Cast & Crew
In an Edinburgh graveyard in 1871, medical student Donald Fettes reassures a bereaved mother about the security of her little son's grave. Soon after, Mrs. Marsh arrives at the house of Dr. Toddy MacFarlane, seeking a cure for her paralyzed daughter Georgina. MacFarlane orders his student, Fettes, to examine the girl. Although the doctor advises an operation, he refuses to perform the surgery, claiming that his teaching responsibilities preclude his practice of medicine. Later, after Fettes discloses that he must give up his medical studies for lack of funds, the doctor offers him a job as his assistant. In the lab that night, MacFarlane confides to Fettes that not all of the cadavers dissected by the students come from the morgue. Later, Fettes is awakened by a pounding at the door, and finds John Gray, a cabdriver by day and grave robber by night, delivering the body of the little boy from the cemetery. While strolling through town the next day, Fettes meets the boy's grieving mother, who is carrying the body of her son's guard dog from the cemetery. Filled with remorse, Fettes tenders his resignation to MacFarlane, who refuses it on the grounds that human specimens are necessary for medical advancement. At the inn that night, the doctor and his assistant are greeted by Gray, who begins to taunt MacFarlane. When Fettes pleads Georgina's case, Gray challenges the doctor to operate, threatening to expose a dark secret if he refuses. Later, when MacFarlane tries to renege on his promise by claiming that he has no spinal column on which to experiment before the surgery, Fettes visits Gray to ask him to procure another specimen. Along the way, Fettes offers alms to a street singer and is horrified later that night when Gray appears at the lab carrying the singer's dead body. The next morning, Fettes shows MacFarlane the body and accuses Gray of murder, a conversation overheard by Joseph, the doctor's assistant. Warning Fettes that he could be arrested as an accomplice, MacFarlane advises him not to notify the police. On the day of Georgina's surgery, Meg Cameron, MacFarlane's housekeeper and secret wife, comforts Mrs. Marsh through the agonizing procedure. After Georgina's incision heals, however, the little girl is still unable to walk, and MacFarlane, tortured by his failure, goes to the inn to console himself with drink. Gray finds him there and begins to torment the doctor with references to their shared dark past. Upon returning to his stable that night, Gray is visited by Joseph, who demands money in exchange for his silence about the cabman's illicit activities. Gray then tells Joseph the story of Burke and Hare, two infamous murderers who were hanged for procuring bodies for Dr. Knox, MacFarlane's mentor. After completing his tale, Gray lurches forward and suffocates Joseph and then delivers his body to MacFarlane's lab as a "gift." As MacFarlane angrily goes to confront Gray, Meg recalls the trial of Burke and Hare in which Gray admitted to robbing graves to shield the real perpetrator, MacFarlane. She then warns Fettes to leave immediately before he becomes another MacFarlane. Meanwhile, MacFarlane visits Gray and offers him money to stop tormenting him. When Gray vows that the doctor will never be rid of him, the two men struggle, and MacFarlane beats Gray to death. The next day, Fettes meets Mrs. Marsh and Georgina at the ramparts. As Fettes confides his disillusionment to Mrs. Marsh, Georgina hears the sound of a horse's hoofbeats and stands to see the animal, proving that the operation was a success. Rushing to the doctor's house to tell him the good news, Fettes is informed by Meg that MacFarlane is at the inn of a neighboring town, where he has gone to sell Gray's horse and carriage. At the inn, Fettes is informed by MacFarlane about his plans to rob a freshly dug grave. During a storm that night, MacFarlane unearths the coffin and loads the shrouded body into his carriage. As they drive into the night, MacFarlane hears Gray calling to him and orders Fettes to stop the carriage and examine the body. When Fettes steps out of the carriage and shines a light on the face of the corpse, MacFarlane thinks he sees Gray. At that moment, the horses are spooked and run away, plunging the carriage and its occupants over a cliff. Running to the wreck, Fettes observes MacFarlane's dead body with the corpse of a woman lying beside him.
