, Steve Haberman, Kim Newman, and Mick Garris (along with narrator James Cromwell) charting out the story of RKO's rise and Lewton's role in it as well as eloquently exploring the ways these films had a major impact on the horror genre. You also still galleries for posters, lobby cards and promotional photos; the theatrical trailer is not included, though a poor quality, VHS-sourced one is on the DVD. The new You'll Never Get Rid of Me: Resurrecting The Body Snatcher (11m55s) features an updated look at the film with Gregory William Mank (author of Karloff and Lugosi: The Story of a Haunting Collaboration) praising the film's many artistic successes and exploring the participation of Karloff and Lugosi (their eighth film together), including the former's admirable insistence on driving that coach himself on a cold night (even when his face wouldn't be seen on camera) and the challenging nature of their big, unforgettable final scene together.

Scream Factory (Blu-ray)

The The Body Snatcher The The Body Snatcher The The Body Snatcher The The Body Snatcher The The Body Snatcher

Warner Bros. (DVD)

The The Body Snatcher The The Body Snatcher The The Body Snatcher The The Body Snatcher The The Body Snatcher

Reviewed on March 17, 2019.