By the mid-40s, the decline in popularity of the horror genre had left a gaping hole in the careers of Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi, two actors who earned legendary status in their respective roles as the Frankenstein monster & Count Dracula in Universal Pictures’ famous monsters classics. This lack of genre work left its mark on the pair, who became increasingly resistant to working with one another & were generally relegated to less-exciting fare like the gangster brain-swap picture Black Friday & the radio play comedy You’ll Find Out whenever they could get their shit together. Thankfully, their eighth & final collaboration was somewhat of a return to form. The Body Snatcher was the first of the spooky duo’s films together to aim for a true horror aesthetic since their early collaborations The Black Cat & The Raven. Although The Body Snatcher would sadly be Lugosi & Karloff’s final joint effort, it would also prove to be one of their best.
In the film, Karloff plays Captain Gray, a boisterous grave robber who sells stolen corpses to a medical facility for a small profit. Decked out in Jack the Ripper garb very similar to his costume in Gift of Gab, Karloff is deliciously cruel in his role as the titular body snatcher. He’s particularly heartless in the way he embarrasses the doctor who serves as his reluctant business partner, throwing his weight around & parading his dealings with the well-respected man of medicine in a way that recalls Michael Gambon’s performance in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. Gray even blackmails the doctor into performing an experimental spinal surgery on a paralysed little girl simply because he can, creating an immediate need for fresh subjects that drives Gray to cold-blooded murder. All this is told from the perspective of a young medical student eager to learn “the poetry of medicine.” Instead, his mentor teaches him that “a real man & a good doctor” deals in grave robbing & murder in the name of medical research.
Directed by Robert White (who later helmed the classics The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, Star Trek: The Movie, and Sound of Music, among others), The Body Snatcher has a distinctly well crafted look to it, particularly in the production design of its external settings. Especially spooky is a sort of one-woman Greek chorus, the angelic singing of a street performer who haunts dark alleys in hopes of spare change. When her voice is suddenly silenced the effect is deeply chilling. Gray’s evil lair where he conducts his grave-robbing business & strokes a cat like Dr. Claw in Inspector Gadget (or like Karloff’s former role in The Black Cat, come to think of it) is a beautifully uncomfortable vision of squalor. White brings a quality of production & a cinematic eye to The Body Snatcher that had largely been missing from Karloff & Lugosi’s collaborations since The Black Cat more than a decade before.
As for Lugosi’s contribution to The Body Snatcher, he’s once again relegated to playing Karloff’s second fiddle, but he’s at least afforded a featured part in one of the film’s most memorable scenes. After eavesdropping on the doctor & discovering the exact nature of his partnership with Gray, Lugosi’s lowly assistant foolishly confronts Gray alone & unarmed in the graverobber’s home. He says, “I know you kill people to sell bodies. Give me money or I tell police you murder the subjects,” in a line that has to consist of at least half of Lugosi’s total dialogue in the film. Gray pays the assistant the requested blackmail money, but then gets him drunk & murders him with his bare hands. As far as the ongoing, onscreen meta rivalry between Lugos & Karloff’s characters over the years goes, this display of violence easily ranks among the most brutal & extensive, topped only by Lugosi skinning Karloff alive at the climax of The Black Cat. The Black Cat may surpass the quality & novelty of The Body Snatcher in a few ways, but that’s unfair ideal for a film to have to live up to. The Body Snatcher is surely one of the best of Karloff & Lugosi’s collaborations and a fitting note for the pair to end their work together on. The film’s promotional material promises The Body Snatcher to be, “The screen’s last word in shock sensation!” which might not be true for cinema at large, but is at least literally true in the context of Lugosi & Karloff’s appearances together on film. It was the final word.