Albert S. D'agostino
Robert De Grasse
Jack J. Gross
Walter E. Keller
Vernon L. Walker
J. R. Whittredge
The Body Snatcher
Whereas Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was inspired by a dream, The Body Snatcher was based on a historical incident in Edinburgh in 1827. At that time, medical schools lacked sufficient funding or the resources to provide their students with cadavers for study. Seeing a financial opportunity there, William Burke suggested to his landlord, William Hare, that they sell the body of a recently deceased boarder to Dr. Robert Knox, an instructor at a Surgeon's Square anatomy school. Knox was grateful to have a specimen for his class and Burke and Hare began a lucrative operation that quickly moved from grave-robbing to murder. It was estimated that the duo murdered up to 28 people, preying on drunks, prostitutes, and the destitute elderly.
In Stevenson's account of the tale, told in flashback, a respected Edinburgh surgeon, Dr. MacFarlane enters into a secret agreement with a menacing cabbie named John Gray, who robs graves for his medical research. When MacFarlane realizes that Gray has turned to murder for his bodies, he attempts to end his relationship with Gray, only to be threatened with blackmail.
Producer Val Lewton ran into some difficulties bringing The Body Snatcher to the screen. RKO executive producer Jack J. Gross insisted on more gore in the film while the Hays Office warned against it and any explicit treatment of grave-robbing and the dissection and pickling of human corpses. Somehow, Lewton managed to walk a fine line between the two while effectively recreating the look of 1831 Edinburgh on a ridiculously low budget and accelerated shooting schedule. Albert Dekker, John Emery, George Coulouris, and Alan Napier were all considered for the part of MacFarlane before Henry Daniell was cast in the role. Bela Lugosi, who was used mainly for extra marquee value, was cast in the role of Joseph, MacFarlane's servant, a role that was added for Lewton's film and didn't exist in the Stevenson story.
Film critic James Agee, an admirer of Lewton's work, reviewed The Body Snatcher and wrote that it provides "an anthology of eminently nasty creeps and jolts. The sudden snort of a horse is timed to scare the daylights out of you; there is a grisly shot of Lugosi's slaughtered head, distorted beneath brine; and the last passage in the picture is as all-out hair-raising a climax to a horror film as you are ever likely to see."
Director: Robert Wise
Producer: Val Lewton
Screenplay: Philip MacDonald, Carlos Keith (a pseudonym for Val Lewton)
Cinematography: Robert de Grasse
Editor: J. R. Whittredge
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Walter E. Keller
Music: C. Bakaleinikoff
Cast: Henry Daniell (Dr. MacFarlane), Boris Karloff (John Gray), Bela Lugosi (Joseph), Russell Wade (Donald Fettes), Edith Atwater (Meg Camden).
BW-79m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford
The Body Snatcher
The Val Lewton Collection on DVD
It's hardly a perfect collection, especially with all the audio commentaries by film historians who wallow in minutia that gets very tiring very quickly. But these facts are clear: (1) Lewton produced some of the best B-movies ever turned out on low budgets and quickie schedules for a Hollywood studio; and, (2) Some of the set's most noteworthy content is on the two discs available only within the five-disc boxed set.
First, some background. Struggling RKO hired Russian immigrant Lewton, then a story editor at David O. Selznick's studio, to head up a unit that would make low-budget horror movies and challenge Universal's dominance in that genre. RKO would have been happy to release monster movies like Universal's, and the studio imposed monstrous-sounding titles on Lewton's movies before scripts were ever penned. But the resultant stories were much more ambitious than that. Instead of using monsters, Lewton's subtle use of the power of suggestion left much of the terror to the viewer's imagination. By withholding shots of the source of terror in favor of foreboding shadows and sounds, and offering stories that usually took place in a contemporary, realistic setting, Lewton forged a distinctive mix in his RKO chillers. (Though he rarely took a writing credit, and never under his own name, Lewton wrote the final screenplay drafts for his RKO movies.)
Lewton's 1942-46 RKO chillers fall into three groups: the first trio of movies (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man), all directed by Jacques Tourneur; after RKO split up Lewton and Tourneur to spread their talents wider, a mid-section of Lewton movies that often stuck to the style of the Tourneur pictures (The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, The Curse of the Cat People); and, after the so-so financial performance of the straight dramas Mademoiselle Fifi and Youth Runs Wild, the three Lewton productions starring Boris Karloff (Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher and Bedlam).
Because the DVDs include two movies (each averages about only 72 minutes in length), the set often mixes titles from these periods on them:
Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People: Cat People, released in late 1942, is undoubtedly the most important Lewton movie, and this disc is the best place for the uninitiated to start. It set the tone for the rest of his RKO movies and, very importantly, was a big hit. Though the producer was forever stuck with imposed titles and tight budgets, its success gave Lewton a measure of creative control over his stories.
In its tale of the ill-fated marriage between a Serbian immigrant (Simone Simon) and a boat designer (Kent Smith), Cat People blends naturalistic staging and supernatural story as Lewton so often would. Irena, Simon's title character, believes she's descended from a line of women who turn into vengeful felines when sexually or emotionally aroused, so she won't consummate the marriage, which cranks up the sexual tension to levels unheard of in 1940s Hollywood movies, especially when Smith's character turns to the chummy co-worker who loves him (Jane Randolph) for advice. The movie's archetypal moments come when Irena stalks her rival through Central Park, and the extended silence becomes broken by a braking bus that lunges into the picture (a trademark Lewton device he'd often repeat) and when the still-stalked rival gets spooked by shadows and noises as she swims alone in a pool. Paul Schrader remade Cat People in 1982, but the original is the better version.
The Curse of the Cat People, out in 1944, is indicative of how Lewton subverted his RKO bosses' orders. Told to make a Cat People sequel, Curse is instead a very involving, very sensitive portrait of a lonely child. With the Smith and Randolph characters now married, following the death of Irena in the first film, their biggest worry is their daydreaming young daughter Amy (Ann Carter), who sees a picture of Irena and conjures up her image as an imaginary friend. Though lacking the visual lyricism of its predecessor, it's one of Lewton's best. Robert Wise co-directed with Gunther V. Fritsch, the first taking over for the second, who RKO fired for finishing only half the movie during the allotted schedule.
I Walked with a Zombie and The Body Snatcher: Another great double feature. The first, made just after Cat People, is more evidence of Tourneur's talent as a visual storyteller. A variation on Jane Eyre transposed to the West Indies, it finds a Canadian nurse (Frances Dee) arriving to her new post in the Caribbean, only to discover her new patient is a catatonic woman once caught in a love triangle between her husband (Tom Conway) and his half-brother (James Ellison), and that the island's native culture is steeped in voodoo. Like Cat People, an eerie chiller that travels far beyond the shocks we associate with horror. Meanwhile, The Body Snatcher is the best of Lewton's three pictures with Karloff (it was the second). Inspired by the Burke-Hare grave-robbing scandal, it's set in 1831 Edinburgh, with its main conflict pitting two former cadaver-stealing allies: a cabman (Karloff) who still digs up graves and a doctor (Henry Daniell) who's graduated to respectability and now only hires people to rob graves. The Body Snatcher, directed by Wise, is a fine example of how Lewton's movies not only avoided monsters, they also avoided outright villains and skillfully mined the moral grey zone.
Isle of the Dead and Bedlam: The first and third Lewton-Karloff collaborations, both also period pieces, are indicative of how Lewton's later RKO movies could be well-crafted, yet not as interesting as intended. The first, about a group of people quarantined on a Greek island during a plague scare, and the second, centered on London's notorious insane asylum of the 18th century, used period paintings and drawing as visual inspiration, so maybe it's not surprising they feel static. They're not bad and they give Karloff roles superior to his usual characters, but they feel flat compared to Lewton's more evocative work.
The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship: the first of the two discs available only within the set offers two fine movies. The first is Tourneur's rendering of Cornell Woolrich's novel, Black Alibi, about what happens when a deadly black leopard gets loose in a New Mexico town. It's surely more uneven than Tourneur's two previous Lewton movies, yet it has great set pieces, especially when the cat stalks a teen who's been sent to the store by her mother. The Ghost Ship has been one of the most elusive Lewton movies, as it was pulled from release by RKO after a writer filed a plagiarism lawsuit, claiming the movie took elements from a script he had submitted to Lewton's office. Although Lewton never saw that script, RKO lost the case and pulled the movie. As with Curse of the Cat People, made just after it, Ghost Ship comes up with something much better than the mere horror film RKO wanted. Its conflict between the idealistic new third officer (Russell Wade) and the power-mad captain (Richard Dix) on a freighter doesn't just recall The Caine Mutiny, which Herman Wouk hadn't written yet, it also turns into an exploration of authority run amok, an anti-Fascist parable for its wartime audience.
The Seventh Victimand Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy: the second of the boxed-set-only discs contains two essentials. The Seventh Victim,, the first non-Tourneur Lewton movie, directed by Mark Robson in keeping with Tourneur's style, may be the eeriest of the producer's movies. Kim Hunter makes her film debut as a teen who travels to New York City to look for her missing older sister (Jean Brooks), and discovers that her sister became involved with a devil-worshipping cult that now wants her dead. If Lewton's movies stew in the juices of death, grief and loneliness, The Seventh Victim may be his grimmest. It's also his most noir movie, with all of its dangers stemming from human loneliness. A beautiful piece of melancholy.
Running a little under an hour, Shadows in the Dark is literally littered with interview subjects. Do we really need five film historians, four writers and seven directors praising Lewton? An indication of how cluttered it is comes when George A. Romero who, like Lewton, knows a thing or two about movie zombies, is never heard offering his take on Lewton's kind of voodoo-based zombie, much different from Romero's Pittsburgh zombies. Still, this is a good overview of the producer's life and work, and it's hard to argue with any of the praise heaped upon Lewton's movies. They deserve it. Full of family snapshots and home movie footage, as well as the comments of Lewton's son, Val E. Lewton, Shadows of the Dark offers a strong sense of how Lewton's RKO movies reflected his personality: dark, literate, competent.
Most of those film historians in the documentary handle audio commentaries on the set's movies, though there's no commentary for The Ghost Ship, which seemingly has the most interesting "back story." The most worthwhile commentary is definitely the late Robert Wise's, on
Wise's first-hand anecdotes are much more interesting than the historians' micro-observations and rabid research, which is often along the lines of "This scene was filmed on October 13, but this insert within it was filmed on November 4." Sorry, stuff like that is just not that interesting. The historians are all well-prepared and speak well, but when I cautiously popped in director William Friedkin's commentary for The Leopard Man—cautiously because Friedkin's The Narrow Margin commentary had some dubious observations — it was really refreshing to hear him say, "Frankly, the movie speaks for itself" in the first minute. Greg Mank's commentaries on Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People also include snippets of his phone interview with the late Simone Simon. For some reason, though, these snippets are often semi-arbitrarily dropped in with no set-up and, like most of the historians commenting, Mank doesn't even open by telling us his qualifications to do a commentary for a Val Lewton movie. When that happens, I just want to ask, "Dude, where's your credibility?"
For more information about The Val Lewton Horror Collection, visit Warner Video. To order The Val Lewton Collection, go to TCM Shopping.
by Paul Sherman
The Val Lewton Collection on DVD
Robert Wise (1914-2005)
Born on September 10, 1914 in Winchester, Ind., Wise was a child of the Depression who quit college to earn a living in the movie industry. He began as an assistant cutter at RKO, where he worked his way up to the position of film editor and earned an Oscar® nomination for his bravura work with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane. He also edited The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) for Welles, along with several other RKO films.
Wise became a director by default when RKO and producer Val Lewton assigned him to The Curse of the Cat People (1944) after Gunther von Fritsch failed to meet the film's production schedule. Wise turned the film into a first-rate psychological thriller, and enjoyed equal success with another Lewton horror film, The Body Snatcher (1945).
Critical praise also was showered upon Wise's Born to Kill (1947), a crime melodrama; and Blood on the Moon (1948), an unusual psychological Western starring Robert Mitchum. Even more highly regarded was The Set-Up (1949), a no-punches-pulled boxing drama that won the Critics' Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Wise moved on from RKO in the early 1950s, directing one of the movies' classic alien invasion films, The Day the Earth Stood Still, for 20th Century Fox.
At MGM he directed Executive Suite (1954), a compelling all-star boardroom drama; Somebody Up There Likes Me, a film bio of boxer Rocky Graziano that established Paul Newman as a major star; and The Haunting (1963), a chilling haunted-hause melodrama. His films for United Artists include Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), a submarine drama with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster; I Want to Live! (1958), a harrowing account of a convicted murderess on Death Row, with Susan Hayward in her Oscar-winning performance; and the crime caper Odds Against Tomorrow (1959).
Wise served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Directors Guild of America. He was awarded the Academy's Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1966, and the Directors Guild's highest honor, the D.W. Griffith Award, in 1988. He remained active as a director through the 1970s. His final film, Rooftops (1989) was a musical with an urban setting that recalled West Side Story.
The films in TCM's salute to Robert Wise are Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Curse of the Cat People (1944), The Body Snatcher (1945), Born to Kill (1947), Blood on the Moon (1948), The Set-Up (1949), Executive Suite (1954), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), B>West Side Story (1959), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) and The Haunting (1963).
by Roger Fristoe
Robert Wise (1914-2005)
The onscreen credits of this film read: "Robert Louis Stevenson's The Body Snatcher." The picture closes with the following quote from Hippocrates: "It is through error that man rises. It is through tragedy that he learns. All roads to learning begin in darkness and go out into the light." Burke and Hare were 19th century murderers who killed their victims by suffocating or "burking" them. According to production memos contained in the RKO Legal Files, producer Val Lewton requested that Michael Hogan be hired to write the screenplay, but his request was denied because the studio deemed his salary to be too high. Other memos in the Legal Files reveal that Lewton continually fought with his supervisor, Jack Gross, over the budget for this picture. Gross insisted upon keeping the budget at $125,000, plus the cost of employing Boris Karloff, while Lewton wanted to hire more stars and boost the picture to an "A" production. According to an August 1944 letter from Lewton to his sister and mother, as reprinted in a modern source, Lewton felt that Gross, who had been a producer of Universal horror films, held a grudge against him because he felt that Lewton's horror films were superior to his Universal films.
According to the MPAA/PCA files contained at the AMPAS Library, the film was originally condemned by the city of Chicago and the state of Ohio and given a "B" rating from the National Legion of Decency because of its "excessive gruesomeness." To appease the various censorship boards, the studio toned down scenes depicting grave robbery and the dissection of bodies. Other films based on Burke and Hare were the 1960 British film Mania, directed by John Gilling and starring Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasance, and the 1971 British film Burke and Hare-Body Snatchers, starring Harry Andrews and directed by Vernon Sewell.
Released in United States July 1989
Released in United States Summer May 25, 1945
Shown at Film Forum Summer Festival of Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction in New York City July 22-24, 1989.
Released in United States Summer May 25, 1945
Released in United States July 1989 (Shown at Film Forum Summer Festival of Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction in New York City July 22-24, 1989.)